Jonathan Fox, new chief executive of Collyer-Bristow, likes to think of his new firm as a little dog. Unfortunately he does not specify which particular breed – shih-tzu are terribly fashionable this season – but I think it’s fair to say that he’s thinking terrier rather than toy poodle.`This is all part of the Fox theory of business, which he has labelled the big dog, little dog syndrome. The idea is that the little dog can sneak up underneath the big dog and bite it, taking away small chunks of flesh. The big dog is powerless to do anything about it as the little dog is below and the big dog is not nimble enough.
You might have guessed by now that Fox is not a lawyer, but a marketeer by training and is as fond of his diagrams as many of his breed. Most of these involve semicircles dissected by lines – why is it that in any management training/marketing/business theory, circles are always good whereas straight lines are bad? And do ruler manufacturers agree?
He has been brought in by Collyer-Bristow to improve client care in recognition that the market is changing and the little dog needs to have tungsten dentures fitted – my analogy, not his.
Fox’s last job was as client care manager for Barclays at DLA, a firm that he believes thoroughly understands client care.
“I used to surprise clients when I first called them up,” says Fox with a smile. “DLA as a firm spends about 2,500 partner hours a year on managing relationships. The number of times the client has asked why are you calling me and how much is it going to cost? I would explain the call cost nothing and I was just calling to see whether everything was okay.”
Leaving DLA was a tough decision and Fox greatly enjoyed his time there working with managing partner Nigel Knowles, whom he describes as “truly inspirational”. But after nearly four years it was time to move on.
Three years ago few in the legal profession had heard of CRM (client relationship management). Now everyone wants a piece of it, and Fox says those firms that carry it out, rather than merely purport to, will steal a march on their rivals. To help achieve this, he believes that client care should be taught in law school alongside business lectures so that wannabe lawyers can see the bigger picture from day one.
It would be easy to assume from Fox’s appointment that Collyer-Bristow’s client care programme is lacking, but he maintains otherwise. “Collyer-Bristow has got it right but in a different way [from the likes of Clifford Chance]. In a small firm there is no fat in the system and it can’t afford to get it wrong. This firm has been going for 250 years and from the same building for the past 160 so it has a certain style of approach and a certain way of doing things. It’s a personal service – you are not coming into a big sausage factory.”
It’s the sort of firm where senior partner Roger Woolfe still has one client who first came to the firm 30 years ago and, says Fox, support staff know what each client likes to drink. One even requests a particular brand of coffee.
“In this day and age,” says Fox, “you can buy anything. I have got by for 34 years without buying anything ‘last minute’ [as in dotcom]. There will be a return to traditional service lines. Why do you go to your local boutique or delicatessen? Because the man there knows what you like. That approach is our type of organisation.”
This obsession with CRM explains why Fox has taken a tiny office just to the right of the front door, which at the moment looks bare. But he wants to know what goes on in reception – which I’m sure must scare the nice receptionist silly.`The few bits that Fox has already moved into the broom cupboard seem saturated in meaning. There is a photocopied piece on cost by John Ruskin, given to him by a DLA colleague, stuck to a small pinboard. Part of it reads: “The common law of business balance prohibits paying too little and getting a lot, it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”
Fox once used the piece in a presentation document to a client when he was at DLA – the client recognised the origin of the piece and the firm won the work.
By contrast, next to Ruskin’s words is a picture of a rather tired looking Fox standing next to DJ Chris Evans, looking, well, like he often looks, with pint in hand. That, he explains, is an aide-mémoire of a life outside the office and was taken after Evans, a friend of his brother, took him on a binge that lasted from Friday night to Sunday morning. Well, ladies and gentlemen, wouldn’t you all try to leave the office earlier if you too could spend the weekend with Chris Evans?
But do not judge this man by the company he keeps. Fox, for all the marketing gobbledegook, is a nice guy. And behind the gobbledegook is substance – the man is only 34 but has persuaded Collyer-Bristow to take him on in a role which traditionally has been viewed with scepticism by some lawyers. Is he not worried about being both a non-lawyer and a mere whippersnapper in his role?`”There will be some resentment about my age and non-lawyer background. What I am very pleased about is that they had wanted someone older, but this job is energy-sapping and they don’t want someone who is coasting towards retirement.”
Besides, he adds, there is a recognition within the firm that “lawyers can’t run a bath let alone a business” and, with a head full of management theory plus a bit of practice, Fox believes he is a good bet.`Fox decided to take the job after talking to the professor with whom he did his business PhD.
“As a 23 year old, I said to him that one day I was going to be a chief executive of a big firm and he replied ‘Yes I really believe that you believe you will be’.
“When I asked him whether I should take this job, he reminded me of the conversation and added, ‘You have got to be chief exec of a small firm before a big firm’.”
Before DLA, Fox worked in the marketing department of Boots, where he looked after the No 7 cosmetic range. This background means, girls, that he knows everything there is to know about lipstick and also has a huge stash of cosmetics in his bachelor pad, which he admits recently shocked a new girlfriend.
It has to be said that for sheer pulling-power a marketing job in law surely does not rate as highly as one in which you can get free eye shadow, but Fox believes that law is the only area left for marketeers who want to make their mark. He cannot understand why more of his contemporaries are not champing at the bit to get into the sector.
He believes there will be many more people like him running law firms in five years, especially if the market moves towards multidisciplinary practices.
“The true MDP is a tremendous advantage for people like me to run things. That for me is more exciting than Procter & Gamble saying to me we’ll pay you £100,000 to sell soap powder because it’s all been done. There isn’t a text book on this.”
Now if you think a marketeer attempting to tell lawyers how to run their business is foolhardy, wait until you hear Fox’s long-term ambition.
He wants to open a small restaurant in Dijon, France, selling English food to the French. Call for the men in white coats.