In-house interview: Steven Webb, head of legal, Premier Farnell
21 July 2014 | By Margaret Taylor
24 July 2014
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Service is the name of the game for Steven Webb, GC at IT distributor Premier Farnell
If there is one thing you learn as the head of legal at a business that sells 600,000 products from 3,000 suppliers to a couple of million customers in 150 countries, it’s that customer service matters.
For Steven Webb, general counsel and company secretary of Leeds-based technology distributor Premier Farnell, the drive for excellent customer service
begins in the warehouses and sales desks, and extends into the legal team and beyond, to its external advisers.
And if they don’t get it right, they know about it.
“Some external firms think that knowing the answer to the legal question is worth something – and it is, but only a bit,” he says. “There are eight firms in Leeds that could do an acquisition for us, but [what sets them apart is] customer service – things like how advice is delivered. I had an occasion when I asked an external lawyer to do a note on something that had to go to the CEO and chief financial officer but what I got was unsuitable and I had to rewrite it. They either didn’t listen or just wrote the standard memo they would always write. It’s about understanding the customer and their requirements.”
Webb does not operate a formal legal panel or hold a central budget for legal costs, preferring to make the business case for external spend as and when required.
He does, however, turn to three firms in particular when the need arises: Allen & Overy – which replaced Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer not long after Webb took on the role in 2000 – Eversheds and Walker Morris, where Webb practised in the early 1990s.
Although the customer-facing part of Premier Farnell is online – the company operates 48 websites in about 30 languages – the business has a large on-the-ground presence across the globe in the shape of warehouses and distribution centres. This mix of the virtual and the physical throws up varied challenges for the legal team.
“The biggest challenge for us from being online is the speed of business – you can do something and roll it out so quickly,” says Webb. “For example, I could get a question from marketing on a Friday saying they have a campaign they want to do on Monday and asking if it’s legal in all the countries we operate in. But I’d need about six months and a £100,000 budget to spend with lawyers in each country to answer that.”
Rather than go to such expense for what would likely be a one-week campaign, Webb has to use his broad knowledge of what is allowed and make a call based on perceived risk and reward.
“You can’t give a categorical answer, but you can say, ‘I’ve looked at this based on what I know and it doesn’t look high-risk’,” he says. “Inevitably, sometimes you get it wrong and then you have to deal with the consequences.”
When it comes to the company’s physical presence the stakes are higher and, while a best-guess approach won’t do when it comes to expanding into China – which Premier Farnell did in 2007 with help from local firm Fangda – parcelling out work has its own risk-reward profile when cultural differences are stark.
“China was incredibly complicated – it took 18 months from signing the letter of intent to actually getting the deal done,” says Webb. “There were lots of bureaucratic challenges because there are numerous approval processes with numerous Chinese government ministries, and it seems to work entirely in sequence. You have to go from one to the next – you can’t apply to them all at once. I’ve been in-house long enough to have a feel for what an answer will be, even if I’m not in the jurisdiction. But in China I found that whatever I thought the answer would be, it almost always wasn’t. I started asking external lawyers every single question because I couldn’t trust that I’d get it right.”
As well as legal, Webb heads the business’s corporate social responsibility efforts, something that sees Premier Farnell partner with a range of local schools and Leeds Metropolitan University, where Webb is a governor and interim chairman of the board.
“We work in local schools in Leeds, focusing on engaging kids in science, technology and maths – particularly teenage girls, who are under-represented in that area,” he explains. “We’ve done CV-writing workshops and mentoring programmes, and have just run a wearable technology programme where we provided four local schools with the technology and people from the company to support them.”
A collaboration with Leeds Metropolitan will see the university begin offering an electrical engineering degree after a hiatus of several years, with input from Premier Farnell on what technologies students should be learning about.
“We’re building an electronics lab here that students can come and use,” says Webb. “The university wants us to give input on what sort of technology they should be using for their project work. One of the things engineers find valuable is other engineers using technology and writing about it. We have an online community for electronics engineers and the students will publish reviews there.”
So, as well as giving Premier Farnell access to a pool of fresh talent to potentially recruit from, the deal will give the students a platform for their work and customers access to a wealth of data on products. And it’s all just part of the service.
Title: Company secretary and general counsel
Industry: Electronics distribution
Reporting to: CEO Laurence Bain
Annual legal spend: £100,000 (approx figure for 2013)
Number of employees company-wide: 4,500
Size of legal team: 10
Main external firms: Allen & Overy, Eversheds, Walker Morris
Steven Webb CV
1987-1990: Articled clerk then assistant solicitor at Norton Rose
1990-1994: Associate at Walker Morris
1994-1997: Company secretary and legal counsel for Kalon Group
1997-2000: Company secretary and general counsel for Yorkshire Water (later Kelda Group)
2000-current: Company secretary and general counsel at Premier Farnell
2012-current: Lay Governor and interim chairman of the board of Leeds Metropolitan University