Exclusive: Ian Austin on Halliwells’ culture, job losses and his own exit
Halliwells’ former chief Ian Austin has hit out at critics of his management of the Manchester-based firm, which went into administration last month, arguing that “we all bear responsibility” for the firm’s failure.
Speaking exclusively to The Lawyer, the 48-year-old former managing partner and executive chairman of the firm related that Halliwells’ collapse was a “bitter pill to swallow”.
“I’ve lost everything. I fought hugely. I’ll not have anyone question that commitment,” he stated. “I’ve always said that I stand up and hold myself responsible, [but] so does every single partner that contributed to the performance of the firm. I worked my bloody socks off for that firm. I put in £700,000.”
He argued that the financial difficulties that Halliwells experienced, which saw fee income drop from £87m in 2007-08 to £67m in 2009-10, lay primarily with the downturn in the corporate and property markets.
“At the end of the day we lost the best part of £18.5m to the downturn,” Austin said. “Moving to [new headquarters at] Spinningfields did add substantial cost, but when the decision was taken the firm was in a strong position. As a consequence of earnings dropping, partners decided to leave.”
Austin defended the disbursement of £15m of a £20m cash incentive from landlord Allied London to equity partners following the firm’s move into the new building, citing tax efficiencies as the rationale for distributing money at that point.
He added that, at the time of the deal, while the business was recording year-on-year growth of 16-17 per cent, external consultants thought the building would be “pretty full” in six to seven years on the basis of just 6-7 per cent growth. At the time the firm filed notice of its intention to go into administration on 24 June, occupancy was running at around 65-70 per cent.
“The decision to move into Spinningfields was a decision taken by a board, by external consultants [Sheppard Robson] in conjunction with group heads. This was not a decision of my own making,” he said.
But despite the firm’s reputation for having an ’eat what you kill’ remuneration system, Austin denied that partner exits were as a result of an individualistic culture. “[That] bears no resemblance to the remuneration [structure],” he insisted. “People were judged on their ability to bring in work, not on what they killed and ate.”
Austin cited the announcement that the firm’s insurance team would leave for Kennedys in December 2009 as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, as it represented £4m-£5m in fee income.
Austin also defended his decision to negotiate his exit to Heatons as head of commercial litigation before the final deal on the firm’s assets was completed and with the fate of 51 future trainees still hanging in the balance.
“I stuck by Halliwells to the death and I’ve taken this opportunity because it was the right thing for me,” he said. “I’ve been committed – I gave my life to that practice.”