Stoic”, a “tower of strength”, “he's cemented the foundations of Eversheds“…
This is how colleagues see the man who is about to step down as the managing partner of Eversheds' £250m bus-iness. A fatherly type, who peers at me over glasses perched characteristically on the end of his nose, David Ansbro has that unfazed 'seen it all' air about him. Job done, he is ready to pack up and go home to Yorkshire, leaving behind the riverside City flat and the firm – well, almost.
Ansbro will be at Eversheds one day a week, working on independent client reviews. Golf will also feature, but he won't be putting his feet up the rest of the time: Ansbro has just been reappointed as pro-chancellor/chairman of Leeds University until 2006; he will also become a trustee of the Henry Moore Trust and a consultant to property consultancy Bidwells. One or two more irons are also in the fire.
It is January when we first meet (four months from handover), but Ansbro has clearly made the psychological break already and tactfully suggests that I defer any questions on future Eversheds strategy to his sucessor David Gray.
His departure marks the end of an era for the national giant. Four years ago a group comprising Adrian Bland, Michael Brown, John Heaps, David Vokes, Colin Brown and Geoff Harrison produced the blueprint for an integrated Eversheds. A few months later, Ansbro accepted the top job, becoming the first firm-wide managing partner on 1 May 2000. He appointed Colin Brown and Harrison as his right hand men. Next month he will hand the reins to Gray's executive team.
While he will clearly be missed, Ansbro says he will not look back as it isn't in his nature. What he will say is that the last three years have been the happiest of his working life. “And I've never had an unhappy working life,” he emphasises, although he later hints that his pre-Eversheds career in the public sector was far from a bed of roses at times.
Ansbro always planned to retire after three years of running the firm. “If I'd gone into it knowing I needed to get elected for another three years, I might have done things differently, with an eye to whichever constituency I needed to satisfy,” he says. In fact, keeping himself out of such politicking has been a hallmark of Ansbro's leadership style.
For a man so synonymous with Eversheds, Ansbro arrived relatively late on the scene. He was chief executive officer of three local authorities – York, Kirklees and Leeds – before joining the firm. I suggest that his experience of coping with the prima donna tendencies of local politicians stood him in good stead for managing some 300 partners. “Making the transition into a professional partnership wasn't that strange,” is as far as he will go.
Ansbro joined Eversheds' Leeds member Hepworth & Chadwick in 1991 with a mandate to develop a public sector practice. Within a couple of years he took on the Leeds managing partner role and from there oversaw the merger of the Leeds and Manchester offices. “I allegedly had some management experience from my previous life,” he says – and presumably enough experience by 2000 to have first crack at the position of Eversheds managing partner. Simultaneously, seven regional practices moved to a single balance sheet.
Looking at the firm three years on, it is easy to forget the scale of Ansbro's task: in short, getting the new firm to behave as a single business, creating a single financial structure and a new streamlined management. He will hand over a delicately balanced matrix structure defined by practice groups and geography and a management culture committed firmly to communicating strategy across the partnership.
“David was such a good person for that stage of development,” comments one partner. “We didn't need someone going on all cylinders, dragging the firm in a different direction every six months. We needed someone who would cement the foundations and create the platform on which to build. That was always going to be a two to three-year project.”
It has inevitably been a period of naval-gazing. “To begin with, we had to be a bit inward-looking,” Ansbro says. Tangible results have included a redesigned profit-sharing system, voted in at the end of 2001, which has increased dramatically the merit-based element of partner remuneration. Two offices are currently at a lower level in the new scheme, but will be brought in fully in 2004.
Some of the toughest decisions any business will face have been made on Ansbro's watch. “It's not all peaches and cream,” he admits. The epitome of an iron fist in a velvet glove, he has restructured the partnership and reshaped the business. Ansbro has guided the firm through a cull of 10 per cent of its equity partnership, implemented office closures in Bristol, Derby and Teesside and cut away non-core areas, such as mainstream private client and family law, to focus on more lucrative commercial areas.
Putting people out of a job is “the worst thing you have to do”, he says. “It's a business decision, not a personal decision, but once you've made the business decision, you have to ask, 'Is it fair to the individual?'” Keeping a human face is deeply important to him. “In the five years that I was managing partner of Leeds and Manchester, 20 people left the equity. Only one of that 20 wouldn't have a drink with me now,” he says.
Other low points have included last year's collapse of Eversheds' alliance with Dutch firm Boekel De Nerée. “There's no point putting sticking plaster over something,” is Ansbro's typically down-to-earth response. “Hindsight's a wonderful tool. I don't think we gave enough time to our Dutch colleagues to lay the groundwork for working more closely together.” Eversheds did form an alliance with Italian firm Piergrossi Villa Bianchini Riccardi last year, and more recently reached a less formal arrangement with Qatar firm Al-Jufairi. If there is any blot on the Ansbro copybook, though, it has been the failure to juggle the firm's internal preoccupations with fully achieving its international ambitions. Talks in Germany are progressing and if successful a deal would make a more fitting conclusion to Ansbro's term of office.
Whatever the outcome, however, it is arguably Ansbro's approachability and talent for listening that will be remembered by the firm. As one partner puts it: “You can go in to David and say, 'Shut the door, I need your help', and he's 100 per cent behind you. He may think you're an idiot, but he's 100 per cent behind you and committed to you as an individual.”
Eversheds managing partner elect David Gray is midway through a road show tour of Eversheds, briefing partners about the firm's business plan and budget for the next 12 months.
It is a lifestyle he is becoming increasingly accustomed to. Throughout last year's election campaign and the months since he beat London managing partner Michael Brown to the top job, Gray has been getting to know every far-flung corner of the firm – and it him. Indeed, sources point to his active campaigning style as something that helped give him the edge in a fiercely competed election battle last autumn. “My focus was on getting in front of the equity partners and listening to what they had to say,” he tells me.
At first glance, it seems that Eversheds partners voted to trade one matter-of-fact Yorkshireman called Dave for another. Their careers have also been interwoven. But in place of Ansbro's quiet, considered enthusiasm for the firm, Gray is far more animated and vocal in his passion for Eversheds.
“I've been in the business for 26 years. I'm passionate about the business. The opportunity to be right at the heart of taking the business forward was too good to miss,” Gray says, sounding dangerously like William Hague. Snide comments aside, Gray's energy and enthusiasm for the… er… business, feels genuine enough.
“David Gray's a different guy [to David Ansbro] in many ways. He has a very positive energy that inspires other people. David Ansbro did that in a different way, by making himself a fantastic role model. David Gray's energy will inspire people and take them forward,” says new Leeds and Manchester managing partner Stephen Hopkins.
Colleagues also contrast Ansbro's dry sense of humour to Gray's panache for sending himself up. It seems their incoming managing partner is known not only as a class corporate lawyer, but for turning a mean cabaret act in drag – all in the name of team building, of course.
Gray joined Hepworth & Chadwick in 1977, becoming a partner five years later. His career since then shows him to be a model Evershedian: head of corporate for Leeds and Manchester from 1995 and for the whole firm from 1999, before stepping into Ansbro's shoes as a regional managing partner three years ago. “I worked closely with David [Ansbro] for most of his career with us. I regard him extremely highly. His approach to people is fantastic. He's got no status consciousness. He speaks to everyone as equals, which I hope I do as well,” Gray says. The Ansbro touch seems to have rubbed off. Hopkins describes Gray as a leader with a “genuine interest in people and in investing in people”.
Gray married the first female trainee employed in the Leeds office. “[It was] a sad reflection of my social life at the time,” he jokes. He and Julie co-own a racehorse and after the election result Gray could not resist going against his Yorkshireman's thrifty instincts by splashing out on a second horse for his wife. “It was a thank you for putting up with me during the election process,” he says.
Eversheds itself also emerged from the election in need of a little pampering. In a firm that is really only three years old, the process brought underlying tensions and anxieties to the surface. Recruiters readied themselves for a rush of partners eager to ship out.
Many in the Brown camp feared Gray would champion the regions to the detriment of the practice groups, for example. Gray is keen to dispel this and emphasises the importance of the practice group leaders – the key group understood to have been overwhelmingly in the Brown camp. “Once the election result was known, I think people thought, 'let's get behind the next managing partner',” says Gray. “I don't see it as a big issue. What I'm certain about is that those practice group heads are completely and utterly behind me.
“The practice group heads have increasing importance in terms of driving the business forward. [Brown and I] would both be saying the same things in terms of practice group heads, but you forget geography at your peril – it's where people feel at home and where a lot of our business is won.” To this end, the role of the regional managing partners as local profile-raisers is being stressed more.
Gray will now have the power to appoint practice group leaders of his own choosing, but the incumbents look safe: he does not envisage any changes beyond the appointments to his core executive team. The key change there was the appointment of Cardiff ma-naging partner Bryan Hughes, who worked closely with Gray on his election campaign, as head of operations, replacing Colin Brown, who becomes managing partner for Paris.
Geographical splits also emerged during the campaign, with London and Birmingham partners voting overwhelmingly for Brown, while the rest of the regional offices were largely for Gray. Unsurprisingly, Gray is eager to put it behind him. “There was a partnership conference shortly after the election result. What I said there was that the views of people around the business were consistent. I got to a point [before the election] where I wasn't sure whether I was in Cardiff, Norwich or wherever,” he says. Gray clearly knows how to talk the talk, and has made the shrewd move of getting London managing partner Brown on-side. “He and I have spent quite a lot of time together and he'll be a key part of the team going forward,” adds Gray.
So what will Eversheds look like under its new managing partner? As The Lawyer reveals today, it will almost certainly be Eversheds' LLP (limited-liability partnership).
But do not expect any major strategic shifts just yet. The message is one of stability and continuity. Expansion in London and internationally remain at the top of the agenda. New selling teams have been put in place for Europe and the US. So where does this leave the regions? Will Eversheds still be a 10-office firm in the UK in 10 years? Or will there be six offices? “I honestly don't know about the UK, but what I'm certain about is that we'll have more offices outside the UK,” Gray says.
Eversheds is currently waiting for a licence to open in Shanghai and is understood to be close to announcing an alliance in Germany. Scotland and Spain are next on the list. “I'd like Eversheds to be a serious international player, seriously differentiated by its service ethos and approach,” says Gray.
The potential is there, but Gray will need all his enthusiasm and passion to hold together Eversheds' delicate matrix to realise these goals.
|Eversheds: then and now|
Number of UK offices: 13
International capability: Offices in Brussels, Copenhagen, Monaco and Paris and alliances with Georgiev Todorov & Co in Bulgaria, Dutch firm Boekel De Nerée and Singapore firm Khattar Wong & Partners.
Number of equity partners: 196
Number of fixed share partners: 127
Number of UK offices: 10
International capability: Looking for new Dutch partner after Boekel alliance was called off; new alliances with Italy's Piergrossi Villa Bianchini Riccardi and Qatar firm Al-Jufairi; awaiting a licence to open in Shanghai; still in talks in Germany; Spain and Scotland next in terms of priority.
Number of equity partners: 173
Number of fixed share partners: 164