Coming Clean

When he packed up his private practice kit bag to go in-house, head of legal for Onyx Environment Group Robert Hunt never looked back. Kelly Harrison talks rubbish with a man who knows more about it than most

If you had told Robert Hunt five years ago that he would one day be responsible for emptying the bins at Buckingham Palace, he would have laughed. Yet in his new role as head of legal for Onyx Environmental Group, that task is now one of his jobs.

“The City of Westminster is one of our clients,” Hunt explains excitedly. Unfortunately, The Lawyer offices are in the vicinity of Soho and therefore do not benefit from the municipal services the company offers. Nevertheless, the Onyx lorries are a familiar sight to most Londoners. Onyx manages a range of waste, from household to specialist, such as clinical. Clients include Asda, Jaguar, Ford Motor Company, Michelin and the City of Liverpool. The company is also the preferred bidder for Sheffield City Council.

Onyx is owned by Vivendi Environment and in Paris floated under that name. It is just one of four subsidiaries that make up Vivendi Environment: there is also Vivendi Water, an energy company called Dalkia and the transport arm of the group, Connex. A larger company still, Vivendi Universal has a 63 per cent shareholding in Vivendi Environment.

There are 10 firms on the Vivendi Environment panel, three of which have advised Onyx for years. Hunt inherited them when he joined the company, but has been very happy to keep them on. They are Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Theodore Goddard and Boyes Turner in Reading. The larger Vivendi Environment panel is made up of top 20 firms, including Allen & Overy and Simmons & Simmons. “I see them as advisers, not servants,” says Hunt. “They’re all very knowledgeable and valuable.”

Of Boyes Turner, Hunt says: “These are all people I like. I can bounce ideas off them and know they’ll react quickly when necessary.” Generally speaking, Hunt will use the Vivendi-approved lawyers, but will occassionally use other firms for subsidiary work that they are familiar with. At present, Herbert Smith is advising Hunt on specialist PFI work.

These relationships with law firms are likely to become increasingly important as the face of waste management changes. “I expect the European environmental regulatory regime to tighten. This will challenge further the role of Onyx,” says Hunt.

At the moment, there are more pressing matters, such as the activities of Greenpeace in Sheffield and the company’s involvement in the the creation of energy from waste. Onyx runs two energy-from-waste plants, one in South East London and one in Birmingham. Together, these generate 65 megawatts a year, which is enough to power 70,000 households during that time.

“On the Continent they’re much more clued-up about innovations in recycling,” says Hunt. Recycling, though, is not his first priority. “I’m very new here and want first to gain a deeper understanding of what the company is trying to achieve,” he explains.

So how did Hunt get mixed up in what could fairly be described as a load of old rubbish? Eighteen months ago he was head of corporate at Clarke Willmott & Clarke, a 40-partner firm in the South West. His background is in the City, however. He qualified at Rowe & Maw in 1981 and then joined the property department at Herbert Smith.

Hunt worked in institutional property for three years before making the move to the South West. “The move over to Clarke Willmott was a real cultural change. Taunton’s quite sleepy compared with London, but it’s a nice part of the world to live in and I spent 17 happy years there,” he says.
Towards the late 1980s Hunt found himself doing increasing amounts of corporate work, and so decided to move over to that sector officially, becoming head of corporate in 1993.
Despite being happy at the firm, Hunt found himself spending more and more time managing the team and appraising the work of others. “This took me further away from the clients,” he explains. “I sat down one day and made a list of what I liked about the job, which included meeting clients and becoming familiar with their aims and helping to fulfil them. I realised that there’s no better way to do this then by working in-house.” This realisation led Hunt to resign his post, and in April 2000 he spent time as the head of legal for education business Pearson Education.

Hunt recalls this period as providing him with great experience. “The job gave me the opportunity to see what it was like working in-house and to get some good experience under my belt,” he says. “I was in private practice for so long that there was a question as to whether the transition was even possible. Being in-house is a very different animal.”

Pearson owns Penguin Books and Hunt’s position at Pearson gave him the opportunity to also work in that legal department.

Hunt says he is much happier working in-house and confesses that it is a move he should have made years ago. “One of the things I like best about my job is that I’m facilitating and not obstructing business,” he says. “I’m perpetually making things happen but limiting the risk to the company. Basically, I’m offering risk management solutions and legal ways in which to tackle problems.

“So many lawyers just want to show off their knowledge, but in my experience this is something most people don’t want to know. What they care about is whether you’re able to do a certain contract for them while picking up the salient points.”

The role is clearly a demanding one. “Obviously, I need to be prepared to cope with a complete mix of problems,” says Hunt. “At the moment on my desk is a tender document to review and an opinion to read relating to a litigation. To say that I’m a jack of all trades is quite pejorative, but it’s true that I must be able to manage all legal functions from the company’s point of view.”

Vivendi as a group has legal counsel all over the world. Hunt recently had the opportunity to meet them all at a conference. “Even though I’m in-house, I’m part of a large support network,” he says. “But there’s no competitive angst; I’m part of the overall commercial thrust of the company.” In this sense, working as counsel for Onyx has given Hunt the best of both in-house and private practice and the worst of neither

He concludes: “I think about a decade ago, lawyers in private practice considered in-house to be a soft option. That’s simply not true. You’re still working to tight deadlines, and what’s more, the client is sitting right outside. You’re the front line.”
Robert Hunt
Head of legal
Onyx Environmental Group, part of Vivendi Environment, which is in turn part of Vivendi Universal

Organisation Onyx Environmental Group, part of Vivendi Environment, which is in turn part of Vivendi Universal
Sector Environmental
FTSE Ranking Listed on the French Bourse
Market Capitalisation euro17bn (£10bn) (Vivendi Environment)
Employees Around 9,000 in the UK and 56,000 worldwide
Legal Capability One solicitor, one employment specialist barrister and a personal assistant
Head of legal Robert Hunt
Reporting to Deputy chief executive John Kutner
Main location for lawyers Mile End, London
Main law firms Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Theodore Goddard and Boyes Turner