A mild winter

At the deal table former Biddle senior partner Martin Winter is renowned for his aggression and drive. But is he really just a cuddly little pussy cat?

It is the start of Martin Winter’s third day at Taylor Joynson Garrett and he’s having trouble with the coffee pot.

That’s the trouble with moving jobs – the work is often the easiest bit, while you have to really concentrate on how to use the telephone and exactly how the coffee is supposed to come out of the coffee pot.

Private equity specialist and former Biddle senior partner Winter has just made the move from the newly-formed Pinsent Curtis Biddle. Not appointed to the board of the new firm, he did not sign up to the February merger and so has spent the past few weeks as a salaried partner.

But what he obviously has signed up to is a fairly stringent non-disclosure agreement which means that he spends a lot of the interview mulling over exactly what he is allowed to say. What he definitely cannot say is whether his clients, one of the biggest of which is the Press Association, will be moving with him.

He is keen to stress that he fully supported the merger. “I’m sure it was a good move for Biddle,” he says. “While it was doing well as an 80-lawyer firm, in five years time there would have been an issue in terms of being high enough up the tables to attract talent. The key thing was to do this from a position of strength. We aspired to be a medium-sized firm but the requirements in terms of the know-how officers and general back-up were enormous. Until the present time one was able to meet the requirements, but there comes a question of how one can absorb [those costs] across the firm.”

Winter is about as fond of using the third person impersonal pronoun as the royal family – “he” never seems to do anything it is always “one.” And his linguistic arm’s-length approach is backed up by his personal demeanour, with Winter finding it difficult to make eye contact. On the rare occasions that he looks at me, it is only for a couple of seconds and then he averts his gaze to stare out of the window. Not in a rude way, but rather ill at ease.

One former colleague suggests that his apparent discomfort might be due to too many years as a senior partner, when avoiding eye contact was necessary for ducking out of difficult questions. But according to market sources, his diffidence does not extend to the deal table, where reviews range from aggressive to tenacious.

“He was very aggressive with the other side,” says one lawyer who was involved on a deal with him. “Clients either loved it or hated it. In a management buyout (MBO) situation it is not a good idea to beat up the management that you are going to be working with.”

However, Brian Phillips, a managing director at Legal & General, who has worked with Winter several times, disagrees. “What makes Martin such a pleasure to work with is that he has such attention to detail and never lets go of loose ends,” he says. “While he will not die in a ditch for every point, if you drop a point you know it’s because you intended to rather than you forgot it. If you are on the wrong end of that, perhaps it could be construed as aggressive.”

Winter does not come across as aggressive; he is not particularly chatty but is polite and carefully considers each question. But what everyone seems to agree on is that Winter is driven. He says that he has never worked less than 12 hours a day. Now he has children, he says his perspective has changed and he does occasionally decide to go into work a little later to see them in the morning, but otherwise he says that merely going home to watch television is “not interesting” to him. He says that last year he billed 2,100 hours and put in another 200 hours or so on management. Legal management, he says, is something that “eats one up – one never lets it go.”

Phillips says that Winter has the approach of: “I could go home as it’s nearly midnight but I might as well just get this done.” He says: “You would come into the office in the morning and there would be a bundle of stuff from him. And it was a culture that he seemed to develop among his team, who all seemed to share his approach. He has a slightly compulsive personality and is obsessed with the idea of getting everything off his to-do list.”

But whether the culture of long hours in the office was one that was embraced by Winter’s associates is debatable. One who worked with him on several deals says that Winter used to set himself very short deadlines in the belief that it was what the clients wanted and that made it “very difficult to work with him”. But Winter is hardly the first partner to demand a lot from his team and his work ethic has undoubtedly helped secure him a strong reputation for MBO work in the market.

He has moved to Taylor Joynson in part to take advantage of the firm’s strong intellectual property (IP) department. “IP has become such a feature of mainstream corporate work,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the biggest asset or the only asset. Previously, IP was almost an afterthought.”

In addition, Winter is impressed with Taylor Joynson’s bottom and top line figures and while he admits that it is only relatively recently that he first made contact with the firm, he says that he has kept abreast of what it has been doing through the legal press.

But obviously being well respected in his legal field is not quite enough for Winter. Somehow, in the few hours that Winter seems to spend out of the office, he has managed to build up a formidable skill at water-skiing which sees him ranked in the premier league of British water-skiers. However, laughs Phillips, if you compare him to his wife Hilary, who is a corporate finance partner at Gouldens, “he can’t water-ski to save his life”. This is obviously a relationship that thrives on healthy competition.

He also had political ambitions. He stood as a Conservative candidate in the 1992 election and got down to the short list for the Isle of Wight seat for the 1997 election.

Given that Winter is now loath to prise himself away from his desk in private equity, it is perhaps a surprise that he once imagined himself becoming a lawyer in a law centre. “It’s really quite complex, social security law and so on. It’s just that people aren’t paying big bucks for one to do it.”

For the first 12 years of his career, he worked part-time in a law centre, partly in an attempt to feel that he was enabling people to achieve what they wanted to achieve. “As one was very junior, one would only deal with one part of [a deal]. Going to a law centre taught me that everything is done in context. The thrill of putting through my first divorce or doing a will, that was fun. There was a feeling that one had achieved something and it was a great privilege to be involved.”

Winter says that it was only around three or four years into his career that he really understood that corporate law could be fun because he understood what it could do.

Now that the whole picture has become clear to Winter, he believes that the market could be greatly freed up by relaxing the rules on paperwork, including the repetition of due diligence and the whitewash process – whereby a company has to declare that there is no reason why it should go insolvent within the next 12 months. “For the lawyers and accountants it is money for old rope but what does it add to the process? The US doesn’t have it. Doing the whitewash process at three in the morning – how much does that add to the protection of investors? Maybe it concentrates minds a bit more but do we really need it here?”

Perhaps Winter’s stance – that in most cases an exchange of letters followed by a four-page agreement is all that is needed – has a hidden agenda. Perhaps he just longs to see his sofa more often and catch up on Eastenders.
Martin Winter
Taylor Johnson Garrett