Food for thought: Gareth John, Sodexo

Gareth John

Gareth John

Standing by a football pitch on a wet Sunday afternoon may sound like some people’s idea of hell. For Gareth John, it is simply a ­different style of management.

Coaching an under-eights football team and acting as general counsel for Sodexo, one of the country’s largest ­facilities management (FM) company, have their own distinct challenges.
“It’s quite different to being a lawyer,” admits John, who joined the UK and Ireland arm of the French company in January and ­immediately set about changing the legal team.

A fully qualified FA coach, John is used to making changes to get results. Eight months into his job at Sodexo, he announced the new line-up of the firm’s external panel. And that was after moving the in-house team to one site at Sodexo’s London HQ.

“One reason was to harmonise things,” John says about the panel shake-up. “We have fewer firms, we can leverage the volume of work and the firms can really get to know our business.”
Sodexo is involved in such diverse sectors that both the legal team and external counsel have to be flexible to deal with whatever comes their way.

The company employs 43,000 people in the UK and Ireland, ­providing food and facilities management services at more than 2,300 locations. Sodexo’s business ranges from food and security at Royal Ascot and the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, to food for schools and universities, to a variety of services – laundry, receptionists, FM – in the healthcare, leisure and defence sectors.

Sodexo also operates four prisons in the UK and Ireland, adding a layer of more unusual work for the legal function.

Most of the 14-strong team’s work focuses on client contracts, which often service a mixture of public and private sites. These range from a straightforward catering job at a golf tournament to the UK’s largest PFI deal – the £12bn Defence Training College (DTC) in St Athan, South Wales.

The DTC is a big deal for both the company and the legal team. In ­February Sodexo won a 50 per cent equity stake in Metrix UK, the consortium appointed by the Ministry of Defence to manage, build and run the new academy, due to open in 2014.

“It’s a sign of the ambition of the organisation,” claims John. “We’re heavily involved as a participant in the consortium.”

Such complex PFI contracts throw up unusual legal clauses. In prisons and hospitals, for example, the ­triggers for payment can be related to the number of beds available.

And working on prison contracts that include the legal ramifications of death in custody is something new for the former Transport for London legal head.

“When you’re dealing with people in that environment, there are human resources issues that you need to be sensitive to,” says John. “We’re working in a heavily regulated ­environment and it’s important that all our lawyers have a general level of expertise in health and safety law, for example.”

The legal team is often put to work on large international bids, including prisons, pharmaceuticals companies and large, cross-border corporations.

Recently the team has been helping on the tender for a prison in South Africa, adding more variety to the pile of work in John’s in-tray.

Good news, says John, who is keen to get his team working closer with the international parts of the company. Sodexo operates 30,600 sites in 80 countries, and John believes this provides good opportunities for the lawyers in his team.

John speaks from experience: while working in his first in-house role at Hewlett-Packard he benefited from a secondment to the IT company’s Palo Alto headquarters.

“I’m keen to develop the international connections on the legal function,” he says. “Our business is seeing the biggest growth around multinational accounts, so it’s important that we get even better across boundaries.”

John has also established a ‘buddy scheme’, where a lawyer who works mainly in one sector ‘buddies up’ with a lawyer in another, so that knowledge is transferred between the two.
He is also reviewing the legal ­templates used throughout the business, bringing them up-to-date with the variety of work the company does.

John explains: “As the business grows the contracts forms have got to be flexible and more simple. That’s a large area of the business where we can add efficiency.”

Both on and off the pitch, this is one in-houser determined to find the winning formula for his team.

Name: Gareth John
Position: General counsel
Organisation: Sodexo UK and Ireland
Industry: Food and facilities management
Reporting to: Chief ­executive UK and ­Ireland Aidan Connolly
Company turnover: £1.1bn in the UK and Ireland
Total number of employees: 43,000
Total legal capability: 14
Main external law firms: Ashurst, Beachcroft, Eversheds, Davenport Lyons, Devonshires, DLA Piper, Lindsays, ­Shadbolt, SJ Berwin
Total legal spend: £4m (estimate)
1986-90: LLB (European) Hons, University of Exeter and Universite D’Aix-Marseille
1990-91: Law Society finals, College Of Law, London
Work history:
1992-97: Trainee/solicitor, Frere Cholmeley Bischoff
1997-2005: In-house counsel/head of legal, Hewlett-Packard UK and Ireland
2005-09: Director of legal and compliance, Transport for London
2009-present: General counsel and ­company secretary, Sodexo UK and Ireland