A taste for law: Suzanne Wise, Premier Foods
29 March 2010
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As counsel for Premier Foods, creating a legal function to reflect the vastly altered focus of the company has been Suzanne Wise’s bread and butter. By Corinne McPartland
Picture a small boy pushing a bike laden with loaves of bread up a cobbled street in a northern town to the strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
If a loaf of Hovis does not spring to mind then you must have spent your childhood in a coal bunker.
Now think of the slogans ’exceedingly good cakes’, ’OXO gives a meal man appeal’ and even the classic expression ’Aah! Bisto’.
Many of us have grown up with these catchphrases and they all belong to the products owned by the UK’s largest food producer, Premier Foods.
A recent survey found that 99 per cent of all UK households bought a Premier Foods brand last year and that 46.8 million people eat one of its branded products in an average two-week period.
Since joining the company more than two years ago, Premier Foods company secretary and general counsel Suzanne Wise has spent a great deal of time working with the marketing and sales departments to further strengthen these brands.
“People really believe in and care about the brands at Premier, so many of which are iconic and much loved by our consumers,” says Wise. “No way would you see a Warburtons loaf of bread in our staff kitchen, it’s Hovis all the way for us. I think it’s this passion that drives the business forward.”
But marketing issues have not always been top of Wise’s agenda.
When she started at Premier Wise was put in charge of creating a brand-new legal department following Premier’s numerous acquisitions, including Campbell’s and RHM (the owner of Bisto) in 2006 and 2007 respectively.
“I joined a company that had grown rapidly as a result of a series of major acquisitions and, as Premier hadn’t had an in-house legal presence before, it was up to me to establish the right legal function for the company,” she relates.
But it was not all plain sailing and since her arrival Wise has been battling to raise awareness of the importance of a legal function to all aspects of the business.
“At the beginning meetings felt somewhat schizophrenic, as half of the room would know why I was there and the other half didn’t know what I was doing there, or what an in-house lawyer could bring to the company,” she recalls.
Wise now heads a team of four, but despite the relatively thin legal department she says she manages to keep a lot of work in-house.
The team works on a range of issues, including commercial contracts, advertising and promotions, employment, property, dispute resolution and corporate matters.
It is this variety that adds extra spice to her job, Wise says.
But as with all in-house roles, you cannot do everything and some work does have to be outsourced.
“The reason I decided to establish a formal panel,” explains Wise, “was because I felt that Premier had become a very different company.
“It had been a company with a business strategy that involved acquiring businesses and closing factories. Now we have a strategy of branded growth and innovation
and needed a different panel with different skills because of that. And obviously we were looking to leverage the benefits of the scale we’ve created to gain competitive advantage and needed to look at cost.”
Another area that Wise immediately set to work on upon her arrival was training. She has created an educational programme for staff on areas such as competition and compliance law.
“The legal team has hosted workshops for more than 300 sales managers, educating them on competition law and its impact on commercial behaviours,” she says.
But Wise admits that advising and educating the Premier workforce on legal matters can only be handled effectively if the members of her legal team are aware of how every part of the business is run.
“In a company that has more than 60 sites in the UK, I make sure that every member of my legal team does a minimum of three factory site visits a year. As well as a factory tour they also sit down with senior site management and talk through any issues they’re facing,” she explains.
Leading by example, Wise is making sure she has her finger in as many of Premier’s pies as she can.
Not only does she sit on the board, she also heads the internal communications division as well as the company’s corporate and social responsibility (CSR) activities.
“You have to take your legal hat off to do things like internal communications and CSR,” says Wise. “You have to start thinking even more laterally and creatively rather than purely logically.
“But as general counsel you get a bird’s eye view of every part of the business and this depth of knowledge really helped me step outside the purely legal role.”
Name: Suzanne Wise
Company: Premier Foods
Title: General counsel and company secretary
Company turnover: £2.6bn
Number of employees: 17,000
Legal capability: Four
Main external law firms: Eversheds, Slaughter and May, Wragge & Co
Legal spend: Approximately £3m
Suzanne Wise’s CV
1983: LLB, University of East Anglia
1984: College of Law, Guildford
1984-86: Trainee and litigation associate, Lewis Silkin
1987-89: IP associate, Withers Crossman Block
1989-2000: In-house counsel, Gallaher Group
2000-01: Group legal counsel, Gallaher Group
2001-08: Group head of legal and senior executive, Gallaher Group
2008-present: General counsel and company secretary, Premier Foods