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Denise Jagger is taking what she learnt as Asda’s general counsel to Eversheds – and some big changes are afoot. Emma Vere-Jones reports
Denise Jagger is not just enthusiastic about customer service, she is positively evangelical about it. In fact, by the end of my hour with her, I almost feel as though I have attended a session with some kind of American life coach.
Jagger is best known for her role as company secretary and in-house counsel at Asda, but earlier this year she announced her decision to become a partner at Eversheds in a client service and management role. This energetic woman, who talks nineteen-to-the-dozen, is about to whip the team at Eversheds into some serious customer service shape.
“I’ve got a very loose brief,” reveals Jagger. “I’ll obviously be working very closely with [managing partner] David Gray on ‘A Great Place to Work’ [part of the Eversheds’ Vision and Values Programme launched last year] because he’s very passionate about that. So I’ll be working with David on that and looking at the culture of the organisation. And then the other side is the customer service. But they’re completely interlinked.”
Jagger’s fanaticism on the subject is in no small part a by-product of her days as company secretary and legal director at Asda.
She says the two things she learnt most at the supermarket giant was a focus on clients and a focus on staff. “Asda had a completely relentless focus on the customer – originally they’d lost sight of that and that was their problem. But they went back to their raison d’être,” she says. “So customer focus was one thing, the other was valuing the staff. Too many organisations become completely self-serving – their profits are first and the customer is secondary.”
Now her mission is to transfer these values to Eversheds. “I’m not naive enough to think that we could lift all the ways of working in Asda into Eversheds – clearly not. But I think I can make the translation between the two.”
Jagger’s ideas fit perfectly with Gray’s Vision and Values Programme. (One cannot help but feel that, given a few years, they may have the same kind of cult following at Eversheds that Nigel Knowles inspires at DLA.) In fact, it was Gray’s and Jagger’s agreement on such issues that eventually led to the Eversheds job.
“I’ve known David for a long time,” says Jagger. “For quite a few years we’d go out for lunch and he’d be picking my brains about what Eversheds could do better. I had strong views about legal services and how those services could be delivered. I think we both knew there was a meeting of minds, and so it sort of grew out of those sorts of conversations.”
Changing the culture of a business is something that Jagger has had considerable experience of, but her first in-house role and experience in business was at a company called the Scottish Heritable Trust.
Jagger joined Scottish Heritable after six years in the corporate department at Slaughter and May. Scottish Heritable was a conglomerate of businesses listed in the UK and the US which was particularly acquisitive during the 1980s.
“I had two years’ really good experience there, because I was the sole lawyer leading on acquisitions internationally and in the States,” she says. However, all that was set to change.
“[The company] was very much a product of the ’80s. They’d grown too quickly and they were too diverse. In my final year, the whole thing went pear-shaped,” recalls Jagger. Although it was not a great thing for the company, it was nevertheless interesting for Jagger.
“Having acquired lots of business, I was then engaged in refinancing all the businesses to keep it afloat,” she says. In the end, the business went into receivership after Jagger had left.
Her next role was with what was then another struggling company – Asda. Jagger joined initially as a freelance in-house counsel rather than an employee of the supermarket chain. “At the time, Asda was in a terrible state – it had really lost its way,” she remembers. “It almost went bust as well.”
After a year at Asda, and with ongoing concerns about the financial health of the company, Jagger made the decision to return to private practice and took partnership at Booth & Co (now Addleshaw Goddard).
However, her arrival at Booth & Co coincided with the resignation of Asda’s company secretary and a change of management, which saw Archie Norman drafted in to turn the supermarket chain around.
Jagger continued to handle most of Asda’s work from Booth & Co over the next few months – but in the end she could not resist the challenge of returning to Asda.
“I think I’m the shortest partner on record at Booth & Co,” she laughs. “I joined in September and I thought by the Christmas, ‘I’m going to have to tell them that I’m going to go’.” Asda was then her home for the next 10 years.
Her first three years were spent working with the new management team under Norman, which was focused on rescuing the company. “The new team had to start right from the bottom on a survival strategy,” she says. “It was like being at Harvard – in fact, now it is a Harvard case study.”
After three years of survival, the management team could then go on to establish the vision and culture of the business. And it was during the latter years that Jagger could really sink her teeth into changing the way the company worked.
First she helped establish one of the first ever all-employee share schemes. Then became very involved in equality issues within the organisation. “I was the most senior woman in the organisation by a long way,” she notes. “It’s an organisation that employed a lot of women, but – surprise surprise – they were all working on the shop floor. Yet the vast majority of Asda’s customers were women.” So Jagger was charged with attracting more women at a more senior level.
She hopes to continue her work on diversity and equality while at Eversheds, with a focus on women in professional partnerships.
At Asda, Jagger was also heavily involved in lobbying the Government.
“We got quite a reputation for poking fun at ridiculous legislation,” she says. “In most organisations the PR team and the legal team are probably at loggerheads. At Asda they were one of our closest allies, because we’d go off and find mad pieces of anti-consumer legislation and then challenge them.”
It is quite easy to see from an hour with Jagger that she was passionate about her role at Asda, and in the same way she now looks set to commit that passion to Eversheds.
But will it not be tough to get the buy-in of lawyers, who may be more cynical towards this warm, fuzzy, great-place-to-work guff?
“Of course there’ll be people who won’t like it,” Jagger admits.
“Some people won’t like the innovation – and it may be uncomfortable for some people for some time. And it doesn’t happen overnight. But I hope we can create a law firm model in the future that’s different.
“At the moment, young people when they start take a deep breath and think, ‘oh well, I’ve got to work my socks off for 10 years, but it’ll be worth it in the end’. But you shouldn’t think like that – you should think it’s going to be a fantastic place to work and I’m going to enjoy the law.”
There is no doubt that if anyone can manage such a change, it is Jagger. But she may have her work cut out for her.