Goldstein exit sees Olswang become more ‘grown up’

Olswang become more ‘grown up’” />Olswang’s partners’ weekend in February was a little more exciting than the usual strategy outing. Along with the usual considerations about how the firm was planning to expand abroad and which new areas of business it fancied targeting, the partners had the little matter of a departing chief executive to deal with.

And not just any old CEO. In Jonathan Goldstein Olswang had one of the highest-profile names in the market at its head, one synonymous with a swashbuckling approach to deal-doing that personified the entire firm.
“It’s fair to say a few jaws hit the floor when Jonny told us,” admits Olswang
senior partner Mark Devereux. Three months on, though, and the firm is looking to put the Goldstein years firmly behind it.

Last Wednesday (18 April) the firm unveiled its much anticipated new management. In a way it is fitting that there is not a direct replacement. Instead, the previously less-than-high-profile chief operating officer Kevin Munslow assumes the CEO badge, while the front-of-house duties will be handled by Devereux, senior partner since 1998. Together the pair will run the firm.

But completing Olswang’s biggest managerial shake-up for a decade is David Stewart. The former SJ Berwin litigation partner and Olswang’s international strategy partner since 2004 becomes managing partner following an uncontested election. It is Stewart who has taken over as the man tasked with driving the firm forward into what the trio calls “the next stage”.

In keeping with the change of emphasis post-Goldstein, however, the three are keen to stress that it will be all three, not just Stewart, at the helm. For Olswang, the days of one man hogging the limelight are over.

“You have to remember that it was only the public’s perception of how those deals were done,” argues Devereux. “The reality is that it was all three of us, although the mouthpiece was Jonny. So there’s no quantum leap in that.”

“The effect of the shock of Jonny’s departure was actually to release a lot of energy among the partners,” says Stewart. “It was a catalyst for us to review the practice. People immediately started asking, ‘what does it mean?’, which led to four working groups of partners and then some preliminary conclusions. The ultimate conclusion was that it presages a very interesting period for us.”

Translated, that means growth, both at home and abroad, and even, at the risk of stretching a metaphor, in terms of the maturity of the practice. When Devereux says “Jonny’s been magnificent, but we’ve grown up and this is the next phase”, the implication is obvious: Goldstein was great, but a bit of a wild child.

Now, Olswang would have the market believe, the firm is a proper, grown-up
business and needs a more heavyweight management structure at the top.
The quantum leap, if there is to be one, will be the involvement in management of a wider number of partners. Stewart’s appointment aside, the main change will be the introduction of a new strategy board tasked with developing Olswang’s strategic aims over the coming years – an instrument that has the capacity to feature a far wider range of partners.

“It will have the flexibility to coopt people on to it,” says Stewart. “It means we won’t be hamstrung by a standard, inflexible structure.” Stewart is familiar with the concept; it is the same as that introduced by former SJ Berwin senior partner David Harrel at his old stomping ground.

It is probably too simplistic to suggest that Stewart’s appointment heralds a significant ramping up of Olswang’s international ambitions, and indeed the first target is likely to be additional UK corporate and finance firepower, but Devereux admits that the firm has “a strong desire” to continue its aggressive growth rate domestically and internationally, “while always preserving our distinctiveness in the market”. He adds: “We don’t want to grow in a way that would prejudice the culture of the business.”

Which sounds fine, except that here there appears to be a conflict. A large chunk of Olswang’s ‘culture’ was personified by Goldstein and his buccaneering approach to strategic growth. In deal after deal it was Goldstein the operator who came swooping in to snap up the choice opportunities. Mistakes in public perception aside, he is certain to take some of that chutzpah with him when he leaves the office for the last time.