Innovation is the name of the game at Dyson, and that goes for GC Martin Bowen’s legal set-up too.
British technology firm Dyson is a household brand in the UK. For many, it epitomises innovation and creativity, traits that seep into the running of the in-house legal team led by general counsel Martin Bowen.
When Bowen joined Dyson in 1998 as a contract lawyer from Osborne Clarke the company operated in six countries and had just three vacuum cleaners in its portfolio. Back then the business generated revenues of £100m annually. Move forward 17 years and it is a global giant operating in 71 countries with annual revenues of £2bn.
As the company has grown, so Bowen has moved up the ranks. After being named group general counsel in 2009 he joined Dyson’s executive team as company secretary. He sits at the top of Dyson alongside chief executive Max Conze, chief financial officer, John Shipsey, and six other directors.
Having a general counsel on the executive board is a reflection of just how important the legal team is to Dyson. It started with a team of three lawyers and now has nearly 50 working globally.
“For the legal team it’s exciting but also challenging,” says Bowen.
The team works on products from beginning to end – that is, from the invention stage, through the design process, up to marketing and distribution in key geographical markets.
Martin Bowen, Dyson
Title: General counsel and company secretary
Reports to: Chief executive Max Conze
Number of employees: 6,000
Size of legal team: 47
Annual legal spend: £13m
Main external firms: Drinker Biddle Reith, Kirkland & Ellis, Osborne Clarke, Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co
In 2013 Bowen took time out to question how the in-house function was managed. He says the team was there to support new technology.
“We wanted to know how that could be commercialised,” he says.
The answer was to overhaul the team and over the next two years a new structure was installed.
“First, we needed to get our lawyers close to the geographic markets they support and especially so in the culturally diverse Asia Pacific region,” he explains. “Second, because our business is all about amazing products I wanted to ensure we were giving the right support to help speed the route to market. That meant giving our lawyers responsibility for product areas and categories as well as holding a geographic responsibility.”
The only area that is exempt from this is employment law.
“It means we can get in early in the design process,” Bowen explains. “We can talk to engineers or to marketers to assess what a successful outcome looks like and offer business support and facilitation along those lines.”
The restructure was not universally popular at first, Bowen recalls: “It was met with the usual – ‘why do we need lawyers so early?’”
He says lawyers had to work hard to win the confidence of the research and development teams, encouraging them to welcome a new team member – a lawyer rather than an engineer.
“The benefit would be that we’d help them scout for legal tripwires early, then avoid them. With our whole-business perspective we can help knit the team together by offering an informed view of all of the issues faced by various stakeholders in the product development process,” he says. “The benefits for the team were that they got close to the heart of the business: innovation.”
Bowen believes the restructure has been a “rip-roaring success”.
“We’ve shown we’re well aware of how products play out in the market,” he says.
As well as benefitting the company, he believes it has helped Dyson retain legal talent and upskill the in-house team.
“For the lawyers it’s tremendously stimulating,” he explains. “It means you’re not just involved when things go wrong. They’ve helped shape the product, using skills to prevent problems arising.”
With a legal team of just 47 serving a £2bn worldwide business, there is little doubt that if you’re in-house at Dyson you’re at the top of your game.
As well as his team in the UK, Bowen has a group of lawyers around the globe. The commercial legal team is made up of five lawyers based at the UK HQ as well as three in the US with two paralegals, three in Singapore and Malaysia, two in China and one in Japan.
The patent team is also based at the company headquarters and is made up of nine patent attorneys.
As group general counsel Bowen takes responsibility for IP security and information management on a global basis. He has four information management specialists, two of whom are based in the UK, with one each in the US and Singapore.
He has a small legal leadership team reporting directly to him that includes US general counsel Jason Brown, Asia Pacific general counsel Rowland Samosir, Europe general counsel Gwen Mahe and UK and group support general counsel Chris Lewis.
“We’re not prepared to pay for bloated legal teams and add-ons if we’re not getting the expertise”
Outside the pure legal function his direct reports include: global data protection manager Leanne Bridges, who specialises in governance, assurance and the protection of information and rights; IP director Gill Smith; and security director Adam Honor.
Intellectual property is a material risk to the Dyson business and taken seriously at every level. The company battled with Hoover in 2000, instructing Olswang to bring patent infringement proceedings against its arch-rival over the design of its bagless cleaner, Vortex. Bowen was part of the team that famously defeated Hoover in the High Court.
“Intellectual property is at the heart of everything we do,” Bowen says.
Nowadays, the threat comes from copycat manufacturers in China. Bowen says the company has a global intelligence network that feeds back any potential infringements. The work is never-ending.
“It’s a bit like that game, whack-a-mole,” he smiles. “You hit one and another pops up.” That said, he believes the company has had a net positive impact on reducing the number of infringers.
Asia Pacific is a key growth area for Dyson, where revenues are up 20 per cent year-on-year. The in-house team is adding a new lawyer every year to deal with the growth.
With such a range of legal challenges you might expect Dyson to have a global roster of big-name law advisers but its panel is informal at best, with Bowen opting to use a range of firms to encourage competition.
In the US principal advisers include Kirkland & Ellis and Philadelphia firm Drinker Biddle & Reath. In the UK Bowen will instruct lawyers at Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co as well as his former firm Osborne Clarke.
Bowen says firms need to do “something special” to get regular instructions from Dyson as it has a preference for individual expertise.
“I assess it with the management group on a periodic basis,” he says. “What we need is true expertise. We like individuals in those firms with knowledge and expertise. We follow individuals from firm to firm.”
‘Value-add’ offers from firms such as free training may be attractive, but are not the be-all and end-all.
“We’re prepared to pay for real expertise,” says Bowen. “We’re not prepared to pay for bloated teams and the add-ons and extras if we’re not getting the expertise.”
Like many of his in-house peers Bowen says firms are looking more closely at how they bill clients and becoming more flexible on fees.
He highlights Wragges as a firm
that has come out fighting in this area.
Bowen reels off a list of positives coming from private practice: pricing according to work done rather than hourly rate; pricing according to jurisdiction; taking on risks; implementing a cap on rates.
“I’m pleasantly surprised to say that firms have changed,” he says. “As firms have merged and consolidated there has been more competition between them. At the same time clients have become more sophisticated and attuned to the needs of their business. It means that they are formidable as clients. [Firms] that have adapted will win.”
It is clear that Bowen is a huge technology geek. One of the highlights of his job is to watch a product coalesce from a germ of an idea to being on the shelf.
Bowen is fortunate that Dyson founder James Dyson is a fan of the legal world and what it can do to protect a business. That means he has been given carte blanche to build a legal team that is every bit as innovative as the business itself.
November 2009-present: Group general counsel, Dyson Group
2003-2009: Group legal director, Dyson Ltd
1998-2003: Commercial lawyer, Dyson Ltd
1994-1997: Solicitor, Osborne Clarke