Focus: Sainsbury’s, Pitched battle

When Sainsbury’s GC Nick Grant asked panel firms to take part in a Dragons’ Den-style pitch, the legal world raised its eyebrows. But the event was, in fact, a surprising success

Nick Grant

Nick Grant

Last year Sainsbury’s general counsel Nick Grant took the unusual step of bringing all 11 panel firms together for a day. Now, top lawyers are not ­generally known for their propensity to suffer from crises of confidence. But sitting cheek by jowl with their arch-rivals under the guise of creating ‘synergies’ for the benefit of their mutual client, this lot were as quiet as the proverbial church mice.

Grant’s justification was not ­entirely sadistic. “The idea is to see if we can found a community of trusted legal advisers with bonds and linkages within itself rather than a panel ­consulted every so often,” he argued at the time (The Lawyer, 14 April 2008).

Grant’s latest innovation is to ask his external advisers to recommend their entrepreneurial clients to pitch products or services to Sainsbury’s in a Dragons’ Den-style event. The prize? Not a pot of gold, but a sponsored meeting with Sainsbury’s’ key ­decision-makers. The atmosphere at the event, which was hosted by ­Denton Wilde Sapte ­earlier this ­summer, could not have been more different from last year’s ­conference. So much so that one ­wonders whether someone has spiked the sparkling spring water with ­something a little more bracing.

Enter the dragons

The Lawyer was invited along to see the ­dragons for itself.

Barry Salzman, CEO of YCD ­Multimedia, kicks off the pitches. Salzman has a suave, self-assured air reminiscent of Daniel Craig playing Bond. And the comparisons with his fictional counterpart do not end there. In an echo of Bond’s jet-set glamour, Salzman seizes the first spot because he has to jump on a plane to the US before the afternoon is over.

Naked ambition

“I took a look at the room and ­decided to do something to not ­confuse me with [all the] lawyers in the room,” he purrs. Before you can say “unique selling point” he flings off his suit jacket, tosses off his tie and starts unbuttoning his shirt to the gasps of a bemused audience.

“Oh my God!” I imagine Grant thinking. “He’s going to pitch an escort business to my directors.”

“Okay, we’ll stop there,” teases Salzman. “No!” protests a female member of the audience, sounding deeply pained. But Salzman’s proposition is in fact less risqué than his intro might suggest, and is something to do with “digital in-store media solutions”. Mention the word ‘solutions’ to most and their eyes glaze over, which ­perhaps is what happens to the ­’dragons’ – or directors in this case.

“We had some difficulty working out what Barry was selling,” they admit later. It is a “content management and distribution platform”, Salzman clarifies. Screens with stuff on, to you and me.

After the five-minute pitch is over comes the hard part – the grilling from the directors.

“We have digital screens in 200 stores. Who here remembers what they last saw on a screen?” asks ­commercial and finance director Paul Mills-Hicks. The 100 or so-member audience is resounding in its silence.

But Salzman does not let this director’s comments dampen his self-belief. “Whose fault do you think that is?” he demands.

“I’ve not seen a pitch before where we’ve been blamed,” admits a ­surprised Mills-Hicks.

Sick like a Mule

Next up is Winckworth Sherwood’s recommendation, Alex Smith and Jimmy Docherty of natural energy food company Mulebar. In a unique move the pitch is introduced by a partner, licensing expert Robert Botkai. Botkai was named ­Sainsbury’s lawyer of the year earlier that day, so perhaps the healthy snacking duo is hoping to gain some brownie points in the process.

Dressed in loose-fitting T-shirts, Smith and Docherty have created a product to help give them that extra boost of energy when they are doing vigorous things, such as climbing Andean mountains. Not that this alone is enough to impress the jaded directors.

“It looks disgusting,” exclaims IT director Angela Morrison as she squashes the chewy mass between her fingers. Smith looks as if he is about to chide her for playing with her food. Instead he responds in a way that would seem obsequious if he did not have such an unassuming air. “I’ve only had ­positive feedback, that’s really good to hear,” he says. Nicely put.

“I’m always interested if someone doesn’t like something before they’ve even tried it,” he says more candidly later on, once the directors have left the room to deliberate.

Answering the drone

The directors do not get the chance to try the product pitched by Bond Pearce client Plasloc because it does not exist yet. The company is trying to get Sainsbury’s to buy UPVCU wall partitioning. Unfortunately the five-minute pitch is delivered in a stultifying monotone and is accompanied by a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation actually intended for private equity. I suppose with reusable wall partitioning it’s one-size-fits-all.

Grant is diplomatic when quizzed on what he thought of the presentation and how it reflects on Bond Pearce. “All firms tried. If I was a firm I’d feel happy – they’ve created a business opportunity – maybe contact comes out of it, perhaps not,” he says.

CMS Cameron McKenna client the JD Project is also offering an IT solution. “I’m trying to work out what you are,” says Sainsbury’s trading director Mike Coupe. But the pitch is delivered confidently and, after some initial technical ­glitches, involves cute interactive graphics.

Tough on Buff

Then, another food pitch. Charles Russell has nominated Buff Snacks. These nuts, seeds and blow-your-socks-off wasabi peas (which look more like chickpeas because of the lack of additives) are sold in a number of upmarket outlets. Clifford Chance’s offices also stock them, says Paula Quazi, one of the two entrepreneurs making the pitch. Cue booing and hissing from the audience.

“You’re predictable,” Quazi retorts.

The snacks taste good and are ­presented well, but the route to the directors’ hearts is evidently not through their stomachs.

eSpares looks the part

It is the final pitch of the day from another Dentons client, internet-based spare parts company eSpares, that wins them over. eSpares wants to link its own site to the Sainsbury’s homepage and thereby access a wider customer base, in return for a commission for the supermarket chain.

“In this environment [the service] makes sense. It’s about fix it, patch it, rather than replace it,” says Mills-Hicks as he announces the ­winner.

This would seem to reflect well on Dentons, one of Sainsbury’s longest-standing advisers. But corporate partner Richard Macklin claims his firm is not under the spotlight. “It’s not really about law firms, it’s more an opportunity for Nick Grant to show to Sainsbury’s’ that he’s adding value to the business,” he argues.

Indeed, Grant seems to believe that the initiative has met that goal. “This afternoon surpassed my wildest dreams – [and] I did dream about it,” Grant tells the audience at the end. “It’s shown to everyone here that lawyers are about more than just the law, they have access to a wide ­commercial network. The dragons have asked people to come to the next stage – that’s a great thing for lawyers to achieve, working as a community rather than as a panel.”

He adds that Sainsbury’s will be repeating the event next year and he believes that other organisations might follow suit. “Often when you talk to other general counsel they say it’s a good idea. I wouldn’t be ­surprised if they take it up,” he says.

Does it stack up?

But Wolf von Kumberg, legal director and assistant general counsel at Northrop Grumman, is one who will not be rushing to do so. “Team building with your outside firms is important. I wonder, however, whether contests themselves might be going too far,” he says. “Programmes such as secondments into the company from the firm and speciality training efforts actually create better team building.”

Posters on are also critical. “While the firms in question will be playing the game, I think Grant needs to stick to the day job and do what he is trained to do, or he may end up stacking the shelves,” wrote one.

That poster may be surprised to learn then that Grant – along with many of the lawyers at the firms he instructs – has already spent time working on the shop floor. It is part of an approach that at times can sound a little fluffy, particularly with words such as ‘panel’ being jettisoned for the more happy-clappy ‘legal community’. But this is not just lip service.

The collaboration has seen working groups created in the separate areas of training, business development and contract precedents. Addleshaw ­Goddard, Dentons and Linklaters, for example, are clubbing together with the in-house team to identify best practice precedents for the retailer. This adds value to ­Sainsbury’s, just as the Dragons’ Den event allows firms to build relationships with the entrepreneurs pitching the products, as well as cementing ties with the retailer.

“Last year [the panel conference] was incredibly stilted. All law firms were in groups of four or five,” says Grant. “This year it’s all very mixed. It felt more relaxed. I think that’s an achievement – it creates more sense of common purpose.”

But like the products offered to the dragons, the proof will be in the ­pudding.

The Pitches

Denton Wilde Sapte
YCD Multimedia
Candidate: Barry Salzman
Product summary: Digital in-store media solutions

Winckworth Sherwood
Candidates: Alex Smith, Jimmy Docherty
Product summary: Natural energy bars

Bond Pearce
Candidates: John Wayne, Vanessa Matthews, Steven Matthews
Product summary: Easy-to-use store construction/fit-out materials

CMS Cameron McKenna
The JD Project
Candidate: Ren Kainth
Product summary: Internet video advertising

Charles Russell
Buff Snacks
Candidates: Rebecca Wynberg, Paula Quazi
Product summary: Natural health food snacks

Denton Wilde Sapte
Candidates: David Laurie, Matthew Henton
Product summary: Fully managed spare parts solutions

And some of those that didn’t make it to the Den…

  • Carbonaid, a drink that would put some of its profit into carbon-reduction schemes
  • A chair for pregnant women that expands in line with a woman’s own growth
  • An entrepreneurial school engaged in business development