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Sue Ashton is the sole in-house lawyer for hotel giant Britannia, one minute doing employment work, the next sitting opposite a magic circle firm and holding her own in a multi-million-pound sale. Emma D’Souza reports.
Britannia Hotels is a group of 19 privately-owned hotels in Britain, which include those in Aberdeen, the Britannia Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool and the International Hotel in London’s Docklands. The Liverpool and London hotels, with 402 and 442 rooms respectively, are the two largest. Britannia’s 18 English hotels extend from Brighton to mid-country to Newcastle, featuring particularly the Bosworth Hall Hotel in Warwickshire, a grade-2 listed William & Mary mansion.
Britannia Hotels was incorporated in 1977, and its first acquisition was the Britannia Country House Hotel in Didsbury, Manchester, which was acquired as a building site for use by the group in the construction industry. Market conditions meant that the site was kept as a hotel, and the business grew from there.
Sue Ashton, Britannia’s one and only group solicitor, credits a recent hotel fly-on-the-wall television series with altering the public’s expectation of the hotels. By clarifying confusion over the chain’s actual market position as a 3-star/4-star position rather than as four-star, customer complaints have diminished. The Adelphi, which was featured in the programme, was built in 1914 and was based on the design of an ocean liner, with a ballroom intended to resemble that of the SS Titanic, all of which may have perpetuated any customer misconception about the hotel’s positioning in the sector. Let’s face it, the television series was hardly complimentary about the Adelphi.
The group has a steady expansion rate, buying in as it does a number of hotels every year. It is also looking at acquiring hotels in Europe for the first time. When Ashton joined the company in 1993, it possessed just six hotels, a situation highlighting the fact that she handles the deals for two or three hotel acquisitions per year. “Life is hectic at such times,” says Ashton. “Obviously, there’s the title, conveyancing, contract and employees’ terms to deal with. It’s just not practical to outsource the work because I need to know what the purchase contract and employees’ terms are for my day-to-day work anyway.” Tax issues on the purchases are normally left to the finance director.
Ashton declines to discuss the group’s finances, but says it is “financially buoyant” and has no plans to float at this time. The group’s hotel purchases are financed by its own resources. Ashton explains that Britannia pays cash, but may subsequently mortgage the property. She says the group is always looking for good buys and will often purchase from businesses in bankruptcy, which is how Bosworth Hall was acquired.
Britannia has also bought hotels from groups such as Forte Hotel Group and Hilton Hotels Corporation when they reposition themselves, for example when a chain may require all of its hotels to have a swimming pool and so decide to sell those hotels that are without one. She has in the past worked opposite in-house legal departments for both groups.
Ashton single-handedly comes up against a range of law firms acting on the other side of her hotel acquisitions. Most of them, such as Ashurst Morris Crisp and DJ Freeman, are London-based, but they have also included North West firm Hill Dickinson. Ashton says she is not intimidated about such David and Goliath-type encounters. Indeed, she has combined the roles of client and legal adviser to the extent where she rarely needs to take instructions. “I mostly know what we will and won’t accept without even asking,” she says.
As Ashton is the sole lawyer for the whole group, she deals with a range of work, from commercial law, licensing and litigation to property and employment. Given the size of the department and the people-based sector that the company operates in, Ashton says she usually has five employment cases going on at any one time, which she handles herself. The hotels all offer a restaurant or an eating facility, but the company employs a health and safety officer to deal with all food law aspects and health and safety issues.
Ashton’s remit, though, does include licensing matters, which she runs from head office. But she does outsource a lot of this work as it would involve her traipsing to magistrates’ courts all over the country, applying and renewing public entertainment and wedding licences and on-licences. She uses a range of local firms for such work.
Major litigation work is the other area that Ashton outsources. “When I came to Britannia Hotels it had a lot of litigation, but now that is substantially reduced - I look at it from the outset and resolve some of the matters before they go to the courts. We’ve probably halved the cases put before the courts for one thing or another,” she says.
Ashton admits that this is partly due to the Civil Procedure Rules. “Woolf made us more careful about what we’re doing,” she says. “We comply totally with the spirit.” From her experience of litigation in various courts all over the country, she believes that some aspects of the Woolf reforms are not being applied consistently, such as time limits. Before moving in-house, Ashton was head of litigation and employment law at Aaron & Partners in Chester, and it reflects on her commercial approach that a former head of litigation there says: “I do my damnedest to keep us out of litigation, as it’s hard to emerge a winner.”
Being away from the office is an interruption to Ashton’s high-speed day. “I can’t afford to have one day out of the office,” she says. Illustrative of her lawyer time-management skills, on days when she has no choice but to be out of the office, she will combine tribunal proceedings with other unrelated matters, such as taking witness statements from employees at hotels along the way.
Despite her enormous workload, Ashton says that having a trainee or paralegal would be “a cleft stick”. She favours her independence, asserting: “If you want to do something quickly and do it right, then you have to do it yourself. If someone else, like a trainee or a paralegal did it, it would take 10 times as long as I’d have to oversee it and unravel what they’d done”.
Ashton had always wanted to work in commerce, but was advised at school that women could not do management or economics, either at university or as a profession. Consequently, Ashton studied law with the intention of getting into company administration through the back door. She articled at North Western Electricity Board (now Norweb) and says that she enjoys the combination of in-house and law work. “The best thing about being in-house is being able to concentrate your efforts on getting the best outcome for your clients,” she says. “In private practice, you’re always conscious of being cost-effective. When you’re in-house, though, you can spend as many hours as you want on a matter and give everything 100 per cent of your attention.”
When it comes to outsourcing work, unsurprisingly, cost is of utmost importance to Ashton. She is very conscious of charge-out rates and the amount of time the work will take. “I look at the charging or hourly rate,” she says. “I don’t want to pay a ridiculous rate for something that I can do myself. In private practice you’re selling your time; it’s making money by selling time.”
As for past billing horrors, Ashton says: “I’d never use the [particular] law firm again, as it’s me who takes the stick with management. Most firms will reduce the bill if you go back to them, but not to anything near what we’d expect.” Ashton, then, realises the value of not setting a budget in stone for the legal department, prefering to remain flexible, as she never knows what is coming next. She says that she will try to use a range of firms as a result of having met representatives from a variety of firms at The Lawyer Monte Carlo, and has in fact instructed DLA as a consequence of the conference.
Being the only lawyer for Britannia, Ashton receives all legal work directly. She says it is important for her to be accessible to everyone within the company. “Everyone knows me,” she says. “If I arrive at a hotel for a disciplinary matter, then I make sure the staff see me - it’s important they feel they can come and talk to me.”
Perhaps due to her own experiences at university, Ashton takes a tough line on harassment and discrimination. Off the top of her head, she says: “56 per cent of the London hotel’s employees are from ethnic minority backgrounds.” Her tone enforces the sentiment in her assertion that the company will not tolerate discrimination.
Ashton works closely with the personnel department in ensuring compliance with employee legislation. When the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act came into force, Ashton sent memos around the company highlighting to employees that their internet access was being monitored, for example. Although access to some sites was blocked, Ashton says the company advised her of which employees were trying to access pornographic sites.
Ashton seems to enjoy being the only lawyer in a large, expanding organisation, performing as she does superhuman feats of multitasking. Furthermore, the hotel industry is somewhere she feels right at home.
|Sector||Hotels and Leisure|
|Group solicitor||Sue Ashton|
|Reporting to||Managing directors Michael Morton and Alex Langsan|
|Main location for lawyers||The head office in Hale, Cheshire|
|Main law firms||Addleshaw Booth & Co, Eversheds and Pannone & Partners|