Sarah Booth: Sodexho Group

Service provider Sodexho has overhauled its legal function in the past few years to cope with the challenges of a diverse business.

The Sodexho Group legal team has experienced a dramatic refocus during the past four years. Since joining the group in 2004, general counsel Sarah Booth has overhauled the 12-lawyer team.

As a result five members now physically sit within the company’s five key divisions – namely business and industry, defence, Calyx correctional facilities, leisure facilities, and healthcare.

This has enabled Booth to close the gap between the legal function and Sodexho’s daily operations. The remaining seven in-house lawyers support those divisions on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s crucial my team is a part of the divisions they represent,” Booth explains. “While the legal function was organised along these lines before I joined, it needed to be honed and reinforced. We’ve been successful in achieving this.”

Sodexho’s business is diverse and incorporates servicing prisons, catering, waste disposal and maintenance of educational facilities. The group employs some 34,000 staff.

As a national service provider operating in such a wide range of areas, the in-house legal team has a lot of ground to cover.

Ensuring her team covers this ground successfully has been at the core of Booth’s efforts since joining the group.

“The whole team works together in one office, but in terms of the day-to-day running of each of Sodexho’s business divisions, each lawyer is very much a part of each area,” outlines Booth. “It hasn’t been easy embedding this strategy during the last few years; it’s been a gradual process, but one that’s been well worth it.”

The legal team has regular meetings to discuss challenges and issues in each division. Booth, who has a place on the management board, reports back to the board with any suggestions for change or issues that need to be addressed.

“Being part of the regular management meetings is also a key part of being integrated into the wider business,” insists Booth. “We don’t want to be separate and feel on the edge of the business. I think my presence on the executive helps towards our goal tremendously.”

After training at Dickson Minto, Booth’s in-house career began at logistics company Christian Salvesen. Having joined the company in 1991, Booth took up the post of legal director in 1997 when Christian Salvesen demerged its generator hire business Aggreko.

After supporting the UK and Continental Europe arms of the business for two years, Booth’s responsibilities widened to include acquisition and development strategy.

“My time at Christian Salvesen was excellent because the company experienced a lot of change during my tenure. The demerger was very interesting and presented numerous challenges for the in-house team,” Booth recalls.

Before joining Sodexho, Booth was general counsel and company secretary at technology company Damovo, a management buyout from Ericsson. Supporting the company in 18 countries, Booth’s experience at Damovo and Christian Salvesen was invaluable in helping her to develop her career at Sodexho.

“It can be difficult to take on such a wide range of responsibilities and have a vast array of areas that need to be looked after and done well,” Booth admits. “But with the aid of good communication training for your staff and strong relationships with external lawyers, it’s easily achievable.”

While Sodexho does not have a formal panel of law firms, regular external advisers include Beachcroft, Devonshires, Fox Hayes Solicitors, Shadbolt & Co and SJ Berwin.

Each firm is encouraged to host training sessions and workshops on specific areas of law for the in-house team.

“We’ve done this for a while now and I’ve found firms to be very responsive,” Booth comments. “It’s a good way to get to know the private practice lawyers the group works closely with and it allows us to brush up on particular areas in training sessions.”

These sessions, teamed up with regular meetings and a well-defined structure for each divisional legal representative, have meant Booth has built up a strong legal group that is well equipped to deal with the diverse issues common for a service provider occupying numerous different market sectors.

“We still have work to do, but I believe we’ve created a strong legal team and we’ve had some excellent lawyers rise through the ranks here,” says Booth. “We’re always looking to recruit good lawyers of the range of disciplines, and I think our strategy in recent years has enabled us to attract good recruits.”

General counsel: Sarah Booth
Organisation: Sodexho Group
Sector: Food and facilities services
Reporting to: Chief executive Philip Jansen
Turnover: €12.8bn (£9.53bn)
Number of employees: 34,000
Legal capability: 12 lawyers
Legal spend: £1m-£2m per annum
Main law firms: Beachcroft, Devonshires, Fox Hayes, SJ Berwin, Shadbolt & Co
Sarah Booth’s CV
1988-89: Diploma in Legal Practice, University of Edinburgh, LLB (Hons)
Work history:
1989-91: Trainee, Dickson Minto
1991-97: In-house lawyer, Christian Salvesen
1997-2001: Director of legal services, Christian Salvesen
2001-2004: General counsel and company secretary, Damovo
2004-present: General counsel, Sodexho