me&u chief Katrina Barry has cornered the local market, sets sights on overseas expansion

me&u's newly appointed CEO, Katrina Barry, discusses her new role and future plans for me&u.

This article was originally published in The Australian on Friday, 15 April 2022.

It was meant to be one of the most exciting days of her life.

On the morning of March 31, Katrina Barry skipped out the door of her Bondi apartment for her first day in the office as the global chief executive of the hospitality technology business me&u.

But she had not gone far before her husband appeared at their front door with the RAT test she had taken half an hour earlier. “You aren’t going anywhere,” he called. “You just tested positive.”

For the previous week he had been locked away in their apartment after testing positive himself to Covid-19, also forcing his wife into isolation.

For her first three days working from home on the job at me&u, she juggled getting her head around the business while looking after her young children. “It was an interesting first week, but pretty foretelling of the ride I am going to have with this incredible company,” she now says.

me&u, founded in 2019 by Sydney entrepreneur Stevan Premutico, is the business behind the on-table QR code ordering system consumers use to dine out in pub venues and restaurants.

A customer with the app taps their phone on beacons provided by me&u at the venue from which they can download high-quality images of the meals on offer before making their choice and paying for the meal on their credit card. It is also used for takeaway delivery and pick-ups.

Barry joined the group last month after a celebrated career at Trafalgar Tours and Contiki, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and global consultancy giant McKinsey.

She also previously held roles with BT Australia, including Head of Digital and Direct Businesses and Head of Customer Experience.

As chief executive she will support Premutico – who previously founded online restaurant reservation group Dimmi before selling it to TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel review company – in me&u’s next phase of growth, which will see the company expand its existing operations in the UK and American markets.

“Katrina’s appointment will free me up to do what I love – to take me&u around the world. me&u was always born with love in Sydney, but destined for the world,” Premutico recently told the firm’s staff.

The entrepreneur and his board conducted more than 100 interviews around the world before settling on Barry for the job. Their first face-to-face meeting was over coffee at Bills cafe in Darlinghurst last November.

“If you are thinking about going in and taking the CEO role from a founder, it’s quite a tricky relationship. But we just had a really immediate connection. Stevan is one of the more personally self-aware founders I have met. Incredibly grounded and incredibly pragmatic. And it was almost certainly a meeting of minds of very similar approaches to business and, I guess, life. There was an immediate alignment of values,” she says.

“The agenda is now to move from start up to scale-up. Stevan is really aware of what he is strong at and what he is not. He loves finding new markets, being on the road and selling and setting things up but agrees he needs systems, processes, rigour and someone who can drive strategy and growth.”

me&u now has over 80 per cent market share of Australia’s top pub groups such as ALH Group, Merivale, Pacific Concepts and Solotel.

The company is on track to achieve an annualised total transaction value figure of $US1bn ($1.35bn) by the year’s end, while revenue rose 985 per cent last year and is forecast to increase a further 165 per cent by the end of December.

“This is a pretty cool opportunity to be a global CEO of a business based in Sydney. Australian tech businesses are showing this can be done on the world stage,” Barry says.

me&u is currently embarking on a series C funding round worth tens of millions of dollars in America and has opened a dataroom for US venture capital firms looking to invest in the company.

So far in its brief history me&u has raised $35m from the likes of hospitality entrepreneur Justin Hemmes and ASX-listed Tyro Payments..

Other backers have included celebrity chef Neil Perry, former Dimmi directors Cliff Rosenberg and Will Easton, MYOB chief executive Tim Reed, Uber Australia co-founder Mike Abbott and former Google Australia chief Jason Pellegrino.

“All the shareholders so far are Australian leaders in the hospitality space. They see how this has transformed their business,” Barry says.

“This capital raising will be for international growth. In America there are few players doing what we do so that is really exciting territory.”

Premutico himself moved to America – Barry will not disclose his exact location so as to not tip off competitors – two months ago. He and several staff are living and working in same house when they are not on the road selling.

Barry says there are no current plans for an me&u IPO.

“Let’s have that chat on that issue this time next year,” she adds.

In Australia me&u competes with Mr Yum, another start-up in the space that uses QR codes for ordering, delivery and pick-up.

“This is a sprint, not a marathon. So much about this market is a land grab because the switching costs are so high for a venue,” Barry says, noting her big focus is on eliminating friction points for customers and venues.

“For instance when you’ve got a big venue, where you don’t want to wait in the queue five deep for beer. When you want to order an extra round but it’s too much of a hassle so you don’t,” she says.

Barry grew up on a small farm in rural New Zealand and attended Papakura High School on the outskirts of Auckland, once considered one of the worst in the country.

For a time she dropped out of high school before returning to graduate and then studied law and commerce at the University of Auckland. She has long cherished coming from what she terms “the wop wops – aka Kiwi for the middle of nowhere”.

In her early career she was a lawyer-turned management consultant with McKinsey & Company. She joined the firm in 1999 and worked with Fortune 500 and ASX 100 companies in retail, telecommunications, fast moving consumer goods, mining, and financial services.

Fresh out of law school, she says the hours were gruelling with regular 9am to midnight “days”, including one stint of two months with no more than three hours sleep per night.

“My time at McKinsey was fantastic and transformative. To get into McKinsey you have to be amazing at something and bright as a tack. I was only 21 and in some of the boardrooms of top ASX companies. It is how I think and how I work,” she says. McKinsey has long had its critics, especially for its brutal cost-cutting mantra.

“There’s definitely situations where executives have had not great projects and so they had a tarnished view of McKinsey. But like every single thing in business, it’s all about the people. McKinsey is not perfect. No one is. They get it wrong. For me, it’s always been an incredible positive because people look me and believe I can think, I can problem solve and know I was trained well,” Barry says.

“Full credit to McKinsey because when I drive strategy, I feel ‘I’m really good at this’. I get up on stage and think about strategy. That’s everything that they taught me. I’ve gone on to do entrepreneurial things. To be honest, if I wanted to make money I would have stayed at McKinsey.”

After two years she left the firm and travelled to South America where for a time she worked with the United Nations setting up a community bank on the border of Ecuador and Peru.

She then worked for seven years in various strategy and investment roles with the Virgin Group, where she met one of Richard Branson’s Australian confidants David Baxby. There she got what
she calls a “crash course” in investment banking.

“I got from Virgin how to fund and sell a business and how to get a unique, competitive advantage,” she says.

In 2008 she was co-founder of the Australian arm of Virgin Active, a global chain of health clubs that feature world-class gym facilities and hundreds of daily exercise classes.

The Australian business, which took local incumbent Fitness First head on, was the first to scrap lock-in contracts for gym memberships. Barry jokes that before that, gym contracts were harder to get out of than a marriage.

At Virgin she had a number of memorable experiences with Richard Branson, although his preference was always to mix with the staff that dealt with customers.

“When Richard came to Australia, he had zero interest in talking to people running the business here like me. He would always talk to the people on the front line. That is where he got his energy from and his insights,” she says.

Some Branson stories she is prepared to share on the record. One involved a 2am discussion at Hugo’s Bar at Surry Hills in Sydney, the same morning Virgin Money was preparing to publicly announce its first move into the superannuation space.

“We were sitting in Hugo’s bar and Richard leans over to me and says ‘What are we launching this morning?’. It was literally six hours before we had press arriving!” she says.

“He then pressed me on why we were doing it. So I then talked about the retirement savings system. Then he leans over to a bevy of ladies at the bar and asks them what they think of Virgin Super. And one says “It's a tax.” I had to explain to him and them that it wasn’t. Yet a few hours later he turned up to the press conference and delivered every sound bite I gave him. Verbatim. Perfectly.”

Barry credits Branson and Virgin for teaching her arguably the most important learning of her career: how to lead.

It is the reverse of the standard corporate playbook that looks after shareholders, customers and staff, in that order. She calls it a human-centric approach to leadership.

“My people at work become my friends and my family. When I was told at one stage earlier in my life I couldn’t have them, all my staff became my little babies,” she says.

“The way that I lead is by building culture and making sure every single person is personally and professionally happy and developing. Then I believe that my customer will be happy. Then my happy customers will make my shareholders happy.”