Profile: Ann Conway-Hughes, CEO, Bevan Ashford

Conway-Hughes is a rarity in legal circles: first of all, she is a woman in charge of a national law firm; second, she is not even a lawyer

Bevan Ashford has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In May, chairman Nick Jarrett-Kerr left the firm to set up his own consultancy; and then in June the firm's well-publicised attempt to bring its two profit pools together under one London roof collapsed, leaving the West Country partnership operating out of temporary accommodation in Trafalgar Square.
In chief executive officer (CEO) Ann Conway-Hughes, however, the firm may have found just the person to turn its fortunes around. Conway-Hughes is a rarity in legal circles: first of all, she is a woman in charge of a national law firm; second, she is not even a lawyer.
A former director at engineering conglomerate GKN, including a spell as CEO of its 1,200-strong engineering services subsidiary GKN Engage, she was poached to become CEO of Bevan Ashford last autumn. She is clearly no stranger to high-level management, although she admits that the approach to take over a law firm came as a surprise. “It wasn't something I was necessarily looking for, and if I hadn't been approached I don't know if I'd have considered it,” she admits.
She continues: “My initial thought was that it wasn't really for me; but the more I looked into it and did some due diligence, the more I realised that, as an industry, it was actually very interesting.”
She took up her position in October, succeeding Jarrett-Kerr. People assumed, she says, that it would be massively different to her previous experience in industry; but she was struck not by the difference, but by the similarity. “Fundamentally, it's about running a business, and the issues you're concerned about in a law firm, an engineering services firm or any other organisation are always going to be there.”
She says that the key focuses of running a law firm are the same as with any company – namely utilisation, billing and cashflow – but they are underpinned by complexities and structures peculiar to a legal partnership.
From an industry role, in which major shareholders in a company are generally kept at arm's length, Conway-Hughes believes that working in a partnership where she is in daily proximity to the owners of the business has brought its own challenges. Historically, too, the difference is apparent in the way that the partners in law firms are used to having an active decision-making role with regard to the firm as whole. “It's very different,” she says. “In some ways it's helpful in that you've got people around you that you can immediately have the discussions with who have a vested interest in the business. But at the end of the day, you can only have so many people involved in decision-making.”
It is the decision-making structure of Bevan Ashford that Conway-Hughes has made her first priority. She has slimmed down the management of the firm into a partnership board consisting of herself and four partners, elected on a four-year rotation system. The role of the partnership board, she explains, is to “act as guardians for the rest of the partners and look at the overall strategic issues and objectives”.
Next to the partnership board is the executive board, chaired by Conway-Hughes and responsible for implementing and delivering strategic and operational issues. Below that she has attempted to make the firm more “market-facing” by introducing a matrix structure driven by the five practice divisions of environment, public sector, insurance and recovery, technology and manufacturing. “We have a clear decision-making structure in terms of what decisions are made at what level,” she explains. “It's actually pulling the decision-making back to a small group of people, ensuring that we maintain transparency in the process.”
There are two separate profit pools at Bevan Ashford and Conway-Hughes is CEO of only half of the firm – the Bristol, Birmingham and London half. The West Country partners are managed separately by managing partner Simon Rous and chief executive Christopher Hawkins. The one pan-firm figure was former chairman Nick Jarrett-Kerr, and there are no plans to replace him.
After the recent failed attempt to open joint London offices, a lot of competitors may be wondering how long the divide can continue. But if anyone can make it work, that person is Conway-Hughes.