Gareth Williams, head of legal at the UK’s largest estate agency Countrywide, takes a no-nonsense approach to the legal function, says Andrew Pugh
If you are looking to curry favour with Countrywide legal chief Gareth Williams then be warned – wining and dining will not get you very far.
“I don’t like all the trimmings and I don’t go in for corporate hospitality,” says the straight-talking Welshman. “I have good relationships with the lawyers we use, but I really just want to talk about the work and then move on to the next task.”
It is easy to see why firms would be keen to court Williams. While the housing market continues to struggle – reports last week claimed that mortgage lending is growing
at its slowest rate in 10 years – Countrywide appears firmly committed to its model of cautious acquisitions and growing market share.
As the UK’s largest estate agency, the company already has more than 1,300 estate agency and lettings offices operating under 46 local high street brands. It is also the UK’s largest regional auctioneer.
In July Countrywide bought Letmore Group, the largest independent specialist lettings agency in East London and Essex. In June it acquired Hamptons International. As with the Letmore purchase, the Hamptons acquisition, which added another 80 branches in the UK and overseas, was part of the company’s ambition to expand into the high-end property market. The same goes for the acquisition in March of the rights to grow the Sotheby’s International Realty franchise in the UK, including the prestigious Mayfair branch.
The company now appears to be in good health, although recent years have not been without their difficulties. The biggest upheaval Williams has experienced during his 10 years at the company came in 2007, when it went from a plc to private ownership. After a long-running bidding war between private equity companies 3i and Apollo Management, the latter eventually bought Countrywide for around £1bn in May 2007.
For Williams it was familiar territory. He left Reynolds Porter Chamberlain in 1996 to move in-house at Thorn EMI. Shortly after his arrival the firm demerged into EMI Group plc and Thorn plc, with Williams becoming legal head at Thorn. In 1998 Thorn was acquired by a subsidiary of Nomura Group, and was later passed to UK private equity house Terra Firma Capital Partners. Thorn was involved in restructuring and selling off parts of the business, but by 2000 “I felt I’d reached the end of the road and was ready to move on”, says Williams.
“What first attracted me to Countrywide was the management team, the fact it was listed and that the role had a company secretarial element,” he explains.
So does life change when you go from being part of a public to a private company?
“I suppose plcs can be a bit more institutional and more interested in earnings and stability, so there’s less pressure to change,” says Williams. “Being owned by private equity gives a sense of urgency.
“Private equity investors like to see continual change and more accountability. That means I’m doing more commercial work and less governance and secretarial. We try to maintain a ’big company’ feel but it’s not as onerous now as it was becoming.”
It has not been plain sailing for Apollo since it acquired Countrywide at the height of the housing market boom, and Williams admits that “no one could foresee how bad the market would become”.
“A business like ours depends on transactions, which meant we had to let a lot of people go,” he adds.
Around 1,500 jobs were reportedly axed, but the housing collapse also meant that by 2009 Apollo was struggling with the company’s debts. A scheme of arrangement was implemented that year that restructured its debt and equity, and saw US private equity house Oaktree Capital inject around £75m of fresh equity and take about 35 per cent of the business. It also cut the company’s debt from £750m to £175m, and left Apollo with a less than 30 per cent stake.
“The market has taken a downturn but a good business will get through that,” insists Williams. “We have a much better balance sheet and we’re in a much stronger position.”
He uses outside counsel for big-ticket work, using firms such as Ashurst, Linklaters and Slaughter and May. While he does not have a formal panel, Williams insists no one firm has a monopoly on outsourced work, and he knows what he wants from his external advisers.
“We’re obviously after value for money and lawyers who aren’t afraid to offer a view instead of just giving us the facts and asking us to decide,” he says. “Sometimes I need them to drop everything for us – that’s really important. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a firm that wasn’t able to do that.”
Name: Gareth Williams
Position: Head of legal and company secretary
Sector: Property services
Reporting to: Group finance officer Jim Clarke
Company turnover: £446m
Number of employees: 7,500
Legal capability: Six lawyers, two support staff
Legal spend: £50,000 plus individual budget for projects
Main law firms:Ashurst, DWF, Linklaters, Slaughter and May