The Lawyer Management: HowardKennedyFsi

Mark Dembovsky, chief executive officer


Mark Dembovsky is CEO of HowardKennedyFsi. He was previously CEO of Howard Kennedy and was the driving force behind its merger with Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI). He was also chief strategy officer at Reed Smith for more than eight years as well as CEO at Dawsons.

How has your role changed during your time at the firm?

My role at Howard Kennedy was a new one. Like most firms it had not had a non-lawyer chief executive, although this type of role was not new to me. Success depends on the will of partners to embrace change. The Howard Kennedy partners were up for the challenge.

In a short time we changed the firm from one criticised for having inadequate communication to one that grabbed every opportunity to engage and interact – regular partner meetings, all-solicitor meetings, AGMs, a weekly CEO blog, informal roundtable lunches and all.

You drove the merger between Howard Kennedy and FSI. What were the challenges?

I was asked recently whether this is the biggest merger I’ve ever been involved with and the answer in fact is that it’s the smallest but one of the more challenging. In a smaller firm, issues take on a more personal flavour and are felt intensely.

In every merger concerns centre around ‘what’s in it for me?’. It’s best to get those issues on the table straight away before moving on to the substantive matters that make or break the merger.

Being located over three sites makes the integration process less than ideal but nothing is insurmountable. If you draw a picture of what you’re trying to achieve, all challenges can be assessed against the backdrop of ‘what are we trying to build?’. Most people got the message. Of course, you try to accommodate everyone, but the success of the firm must be your focus.

You’ve said you hope to forge the three sites into one by 2015 – where will that be?

That’s the $64,000 question. There are those who want us to continue in the West End. In the 21st century I struggle with the idea that clients choose a firm based on its location. Our move will be driven by the need for the space to be flexible, comfortable and affordable – and in a style and location that reflects who we are and what we need to be.

How have you responded to market difficulties?

Wherever possible we’re building in flexibility and emphasising the need to tackle change at all levels.

The challenge for all firms, particularly the middle market, is to accept that we’re a business like any other. We have to tighten our financial hygiene, ensure we’re not overly exposed to any one client or sector, take advantage of the economies of scale and focus on performance management.

Many partnerships shy away from these issues, often until it’s too late.

Has there ever been a problem at work that’s surprised you?

Not really, but I know it’s around the corner. In my role you can take the biggest decisions without people batting an eyelid, but try changing the chocolates in reception and you’ll face a barrage of abuse.

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with?

My wife and children – it would be great to get the chance to spend a bit of time with them.

You’ve set an annual revenue growth rate of 3 per cent for the next three years. How will you achieve this in 2013?

I hope the cross-selling opportunities that emerged during the merger process – work that neither firm had the resources to deal with alone – will continue to come in both ad hoc and as a result of the cross-selling programme we are implementing.

They say that 50 per cent of your marketing effort is a waste of time – it’s just that there’s no way of knowing which 50 per cent. So we’ll be engaging with clients and contacts to tell the story of the new firm, highlight our capabilities and differentiate ourselves.

The merger is game-changing for both legacy firms and creates a platform from which we hope we can attract high-quality talent whose focus is on the entrepreneurial end of the market.


(Revenue: £45m)

Howard Kennedy revenue 2011/12: £27.8m

FSI revenue 2011/12: £17.6m

Engage, engage, engage

“I’ve learnt the need to engage, engage and engage again,” says Dembovsky. “I once learnt a very good lesson from a friend that I’ve since repeated ad nauseum: in interpersonal interactions when things appear to go wrong, 99 per cent of people think it’s a conspiracy against them. The truth is that in 99 per cent of cases things go wrong because of some stupid, correctable mistake with not the faintest whiff of a conspiracy.

“Therefore, I encourage people to speak up if they’re upset, in the hope that one can dispel any conspiracy concerns, have a chance of rectifying the error and, importantly, avoid any negative energy.”

* Estimated figures following merger