For the man credited with masterminding the resurgence of Lovells’ corporate practice with deals such as last month’s £7bn flotation of Granada, department head Hugh Nineham is remarkably modest. He warns me in advance that he doesn’t want this interview to be all about how he personally rescued the practice. In fact, that is not how he sees it at all.
“Any idea that we went through a trough in the past few years is not justified,” he says, citing the Granada example and the flotations of South African Breweries and Baltimore Technologies, which re-entered the FTSE 100 last week.
“To have floated three FTSE 100 companies in the past three years is something I don’t think any other firm can match. At least, there can’t be many,” he says. Barclays and Prudential are also among the firm’s FTSE 100 clients.
While Nineham has spearheaded a number of key deals over the last year – advising Barclays on its £5.6bn bid for Woolwich, Racal on the Thomson-CSF takeover bid and OM Group on its £900m bid for the London Stock Exchange – so too have his colleagues. Key deals in which Nineham has not been personally involved include advising Goldman Sachs on the flotation of Egg, Preussag on its $2.72bn (£1.87bn) cash acquisition of Thomson Travel in May and private equity giant Doughty Hansen & Co on its purchase of Rank Hovis McDougall Group. Microsoft also became a new client this year and was advised by Richard Ufland on its Telewest investment.
But Nineham is quick to admit that there was, and still is, room for improvement. Referring to a host of corporate league tables, he says: “Where I would like Lovells to be is in the four, five, six bracket, rather than in the six, seven, eight bracket.” And he sees two main ways of getting there. “We probably need to promote ourselves more actively. We need to be less shy about our skills and achievements. That’s a general statement about the firm. We’re not, I think, sufficiently recognised in the marketplace for the strengths that we’ve got.”
But the firm’s corporate clients seem well satisfied. It was Lazards that introduced Nineham to OM Group, having worked closely with him on the Granada transactions. Similarly, Goldman Sachs introduced the firm to Preussag.
“The Goldman connection has clearly grown this year,” he says. Fostering more relationships like it is his next ambition and one that could really transform the practice. “We need to recognise the importance of investment banks as a sector to introduce new clients. We need to work on developing our relationships with a wider number of investment banks.”
Nineham recognises that it is an objective which sits a little awkwardly with the firm’s avowedly modest culture. After all, a firm’s stars often appear central in such relationships.
Nineham says: “We support each other rather than elbowing each other out of the way. It’s a very collegiate and supportive culture. We haven’t perhaps tended, as other firms have, to push forward individuals as star performers.”
Nineham points out that a more reluctant star than his predecessor Dan Mace, now acting as a consultant to the firm, would be difficult to imagine.
Nevertheless, he hopes to find a way of putting the names of Lovells’ corporate partners on the tips of tongues in the investment banking world.
“I am very keen that every partner in the practice has his or her chance to develop a reputation they all deserve, without being actively pushed forward in one way or another,” he says.
Beyond these tasks, Nineham wants to see further development of Lovells’ European, Asian and North American capabilities. “Part of the way we can promote ourselves is to show the market an effective and co-ordinated international network.”
Following the merger with Boesebeck Droste last year, he is already working closely with his German colleagues on work such as OM Group’s London Stock Exchange bid. A German corporate partner is now resident in London and two English partners from Nineham’s practice are working in Frankfurt.
Nineham is a Lovells man through and through. After completing his traineeship with the firm, he spent two years in its then one-partner New York office, advising US clients on English law transactions. Tenneco, General Foods and Merck remain clients today.
In 1985, Nineham went to Hong Kong as a partner to set up the Lovells’ corporate practice there.
Since his return 10 years ago, he has worked exclusively in the mainstream corporate practice area, doing M&A transactions and flotations. He became head of corporate in May 1999, but he comes across as a reluctant manager.
“My real preference is doing client work, so anything else I do in the firm has to be in the time which that permits. I hope I fall short on the firm’s business, not client work.”
His work leaves him little time for his favourite pass times of trout fishing, walking, music, art and theatre. He apologises for being a bore, but a little gentle persuasion from Diane Alger, the marketing representative sitting in on the interview, confirms that he is anything but. “Tell her about your trip,” she urges.
It takes further prompting before the ever-modest Nineham reveals what he got up to during a seven-month sabbatical last year. Four weeks in the Australian outback with his family were followed by three weeks trekking in Nepal with a friend.
“Even if anyone had wanted to get hold of me they wouldn’t have been able to,” he laughs.
To complete the break, he indulged in some art history classes at the V&A, choosing early renaissance and 18th century.
But now back at the helm again, things are a little different. “I think I’ve fished for about 10 minutes this year,” he says.
Head of corporate