House call: Richard Shoylekov, Wolseley

Starting a new job has never been easy. Regardless of CV strength, simple tasks such as finding the toilet and working the photocopier can prove challenging for even the most capable among us.

That said, ‘challenging’ barely begins to describe the situation Richard Shoylekov faced when he took on the role of group company secretary and general counsel at global building materials supplier Wolseley in November 2007.

As he explains: “Wolseley was having fantastic year-on-year growth, but was really hit in the US by the sub-prime situation and the slowdown in the housing market. The market more or less halved in the US in just over a year, and that has affected us as a group.

“We made a large number of redundancies in the US and some parts of Europe, which has not been pleasant. I had to deal with some redundancies in head office in my first week.”

Shoylekov’s arrival also coincided with Wolseley’s AGM, which meant he had to get up to speed on the business in double-quick time. Oh, and there was the small matter of the company delisting from the New York Stock Exchange almost at the moment Shoylekov came on board – although deputy company secretary Alison Drew did the bulk of the work on that alongside Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.

Having spent more than three years as director of legal affairs at Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus, during which time the company was successfully bought out by India’s Tata Steel, these were challenges Shoylekov was ready and able to rise to. “I gave myself a 100-day plan that set targets for me to achieve in the first 100 days,” he says. “So far that has involved a lot of travelling because I’ve got to know the business.”

Wolseley has a presence in 28 countries, with Shoylekov overseeing a 34-strong legal team whose role varies from territory to territory.

“Responsibilities are different depending on the jurisdiction,” he explains. “It can be real estate, employment law, debt collection. It varies and that’s a symptom of the fact that Wolseley has grown very rapidly over the past five years through acquisition.

“Because we have acquired different companies we have brought in different business models, and one of my jobs is to get consistency between them. That’s difficult because naturally there’s a tendency for a company to want to continue doing things the way it always has. One of the challenges for head office is to persuade people that [the legal function is] there to add value and improve processes for the greater good of the company.”

As part of that process, Shoylekov has to ensure that the legal function in each jurisdiction is singing from the same hymn sheet.

“There are examples of excellent practice in different parts of the group, but the real challenge is to make sure everyone can share that best practice,” he says. “Now there is an opportunity to consolidate all the achievements to date and in the future. We want to double in size in the next five years and we need to be able to have systems in place that can be shared across the group.”

With Wolseley making a total of 44 acquisitions in the past financial year, it is vital that the legal team has a streamlined approach to documentation and knows when the transaction should be handled by head office or when it should be done locally.

In terms of external law firms, in the UK the company’s main corporate adviser is Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, with Eversheds and Burges Salmon picking up the majority of Wolseley’s regional work and Norton Rose giving employment advice.

Shoylekov does not operate a formal panel for dishing out work to advisers and has no intention of reviewing that situation. However, he does concede the value of reviewing law firm relationships.

“I’m still in the process of meeting relationship partners and understanding what the relationship is,” says Shoylekov. “At Corus I noticed that there was duplication in effort. Good relationships had developed, but where there was advantage in consolidating them I came up with a list of preferred firms.”

In the US Wolseley uses Skadden on corporate matters and also has a longstanding relationship with Hunton & Williams. Again, Shoylekov has no immediate plans to review these relationships.

Potentially the biggest risk the company now faces is that the global house building market slows further. With Wolseley supplying everything from timber to heating and plumbing systems, its business is directly dependent on homes being built. However, Shoylekov believes any weakness will give the company a chance to get its own house in order, ready to attack the markets when they do begin to rise.

“I’m not prepared to call the bottom of the market yet,” he says. “Everyone predicts that it will be a difficult time for the next year or so, but the advantage of being part of a big group is that it’s strong financially. We will take this opportunity to improve our offices and become more efficient at what we do. When the market does improve we will be fantastically placed to take advantage of it.” n

Name: Richard Shoylekov
Company: Wolseley
Position: Group company secretary and general counsel
Industry: Construction/support services
Reporting to: Chief executive Chip Hornsby
Turnover: £16.2bn at end of July 2007
Employees: 78,000
Annual legal spend: Around £3m
Global legal capacity:35
Main law firms: Burges Salmon, Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Hunton & Williams and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom
Richard Shoylekov’s CV
Education:
1984-87: Downing College, Cambridge
Work history: 1988-91: Trainee, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
1991-94: In-house at BG
1994-95: Associate, Watson Farley & Williams
1995-2000: Head of legal, Agip UK
2000-02: General counsel, Agip Milan (now ENI Exploration and Production)
2002-04: Counsel, Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft
2004-07: Company secretary and general counsel, Corus Group
2007-present: Company secretary and general counsel, Wolseley