At Center Parcs, Rajbinder Singh-Dehal’s role spans from opening the door to a refinancing deal that launched new holiday village Woburn, to preparing for its first guests
Rajbinder Singh-Dehal had never been to a Center Parcs village before moving to the holiday company four years ago. He is now a convert, speaking enthusiastically of short breaks in Elveden Forest, Suffolk, with his children.
And enthusiasm is something Singh-Dehal also asks of his law firms. While his lack of previous Center Parcs experience (due mainly to his family being too young to make the most of an activity-heavy holiday) was not a deal-breaker, he says that potential advisers are always asked if they have visited one of the company’s four holiday villages around the UK.
That number is shortly to be increased to five. Center Parcs is in the closing stages of construction on its fifth site, in Woburn Forest on land owned by the Duke of Bedford. Woburn is due to open next year after almost a decade in the planning, and much of Singh-Dehal’s time is taken up with the finishing touches to the mammoth project.
The business of fun
Singh-Dehal joined Center Parcs from Alliance & Leicester, where he was head of corporate and commercial law, in 2009 as company secretary. He became responsible for legal issues as well as health & safety, pensions and insurance.
Last year his role expanded to a more business-focused position. As head of legal and commercial services Singh-Dehal estimates he spends 50 per cent of his time on his previous duties and the rest on procurement for the business. Recently, this has meant that among other tasks he has been overseeing the acquisition of all the sundry bits and bobs that go to create a holiday village including beds, crockery, bikes and infrastructure, and making sure everything arrives at Woburn at the right stage in the village’s construction.
Woburn has required that Singh-Dehal and his three-strong legal team – expanded earlier this year with the appointment of a deputy company secretary, as well as the 32 professionals and support staff on the commercial side – to grapple with some seriously complex issues.
He says that “after the Olympics” the village’s construction has been one of the biggest projects in the UK in recent years.
Financing the village was one of the most complex elements. In an environment where financing was in short supply, Center Parcs’ management worked with RBS, Allen & Overy (A&O) and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, for the bank to design what Singh-Dehal describes as a “groundbreaking” structure.
A £740m whole-business securitisation was blended with a £280m high-yield bond, allowing Center Parcs to refinance its existing CMBS debt structure. The four existing villages were used as collateral, while a development finance loan funded construction of the new village. The bond issuance was four times oversubscribed.
“The construction contracts were the big piece of legal work along with the refinancing,” says Singh-Dehal of the new village.
A&O, which is Center Parcs’ go-to adviser for corporate and capital markets work, was an obvious choice for the financing. Wragge & Co picked up the construction and contractual advice for Woburn after Singh-Dehal invited the firm to pitch along with two others.
“The key thing for me is a law firm that doesn’t just act on instructions that you’re giving – that becomes simplistic,” says Singh-Dehal. He says Wragges made
“invaluable” suggestions that made sense from a business perspective and, for him, this passion for the business is a crucial factor in picking an adviser.
“For the past 10 years people have been talking about technical knowledge as a given,” he adds. “If you get to see the black and white legal knowledge people have they’re not doing their job properly. All you should be interested in is the output. You’ve got to have a law firm that understands the spectrum of the business.”
The majority – around 85 per cent – of Center Parcs’ legal work is done in-house, and issues such as commoditisation do not worry Singh-Dehal. Likewise, his is not a department focused on increasing efficiency through technology.
When it comes to fees, Singh-Dehal also has strong views.
“Lots of firms still haven’t grasped the nettle of understanding how clients pay for legal services,” he says, adding that fixed fees tend to lead either to overcharging or to a firm losing money, so his preference is for a capped fee with reviews.
Singh-Dehal believes the combination of his roles is working well, with his legal experience and skills providing a helpful perspective for the procurement role.
“There’s lots of crossover – the way goods and services are procured is becoming more complex,” he notes, pointing to contractual arrangements, letters of credit,
warranties and performance bonds as examples.
Although Center Parcs is committed to sourcing as many products and services from local providers as it can, it also buys much of what it needs from overseas. Especially in today’s environment, that means Singh-Dehal is spending time keeping track of issues such as suppliers that could be close to collapse, or political upheaval in places like Egypt, from where Center Parcs sources its linen.
His broad role also sees him take a role in crisis situations – a plumbing problem or a heavy snowfall – and there is an increasing focus on issues such as IP, data protection and health & safety. All this is likely to lead to a further expansion of the legal team, he says.
“Increasingly, the business is seeing the value that lawyers can bring,” Singh-Dehal concludes.
Rajbinder Singh-Dehal, Center Parcs
Position: Head of legal and commercial services
Reporting to: Finance director Paul Inglett
Annual legal spend: Not disclosed
Total legal capacity: Three plus one administrative assistant
Planning lawyer, Forest Green Rovers FC
After working in private practice for over six years I decided to move in-house. I have just started at Ecotricity and am reviewing all our planning issues, including Forest Green Rovers FC.
Forest Green Rovers (FGR) is one of the most sustainable football clubs in the world – as well as being the bookies’ favourite to be promoted to the Football League next year.
We are the UK’s first club to achieve the EU gold standard in environmental management. We recycle rainwater from the pitch, have installed solar panels and our groundsmen are working on the UK’s first organic pitch.
Working with Nissan and its electronic vehicle team we have a scheme whereby players use Nissan Leaf cars to commute to work. Our squad and management all love them, and are embracing car pooling too. We’ve recently installed electric charging points, and can cut carbon emissions from travel by around 80 per cent.
Another initiative is Sustainability in Sport (SiS), set up last year by Gary Neville and FGR chairman and Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, to promote green awareness at sports clubs. FGR has very much been the test-bed.
The club is solely owned by Ecotricity and all legal affairs are managed by the in-house team of four. We manage matters ranging from setting up SiS, handling commercial contracts, transfers and player valuation disputes,
and reputation and brand management issues.
We also have a portfolio of planning and property-related matters, and as the club develops, that’s certainly where my focus will be over the next five years.