29 July 2002
Hammonds' rise from Northern upstart to international player is personified by its managing partner Chris Jones. Jones's voice may still be resplendent in its rumbling Northern tenor, even if he sometimes sounds eerily like William Hague; but his focus is far from provincial. Now in his third term as managing partner, Jones has presided over a period of unprecedented expansion at the 'national' firm.
Often bandied about as an insult, Hammonds has taken its national focus and simply broadened it out to include Europe and South East Asia. The US is also on the agenda, but even the acquisitive Jones concedes that this development is some years away.
The firm consists of a series of distinct offices, each with its own identity, working towards a common goal. This unabashedly ambitious goal is to be regarded as a firm that regularly handles top-flight work for some of the world's largest companies.
Perhaps understandably given this aim, Jones regards himself as one of life's optimists. He is, after all, a Leeds United fan. When I meet Jones in Hammonds' London office, which nestles in a peaceful spot in Devonshire Square, he is decked out in his Leeds 100 Club tie. It is a club that comprises, sensibly enough, 100 per cent Leeds supporters drawn from local businesspeople and professionals. It is also Jones's equivalent of a black armband, worn to signify the day that Leeds finally sold its captain Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United.
Add to this the fact that, with his daughter, he jointly owns a racehorse that doesn't seem to have much luck finding the finishing line, and you can see why looking for positives has become something of a habit. It is this infectious optimism that has encouraged Hammonds partners and staff to stay focused on the bigger picture. This year, profits may not be what the firm had hoped for, but building a business is not an overnight job.
"It's a matter of record that our profits per partner this year haven't been where we want them to be. I'm not happy about that; after all, I'm an equity partner like the others. But I think we did the right thing and I think the partners feel that, strategically, we're very well placed," says Jones. "It's been the toughest time I can remember for us in terms of the challenges we've put on ourselves, but I'm really proud of the firm. I'm proud of the partners being prepared to make those investments. You know, they all voted for them."
Jones has been at the helm during Hammonds' size explosion, but he claims his regime is not an autocratic one. He knows that his partners are not going to give him an easy ride on any decision and he is happy to seek advice when necessary.
"Something cropped up a couple of weeks ago and I was a bit uncertain of the right way to go. I went to quite a senior partner who I respect and asked him what he thought," admits Jones. "As it happened, he agreed; but he's the sort of independent spirit who would have said if he wasn't sure."
Jones argues that a firm needs strong leadership, particularly one such as Hammonds, where upheaval has been prevalent for the past few years. He likes to roll up his sleeves and muck in with the rest of the firm. It is all hands to the pump at Hammonds.
Meeting and greeting clients is more often the province of a firm's senior, rather than managing, partner; but Jones says he finds it difficult to stay in a particular pigeonhole. "We keep looking at the roles and try to put them into neat boxes, but both of us keep jumping out of them," he says. "But I don't necessarily think that's too bad a thing.
"I know of one managing partner who insists on having an office inside another office so that people can only come and see him on his terms and he's not disturbed in doing all his administrative stuff. I bet he's got a really tidy desk, but that just wouldn't be me." Jones is incapable of making himself sufficiently remote to manage from afar.
In fact, Jones makes a point of being seen out and about at each of Hammonds' 14 offices. "I was in Leeds yesterday, London today; I'm in Brussels tomorrow and then Birmingham on Thursday; I'm in Manchester on Friday - and that, frankly, isn't an untypical week. Last week I was in Milan, London and Leeds. I'm a great believer that, to do this job properly, you've got to be seen around all the offices."
Either that or he has a penchant for those little bags of nuts.
It is impossible to separate Jones from Hammonds. The two have common history and common roots. In spite of his protestations that the firm is bigger than any one of its parts, Jones is effectively Hammonds through and through. He has been at the firm since 1984 and it is only the second firm he has worked at.
He says of joining the firm: "I was actually headhunted by John Heller. It was a scandal at the time because I was an equity partner in my previous firm and nobody moved, especially not in Bradford. In fact, I was exiled to Leeds. I joined to open the Leeds office with Mike Shepherd. We got on so well he's now my brother-in-law.
"I was a litigator and John was a litigator and we'd fought two or three huge battles," he continues. "We went to a black tie dinner where you end up at the bar drinking brandies. We did what lawyers should never do - and certainly didn't in those days - which was tell one another what we were earning. He was earning twice as much as me. I was hugely depressed after that and he could tell it had made an impact. He rang me up and said, 'Come join us'."
Jones admits to being aggressive and impatient - themes which run throughout the firm as it seeks to bridge the gap between itself and the core City firms. This desire to join the big league in more ways than just size drove the merger with Edge Ellison. It still holds true today. "We haven't got at the moment the penetration into the City that we need to have," he says. "There's no doubt the prime task for Richard and I over the next couple of years is to work with the London partners to rise nearer to where we want to be."
He believes the firm is on the right track, having put the necessary foundations in place. When he took over as managing partner, the firm undertook a strategic review.
Somebody came up with the analogy of an ever-widening canyon, where the top firms were on one side and national firms on the other. Jones thought Hammonds could make the jump then, but maybe not if the partners delayed making the decision to grow for another couple of years.
He argues: "I think - though some would argue - we've jumped over that canyon. DLA has definitely jumped over that canyon. I'd like to think that, although we didn't jump as far, we're on the right side.
"We knew in making that leap that it would be a very painful experience. One, it costs you a shedload of money; two, it's going to take your eye off the ball with the client; and three, because it's massive change, it causes stresses and strains."
Jones is charged with smoothing the rough edges, bedding down the mergers and making sure everybody is facing the same way.
"A big problem for us, I think, is we've done so much in terms of the big merger with Edge Ellison, then Townleys, then Wildes, then the European offices. Inevitably you've got to look inwards, because those are all effectively internal things," he explains. "The message to all partners this year is, 'Right - we've done all this stuff, we've built this platform, let's get out there and get business into the firm and do what we're good at'." Optimism reigns.