Ex-barrister Clare Wardle finds strength in numbers when dealing with the challenges of her role as Kingfisher general counsel.
Largely thanks to a rather remarkable career path, Kingfisher general counsel Clare Wardle is certainly equipped with the right tools for her new position at the home improvement giant.
Wardle’s role has proved to be one of her most challenging since she joined the company 11 months ago. There are the legal demands from the flux in sales following this
year’s hot Easter break; the recent acquisition of the failed Focus DIY chain; and the new pressures following the advent of the Bribery Act.
Nothing has been quite as complex and far-reaching as the latter, however. The most contentious area of the new act has forced Wardle to develop adequate procedures and deliver several presentations to the main board, including one that she admits put a slight strain on her French vocabulary.
“Every business needs to be confident in this area,” says Wardle. “At the end of the day, corruption never benefits the long-term sustainable business; bending the law and taking risks may give you short-term gain, but if you’re in it for the long haul, illegality, fraud and corruption will come back to bite you. We tend to forget that a lot of corruption is against companies anyway. If people are taking bribes to enter into contracts, it wouldn’t benefit us – it would just line the pockets of the buyer.”
Although in the UK Kingfisher is best known for the household brand B&Q, the DIY giant has far more successes to boast about, with more than 850 stores and operations in France, Spain, Poland, Russia, China and Turkey, which includes the Castorama and Brico Depot chains. Indeed, the accomplishments and challenges confirmed to Wardle that Kingfisher was the right next step for her career, describing it as “a very exciting place to work”.
“Kingfisher has a lot of interesting aspects to it, especially [CEO] Ian Cheshire’s vision of a truly sustainable company,” explains Wardle. “Kingfisher’s operating model is neither a standard centralised nor a standard devolved model, but much more about networking the group as one team to achieve optimum performance from sharing best practice and ideas to deliver our common goals.”
After reading jurisprudence at Oxford University, Wardle completed a pupillage at 1 King’s Bench Walk. She followed this with a 10-year stint at Lovells (now Hogan Lovells), before entering the in-house sector, which included roles as head of legal services at Post Office Ltd and general counsel and company secretary at Tube Lines.
“Starting out as a baby barrister, I enjoyed dealing with individuals and small companies and sorting issues out for them,” recalls Wardle, “but I found it frustrating that I never saw what happened next. I moved into Lovells to have more of a relationship with my clients.”
Wardle is the first to admit that her career has followed quite an unusual trajectory. She puts her various moves down to a desire to work in a team, which she fondly attributes to her love of team sports developed during her degree at Oxford.
“Succeeding as part of a team is much more rewarding than as an individual,” she comments. “Yes, there’s an aspect of teamwork in private practice, but in-house there’s a strong sense that everyone is part of one team.”
Wardle insists that the only thing she misses about private practice is the support staff “being on tap at all times”. However, she concedes that she would not rule out going back.
Wardle says the deal with Focus DIY is the highlight of the year, describing it as “a very, very exciting 36 hours”. The approval for the acquisition was given by the OFT earlier this month (7 July), allowing Kingfisher to buy 30 stores from its failed rival.
“The OFT decided to move extremely quickly and, of course, we wanted to do this to preserve the jobs,” says Wardle. “It was a great 36 hours in a darkened room with a whole bunch of lawyers and bankers sorting out the deal.”
The corporate side of the acquisition was handled by Allen & Overy, while Bond Pearce led on property and finance and Hogan Lovells worked on the OFT competition.
Hogan Lovells’ new relationship with Kingfisher follows recent modifications to the DIY company’s roster during its panel review, which cut the number of international firms it instructs from 10 to around four.
Wardle attributed this shift to the need to maintain cost efficiency and to ensure better added value, believing that having a good relationship with firms is just as important as keeping the pennies in check.
“If you have a good relationship with a firm, they look out for issues relevant to you and bring them to you,” Wardle insists. “They think about potential problems before they’ve even been instructed on them.”
Name: Clare Wardle
Position: Group legal director and general counsel
Industry: Home improvement
Reporting to: Legal and corporate responsibility director Nick Folland
Global legal capability:45
Main law firms: Bond Pearce, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer