As legal head of a company with 400 subsidiaries, Hanson’s Ed Gretton had a tough job unifying the dispersed legal team. Tom Phillips reports.
The property market has taken a battering in the past 18 months, which has, of course, been problematic for building materials supplier Hanson.
The company provides the raw building materials to work sites
all over the world, with products including aggregates, asphalt, bricks and ready-made concrete. It was part of the conglomerate that in 1996 demerged into the four separate entities of Imperial Tobacco, the Energy Group, SCM Chemicals and Hanson.
The resulting Hanson still has something of the conglomerate mentality, owning 400 subsidiaries and demanding a high degree of organisation from the legal team and its head Ed Gretton.
Gretton, who joined from Danka Business Systems in early 2008, has reorganised the legal department from a disparate group spread across the business into a five-person team based in the Thames Valley office.
“I inherited a variety of legal functions and had to create a new one from scratch,” says Gretton, who adds that he also reorganised dozens of relationships with law firms to come up with a panel that includes Pinsent Masons and Jones Day.
“We needed to ensure there were no bottlenecks with our law firms so we put in a client relationship management programme,” he explains. “The department heads at Hanson now deal directly with the law firms but under our management. The firms have to be as visible to us as we have to be within the company.”
The relationship programme makes sure that work in progress really is work in progress and that there are no surprises on fees, explains Gretton.
“We can be flexible and throw resources at a particular matter to get a result, or pull out at short notice,” he says. “The relationship is also structured to educate our businesspeople directly and forms an invaluable component of our training and risk-management strategy. In effect, we tell our panel how they should be managing us as clients they prioritise. And it works.”
The legal team’s year is now planned around the various Hanson businesses, making sure the team is represented at all important meetings. “My focus to date has been getting closer to the business and building in compliance training,” says Gretton. “We need to be seen as a function that generates a good return on the company’s investment.”
Some 50 per cent of the team’s work is on contracts and everyday disputes, with the rest made up of corporate M&A, health and safety, pensions and environmental law, which includes the specialist world of mineral law relating to the aggregates Hanson produces – an “enormous amount of work”, according to Gretton.
The 400 subsidiaries can also be a big headache. “Managing these from a corporate and company secretarial perspective is a major task for us – our company secretary must be the busiest, and probably the most efficient, in his profession,” he says.
Gretton and his team often hit the road, travelling to the various sites where Hanson operates.
“If I visit a business I always try to get on site,” he says. “It helps me understand the situation and lets those at the site see me. It’s much more effective than sitting in the office with a cup of coffee.”
The construction sector has long been a focus for the competition authorities and Gretton requires his lawyers to deliver seminars on competition law and compliance to the businesses to raise awareness among employees. “We cannot afford to get this wrong,” Gretton says bluntly.
After a year in the construction industry, the former Clifford Chance lawyer is used to straight-talking and will have heard more over the past 12 months than usual, after such a difficult period for the market.
“At the moment this industry has its challenges but I enjoy it,” he admits. “It’s wonderful to be part of a company that has such a well-known name and our work has to be the highest quality – we have a lot to live up to. People in this company expect lawyers to be straightforward and to the point. They want simple, practical advice that helps them get what they want.”
Name: Ed Gretton
Position: Head of legal
Industry: Building materials
Reporting to: Chief executive Patrick O’Shea
Company turnover: £1.5bn
Number of employees: 7,000
Legal capability: Six
Main external law firms: Beachcroft, Boyes Turner, Jones Day, Knights Solicitors, Pinsent Masons, Taylor Wessing, Ward Hadaway
Legal spend: £2m-£3m
Ed Gretton’s CV
1989-92: History, Bristol University
1992-94: College Of Law, Guildford
1994-95: Russian, Pushkin Institute
2008-09: Arabic, Universite d’Agadir
1995-97: Trainee, Clifford Chance
1997-2003: Solicitor, Clifford Chance
2003-07: General counsel Europe, Danka Business Systems
2008-present: Head of legal, Hanson