Watson Burton

Client retention is North East firm Watson Burton's recipe for success

Despite the current North East slump, Newcastle firm Watson Burton has enjoyed a 16 per cent rise in turnover for the first half of the financial year (The Lawyer, 12 November 2001). Last year's turnover was between £7.5m and £8m; the figure hoped for this year is just under £9m. Senior partner Andrew Hoyle thinks that it is the style of practice that distinguishes the firm from its competitors. “We have very close working relationships with clients,” he says. “In my experience, probably more so than some of our competitors. We have a low client turnover.”
The 21-partner firm has grown organically, with only a couple of minor mergers in its history. Recent growth figures stand at 20 per cent year on year, with the emphasis now on commercial law. Only 5 per cent of the business is private client, although this was itself bolstered last July with the hire of Kris Andersen to head the group. Andersen joined from his own specialist private client firm, which he had set up two years previously after leaving Eversheds.
“The strongest side of the practice is probably construction and engineering, growing at about 25 per cent,” says Hoyle. “We received some instructions this morning from a new client, Sir Robert McAlpine.” Hiring construction and litigation partner Roddy Gordon from Robert Muckle in September helped, but Hoyle also thinks that other firms neglect the market.
Nicholas Craig, who joined from Eversheds in June 2001, has provided Watson Burton with an enviable client portfolio. “He has a series of connections in the Far East that are second to none in the North East and probably rival nationally,” beams Hoyle. “He acts for and has brought to us dozens of Chinese companies, among other Asian clients.” As a result, Watson Burton has set up an inward-outward investment consultancy, offering assistance to companies getting established in the UK.
“The practice has in many ways been a Newcastle-based office for the full 190-year history,” says Hoyle. “It has strong historical links with Victorian industry.” Hoyle admits that the reputation of the firm had become a little staid and that the time had come to make changes. New managing director Patrick Harwood, who joined in June, has been at the forefront of the firm's rebranding exercise.
Hoyle says: “Harwood works with me moving the strategy of the practice forward, implementing improved management practices. The investment in rebranding has been substantial: we've rejigged the website, the corporate brochures. We've undertaken a name-awareness exercise that's involved a lot of advertising and entertainment. We're introducing a range of seminars.”
Julianne Gill is another lateral hire from Robert Muckle who joined early in 2001. Andersen was made up in May that year, leaving Eversheds as a partner 18 months prior. Partner Simon Rowland left the firm for Dickinson Dees shortly after Gordon joined.
Recent transactions include the £80m redevelopment of the University of Sunderland campus, the new £30m Hilton International Hotel in Gateshead and the firm acted for Northern Land in its substantial residential loft conversion in the centre of Newcastle. The firm has also been acting in connection with the DS2 Tower at Canary Wharf and is involved in a PFI project in Croydon for a hospital development.