Eleanor Doohan, general counsel and company secretary at Asda Stores, extends her company’s service ethic to the legal function. By Luke McLeod-Roberts
Asda Stores general counsel and company secretary Eleanor Doohan meets The Lawyer in the supermarket chain’s Walthamstow branch. It is a good choice of meeting place – it is this type of smaller, urban store that Asda, better known for its out-of-town hypermarkets, wants more of.
When Pinsents was appointed last year to a new commercial panel it was considered a coup for the firm, but does that mean it will feature on Asda’s forthcoming retail development panel?
“Acquisitions are different from our core business – a different skillset,” qualifies Doohan. “There’s not necessarily a correlation.”
A whistle stop tour of the Walthamstow store first takes in fresh produce, much of which is sourced from growers with which the chain has direct relationships through wholly owned subsidiary IPL.
One string to Doohan’s bow is sitting on the board of IPL. She is enthusiastic about the scope this provides the retailer to access citrus fruit producers in Chile and Costa Rica directly, without having to go through a middleman, meaning that they can strike up long-term relationships.
Next is the bakery. As Doohan, who does all her shopping at Asda, elaborates on how the store is able to cater for her gluten intolerance, an elderly customer interrupts. “Where can I find lemon buns?”, she queries. Doohan, with a ’Happy to help!’ badge stuck to her top, races to the rescue.
While Doohan is happy to get her hands dirty, she expects the same from her external law firms, with lawyers from McGrigors, Pinsents and Ward Hadaway drafted in to work in stores over the Christmas period.
“We don’t demand this [from our external lawyers],” Doohan emphasises. “We ask them and they love it. One of our lawyers said, ’I’ll only do it if I can be on the checkout’.”
She also tells of a lawyer who was stacking potatoes and fell, splitting his trousers. The lawyer, who she declines to name, had to go and buy a new pair. “From George,” she emphasises.
There is no George at Walthamstow, but during the World Cup those stores that sell clothes were punting England football shirts at half the price of those produced by Umbro. The day they went live Umbro demanded that Asda remove the shirts, Doohan says, but she and her team had done their homework, having made sure they did not infringe any IP rules, and they went ahead regardless.
She says that being able to offer value products to customers on a budget makes her job worthwhile.
“At Asda we’re professional retailers,” she says. “We’re trying to save people money every day – it’s not just words on a bit of paper.”
The fact that so many of Asda’s customers are female has particular significance for Doohan, who also sits on the company’s women leadership council. It has around 10 members and is split roughly 50-50 between women and men.
“We want to be the best place for women to work,” says Doohan, adding that she is proud of the fact that several members of her team work flexibly. “To do our job you don’t have to be at your desk nine to five – we don’t trade nine to five.”
Doohan points out that several of her external advisers, including Catrin Turner at Pinsents and Kathy Hughes at Slaughters, are women. She does not mention Eversheds, home to her predecessor Denise Jagger, though. It is no secret that the relationship between the two organisations has not been close since Doohan took over. Doohan concedes that the firm’s decision to act against Asda on a major IP dispute with Specsavers “feels uncomfortable”, but says Eversheds was invited to tender for the retail development panel review.
Asda’s UK legal ranks will soon grow through the temporary addition of a lawyer from the US. Doohan believes that the fact the lawyer is bringing her two children to the UK when she takes up her secondment will be “an inspiration to others who want to do global placements”.
“Any limitations are in your head,” she stresses. “It’s about your skillset. Your only limitation is yourself.”
That said, the secondee is not coming to the UK to be a role model, but to help establish a single template for global contracts, something that Doohan’s team, which has blazed a trail writing contracts in plain English, is well-placed to be involved with.
“It’s not rocket science,” Doohan says. “But when you get a legal document everyone thinks that lawyers are trying to bamboozle them.”
Name: Eleanor Doohan
Organisation: Asda Stores
Position: General counsel and company secretary
Number of employees: 170,000
Legal capability: Seven
Main legal advisers:McGrigors, Pinsent Masons, Slaughter and May,