National Grid Property GC: Live wire

Given the state of the market, National Grid Property general counsel Mo Ajaz has plenty on his plate. Luckily, he knows the company inside out, says James Swift

At the halfway stage of the  2011-12 financial year, National Grid reported a 3.1 per cent dip in pre-tax profit in the wake of ­Hurricane Irene, which tore along the eastern coast of the US in August.

The storm brought floods powerful enough to almost wipe one small New York town off the map. Irene also took out power lines and ­paralysed two nuclear power stations belonging to National Grid, leaving a million customers without power for almost a week. The trailing ­snowstorms in Massachusetts in October also left customers bereft of electricity. All told, the freak weather cost the company £140m.

Fortunately for the company, in Britain, where National Grid runs systems that deliver gas and electricity across the country, the only recent story about the weather has been its astonishing mildness. But there has been more than enough turbulence in the real estate market to keep Mo Ajaz, general counsel at National Grid Property, busy.

“There’s a fair bit to do,” he ­confirms. “One of our priorities is getting the best value from our ­portfolio [of property assets], but it’s not easy because we have to contend with infrastructure issues, ­contaminated land and the state of the market.

“We have a lot of large assets and because the market is the way it is, it wouldn’t be right to sell them. We don’t have all the expertise in-house to develop the properties so we’ve started a joint venture programme. We’ve identified all the portfolios we want included – around 40 – and Berwin Leighton Paisner is helping.

“We’ve started a tendering ­programme for the sites,” he adds. “Chosen companies will plan and develop them with us. We’re doing something different because of the market – we’ve done joint ventures before, but nothing this big.”

Ajaz and his team – a permanent assistant, a contract and governance manager and a business assurance manager, boosted by secondees from private practice – report to National Grid general counsel Helen Mahy but are embedded in the property function. Ajaz sits on the management committee of the property team and his team supports operational projects and transactions, and ensures the business runs smoothly.

Ajaz himself is a home-grown ­talent for the company, starting out 14 years ago as one of four trainees.

“I started as a trainee with Transco, which was a predecessor of the National Grid gas business,” explains Ajaz. “I got seconded to panel firms for the seats that I couldn’t do here: Shakespeares for property and Wragge & Co for litigation.

“I chose the in-house route for ­personal reasons. I wanted to stay in the Midlands, but I also studied law and business at college so I was quite interested in both sides.”
How does training in-house ­compare with private practice?

“I did a lot of networking with ­private practice trainees when I was on secondments,” says Ajaz. “The ­difference is that in private practice you generally get given the work, whereas with an in-house traineeship you have to find it yourself. You have to build relationships early on which means you end up doing partner-level work earlier in your career.

“If you want to get on interesting projects you have to stand out. You have to go and meet people and ­create a good impression to ensure that they want you in meetings.”

The result of this training in-house and looking after staff is a counsel who knows the company inside out. And as National Grid goes through one of its semi-regular (every three years or so) restructurings, Ajaz and his team have been writing a blueprint for the organisation.

“We’re drawing up a blueprint, ­looking at who has to manage what,” comments Ajaz. “We’re always ­looking at the best way to run things. For example, we used the introduction of the Bribery Act as catalyst to improve how we reported hospitality.”

And with National Grid Property going to great lengths to squeeze every last bit of efficiency out of its structure, its panel of law firms were naturally subjected to equally rigorous scrutiny.

“As part of the tender process we looked at a lot of innovative billing models,” explains Ajaz. “We asked for rebates and locked in panel firms for discounts.

“Also, we looked to tie in a lot of continuing professional development training, while diversity was another thing we asked about. Firms report back to us about the fee-earners they have working for us. It’s an area I’m quite passionate about.”

Name: Mo Ajaz

Company: National Grid Property

Position: General counsel and head of business assurance

Industry: Property management/utilities

Reporting to:Managing director

Turnover:­Approximately £60m

Employees:­Approximately 60

Legal capability:Seven

Annual group legal spend:£2m

External law firms:Berwin Leighton Paisner, Bircham Dyson Bell, BrookStreet

des Roches, DLA Piper, Dundas & Wilson, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Hammonds,

Needham & James