STONES

With four mergers in as many years, it's onwards and upwards for West Country firm Stones

Six-office West Country firm Stones has decided to focus on the consolidation of its new offices following four mergers in just four and a half years. The growth spurt started with a merger with Call & Hallett, giving the firm an office in Okehampton. This was followed closely by another with Burd Pease. Stones then merged with James Elliot in May 2001 and Thorpes in August last year. As a result, the firm now has 23 partners across Exeter, Okehampton, Torrington, Tiverton, Sidmoth and Taunton.
Many firms are reducing the areas of law practised and consider extra offices to be a drain on profit margins. Stones is happily taking advantage of this and heading in the opposite direction.
“We remain a general practice firm and have developed a few niche areas, such as housing association, timeshare and childcare,” says managing partner Hugh Winterbotham. “As larger firms pull out, it can provide significant opportunity.”
Luckily, Stones has always been the larger of the two merging firms and so has been able to protect its culture. Winterbotham says: “We've tried to do it in a gentle and friendly way. We don't swallow up the other firm and kick everything out, but there hasn't been any kind of battle. We now need to get them all working the way we want them to. I think we could see some further expansion in a year or so.”
The last two mergers brought two new partners – Jim Elliot and Brad Thorpe. Mike Giles, who joined from Foot Anstey Sargent over a year ago, was made up to partner on 1 May. Two associates have also joined within the last year.
Partner Bronwen Courtenay-Stamp heads up a department best described as travel and tourism. Operating out of the Exeter office, her two-partner team deals with personal injury (PI) cases in foreign jurisdictions. Courtenay-Stamp's speciality is skiing law. “I deal with a lot of liability issues,” she explains. “Jurisdiction limitation and finding an agent who is capable and will deal with the matter properly for you are the main problems.”
The key challenge for her department has been to manage the increased volume of work. Courtenay-Stamp is not sure whether this is due to a general increase in foreign PI work or specifically the success of her department, but the result is the same – the pressure to recruit for a specialist division.
Courtenay-Stamp has trained the team herself and prides herself on efficiency and economy. “It's about the commercial reality of looking at a case and saying, 'This is going to cost far more than we're ever going to get',” she says. “The insurers, quite sensibly, don't want to pay for that.”
The £5.5m-turnover firm is enjoying substantial growth at the moment without profit per partner figures suffering. A 7 per cent rise last year is expected to be more like 10 per cent this time round.
Recent deals include the management buyout of printing company James Townsend, which completed in April; and the Weston Challenge Housing Association acquisition of 38 care homes for more than £12m.