GE whizz

GE Capital European general counsel Susan Crichton’s policy of seeking a firm on a job-by-job basis ensures that lawyers are kept on their toes. Emma Vere-Jones reports

When asked why she did not initially study law at university, Susan Crichton admits: “I didn’t want to be a solicitor.” It is a rather surprising response from a woman who is now European general counsel for GE Capital’s Global Consumer Finance (GCF) arm.

But following a three-year training contract at Midland Bank after she left university, she changed her mind – and her decision is obviously not one that she regrets.

For the past year Crichton has been the GCF arm’s general counsel for Europe and an in-house lawyer with the GCF team for three years previous to that. These days, she oversees around 60 lawyers based in seven different countries.

Prior to joining GE Capital, Crichton was European counsel for consumer finance company Avco Trust. Her focus has always been in-house; the only time she worked in private practice was during her articles, which she spent at Oxford firm Bower & Bailey. “I’ve always preferred commercial work and I wanted to be part of a business,” she explains.

Today Crichton is part of a very large business indeed. GE Capital’s GCF UK operation is the leading provider of credit for retailers in the country, handling more than 15 million accounts. Clients include a variety of large high street retailers such as Debenhams and House of Frasier. The company also offers retail finance in the automotive industry for both new and used cars.

Internationally, the GCF arm has clients in 28 countries, 35 million customers and boasts assets of $30bn (£20.5bn).
It is rare for GCF’s in-house department to work with other GE Capital legal departments, although in October last year the team worked with other GE Capital in-house teams on the acquisition of Heller Financial for $5.3bn (£3.6bn). “We worked to get regulatory approval throughout Europe,” says Crichton.

The various teams, however, do meet up on a regular basis for best practice workshops and ongoing training. Indeed, staff training is a very important aspect of GE Capital’s ethos. “I think it’s a key differentiation of our in-house team,” says Crichton. All GE Capital GCF staff are trained to use the six-sigma quality methodology – and the legal team is no exception.

Six-sigma is a training tool designed to minimise errors in work and increase productivity – sometimes by up to 20 per cent. “It means our lawyers are all trained in the same way,” says Crichton. “It gives you conformity throughout the team, which allows us to achieve the highest possible standards.”

Training sessions aside, however, Crichton says the team works very much within the GCF “bubble”. And it looks like the team has its hands full without having to worry about any of the other GE businesses.

This is largely due to GE Capital’s strategy for growth: get big through acquisition. It has made more than 400 acquisitions over the past 10 years. In the past year, the GCF arm has made two major acquisitions within the UK and the work has taken up a large proportion of the team’s time.
The most recent of these acquisitions was the purchase of Kingfisher’s in-house finance operation Time Retail Finance for £149m. The acquisition, which was completed in January this year, was in conjunction with the formation of service agreements with B&Q and Comet to provide retail financial services to their customers.

But even more time-consuming for Crichton’s team was the £3bn purchase of mortgage business iGroup last year. iGroup was purchased when GE Capital bought Malvern House Acquisition, iGroup’s holding company, which focuses on lending to the ‘non-conforming’ sector of the market – those eight million individuals in the UK that do not meet traditional lenders’ credit-scoring criteria. For this deal Crichton instructed Weil Gotshal & Manges as the main adviser, with the in-house team covering some of the regulatory aspects itself.

After two major acquisitions within the last 12 months, one might think the team would be taking it easy for a while. But it soon becomes obvious that this is not the case.

A large amount of the team’s time is spent working towards what Crichton describes as the “major initiatives of the business”. They include strategic planning and production, digitisation and acquisition. The team is currently carrying out the digitisation process throughout Europe; it also has a large ongoing litigation project in Hungary.

The company does not have a panel of firms that it instructs. “It’s really horses for courses,” says Crichton, who adds that she prefers not to have formal ties with just a few firms. “The decision for instruction is very dependent on the type of work being done.”

However, Crichton does instruct Weil Gotshal & Manges on a large proportion of the company’s US matters. In the UK, a lot of the corporate work goes to Slaughter and May, while Clifford Chance advises on a large proportion of the intellectual property, IT and outsourcing work.

Crichton also prefers to choose each firm on the basis of its strength in a particular jurisdiction, rather than using just a single firm in as many jurisdictions as possible. “We look for experts in a particular jurisdiction and a particular practice area – and that isn’t always the large firms,” she notes.

But finding firms that measure up can sometimes be a little tricky. Top-notch lawyers in the consumer finance area are few and far between, she believes. “There’s a gap in the market in consumer credit advice. This is because it’s not a very glamorous area of law,” laughs Crichton.

As well as instructing external firms, the team also brings a significant amount of work in-house. “We try to play to our strengths – data protection… those kind of issues,” states Crichton.

And as for things coming up in the next few months? Crichton is unable say too much about what the team is specifically working on at the moment. “But to give you a helicopter view,” she says, “it’s just following the major initiatives of the business.” One can only assume that the next acquisition is not too far away.
Susan Crichton
General counsel for Europe
GE Capital Global Consumer Finance

Organisation GE Capital Global Consumer Finance
Sector Consumer Finance
Employees Approximately 10,000 throughout Europe
Legal capability Approximately 60 (Global Consumer Finance arm only)
General counsel for Europe Susan Crichton
Reporting to Chief executive officer Dan O’Conner
Main law firms Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May (UK); Weil Gotshal & Manges (US); the company also uses a wide range of firms worldwide