The Asda way

There is a family feel to life at Asda. The northern supermarket, owned by US company Walmart, won an accolade as one of the UK’s best employers from The Sunday Times, and having talked to Denise Jagger, head of legal, it is easy to see why. Jagger has been based in-house at Asda for the past 10 years, a decade in which the company has established itself as a household name with a reputation for value for money.

Jagger says this core value pervades the whole organisation and is matched by a spirit of enterprise and letting people get on with things. Her small legal team, comprising 12 people, is situated in open-plan surroundings near the finance department. Far from removing itself from the action, the team wants to be in the thick of things.

It is very important to Jagger that her team be regarded as fundamental to making the business work. All too often an in-house team can be perceived as the source of negative thinking. Jagger says: “We’re very fortunate that Asda takes the view that we’re not a business prevention unit to be avoided until the last minute. The amount of work we get from our colleagues shows that we are regarded as an enabler, sorting out problems or giving commercial advice about taking things forward, rather than a stumbling block.”

In fact, Jagger’s team is so popular that it has decided to institute training programmes so that its internal clients can handle the most frequently occurring small issues themselves. “I have to encourage my team not to do other people’s work for them,” she says.

Because the team at Asda is small, one way to accommodate the more frequently asked questions is to provide training. “A little knowledge is not a dangerous thing as far as we are concerned,” says Jagger. “Not to give our clients guidance would be counter-productive. We’re giving them the tools to help themselves. Our clients used to make basic errors in things like HR so we go out and give them training. It takes a lot of up-front work for us, but people don’t keep making the same mistakes because they have been trained.”

Jagger adds: “Our mission is to deliver commercial legal advice in a proactive and timely manner.”

National firms are the order of the day at Asda. With its headquarters in Leeds, the company wants good local advisers rather than just a City operator. Despite this, for larger transactions and complex corporate and competition work Jagger calls upon her former firm Slaughter and May.

Eversheds commands the widest range of instructions from Asda, handling litigation, property, commercial and employment matters. It also sends trainees to the company for a four-month secondment slot.

It is Eversheds that Asda has turned to for help in solving the tricky matter of Parma ham. The claim against Asda has gone all the way to the European Court of Justice. Jagger’s attitude is one of amused amazement that the issue can have become so protracted. Beneath the amusement, though, is a real issue – the influence of directives over Asda’s products. Additional layers of bureaucracy cost money that Asda would rather not have to pass on to its customers.

Together with regulation-length cucumbers and sufficiently bent bananas, Asda’s Parma ham has called for the scratching of heads in Europe. The Italian Parma ham trade association claims that because the Parma ham sold in Asda is sliced and packaged outside the Parma region, it should not be called ’Parma ham’.

It is this sort of burdensome, and often unnecessary, regulatory pressure that most worries Jagger for the future. “Corporate life is getting increasingly complex. There are more and more regulations, some dealing with real problems and some with perceived problems.”

Addleshaw Booth & Co provides external advice on intellectual property, pensions and commercial problems. The other firms regularly used by Asda for the most part handle property work. Jagger’s legal spend, which is in excess of £2m, does not include the outsourced property work. She assists Asda’s property project coordinators in deciding which firm to use, but the cost is borne by that project rather than the legal team. Their focus is primarily on corporate governance, employment, consumer and trade, and company and commercial work. DLA, Park Nelson and the Frith Partnership all have a relationship with Asda for property work.

Jagger shies away from describing Asda’s most frequently used firms as a panel, preferring a less formal arrangement.
The quality and quantity of legal work referred out to a firm varies greatly. Asda has no internal property capability so any aspect of developing a store site will be sent to the most appropriate of the three property-specific firms. For all other areas of work, Jagger says that matters arising in highly specialised areas of law will be done externally, as will the more mundane or larger projects.

Jagger says that she uses law firms to manage her team’s workload. “Firms with the Asda mindset can be used quickly and cheaply because they require little instruction and know what we want.”

What Jagger is infinitely more clear about is those firms she has no wish to deal with. Not averse to a marketing initiative that spots a particular legal need and draws attention to it, Jagger is, however, highly unimpressed with ill-thought-through cold-calling. “What I don’t like is people writing to me using my first name or calling me Mr Dennis Jagger.” Due care and attention is necessary if a firm wishes to woo Asda as a client.

“We will never just use one firm because it would be commercially unrealistic. It is difficult to get work from Asda, but once you do, we’re loyal.” Her preferred method of discovering new suppliers is from encountering them on the other side of a deal or case – this is how she stumbled upon Eugene O’Keeffe, senior partner at Park Nelson – speaking at conferences, or providing unsolicited advice on a relevant point of law.

Jagger’s time is divided between providing legal and commercial advice and running her team. Legal spend does not just mean money paid to external firms. Her team requires careful management. Asda has fostered a culture in which people move between different areas. It is far from unusual to find people trained in accountancy in the PR or HR department.

She says: “I’ve got a bunch of people who could be highly valuable elsewhere in the business, but as it happens, none of them want to move. This creates its own development issues.” As Jagger’s team becomes increasingly experienced, the ways to motivate them have to change. Jagger says that with the skills possessed by her team, there is no reason why they should be undertaking boring tasks. This is how some of the more tedious, process-driven work ends up being outsourced. She explains: “I would far rather trainees in external firms cut their teeth on our relatively less interesting work.”

She adds: “Asda is not big on titles and we’re very flat structured. I don’t operate a hierarchy because the person at the bottom would get put upon and bored.” It isn’t all laissez faire and hippie egalitarianism in the legal team.
Jagger maintains an awareness of how her team is developing and has scope to make the necessary rewards for achievement and effort even if a new title is not part of the prize.

As well as sending some of the more routine work out, Jagger also uses this sort of work as an introduction for the secondee. “Having a trainee on reasonable rates is great. They don’t find it boring because they only really do it once.”

The philosophy behind both Asda and its legal team is summed up by Jagger: “I’m a great believer in simplifying the law. It’s not clever to sound clever. It is clever to explain things simply.” This is what she expects from both her team and law firms.
Denise Jagger
Head of Legal
Organisation: Asda Sector: Retail Employees: 130,000 Turnover: £10.57m Legal capability: 12 Annual legal spend: £2m+ Head of legal: Denise Jagger Reporting to: Chief executive Tony de Nunzio Main law firms: Addleshaw Booth & Co, Beachcroft Wansbrough, DLA, Eversheds, Maclay Murray & Spens, Park Nelson and Slaughter and May