Break on the border

Fiona Callister finds out how Bevan Ashford chief executive Nick Jarrett-Kerr is reacting to a reduction in work for English firms due to changes prompted by Welsh devolution

At his base in the centre of Bristol, Bevan Ashford’s chief executive Nick Jarrett-Kerr is feeling the effects of Welsh devolution. His firm is currently in the process of deciding the future of its Cardiff office and whether the work can be handled out of the firm’s headquarters in Bristol. At the same time, it has announced that it will open an office in Birmingham in the spring to capitalise on its specialism of health PFI work.

Traditionally, the service industries of Cardiff and Bristol have been closely linked, being only an hour away from each other. But from Jarrett-Kerr’s perspective, since the setting up of the Welsh Assembly, the economic relationship between the two business centres has changed.

“What we’ve seen is not a direct impact but something more insidious,” says Jarrett-Kerr. “When Welsh institutions are tendering public work, they seem to us to be preferring Welsh firms to English firms.”

Jarrett-Kerr adds that, until devolution, the feeling in the healthcare market was that the Welsh system would soon fall into line with the English system, whereby the in-house teams of health trusts would disappear to be replaced by a panel of private practice firms. Instead, since devolution, Welsh Health (the in-house team for hospital trusts within the country) has continued to handle health litigation, with only non-core work such as property going to outside firms.

“It seems the system is going the other way [ie away from private practice] in Wales,” says Jarrett-Kerr. “For example, the incidence of documentation being insisted on in the Welsh language is increasing.” Although he is quick to point out that he is not criticising the Welsh authorities for their stance. “I think it’s a good thing,” he says. “The Welsh are saying, ‘We have a Welsh Assembly and we like how we do things.’ In PFI, projects and construction law, our practice will continue to grow in Wales, but not necessarily out of an office that is situated there.”

Jarrett-Kerr points out that Bevan Ashford’s move is reflected by other areas of the service industry. Both 3i and Ernst & Young have rethought their Cardiff presences. He says: “At Ernst & Young all corporate finance people have come back to Bristol and left the audit team there. 3i has more or less pulled out of Wales. I believe this will continue with professional services generally.

“New institutions will arise that may be a bit more Welsh, so we could see the Welsh version of 3i and accountancy firms that have a Welsh focus. This is not particularly good for Wales. Wales is not a vast place and I’m not sure that it can ever support its own complete banking and finance infrastructure.”

While Jarrett-Kerr believes that Bevan Ashford can operate a “virtual office” in Wales out of Bristol, the same argument does not seem to apply to the Birmingham venture. “In our experience, based on our London office and now our Birmingham office, from Bristol you can build a market share. But it reaches a stage where to build further market share you need to be there,” he says. “We’re opening in a niche area, which is an area where we’re nationally eminent, and we think we have a good chance of being competitive in that chosen area.”

Jarrett-Kerr, who joined Bevan Ashford in 1978, has been chief executive for seven years, during which time he has overseen great changes in the firm, not least of which is its size. “The firm is much bigger now,” says Jarrett-Kerr. “My job, too, has become a lot bigger and we haven’t worked out a conclusion to that. I don’t see myself as leaving Bevan Ashford, but moving to something more strategic in my role.”

Managing partner of rival Bristol firm Osborne Clarke Leslie Perrin agrees that Jarrett-Kerr now has a vast job on his hands. “He is both senior partner and managing partner, and that is a very hard thing to do and a very lonely job if you’re doing both together,” says Perrin.

“In effect, Nick has two firms: he has the health practice or the public sector and the rest. The rest is mainly what lies south-west of Bristol and is based on agriculture and tax, which has no synergy with the rest of the firm. Nick has brought them together – although it may be that he shouldn’t have bothered.”

Jarrett-Kerr seems to be putting on a bit of a brave face as to whether he enjoys the post. “There’s no job that provides 100 per cent job satisfaction all the time. There are times when it becomes tedious or difficult. But one of the things that I learnt early in this job is that if you constantly live in the comfort zone, it gets extremely boring. I am about to go skiing, and sometimes that’s scary and risky, but it’s also what makes it enjoyable. I’m better off living just outside the comfort zone.”

He admits that the jobs are much more physically and mentally demanding than he expected. “I’m not having a whinge, but managing Bevan Ashford is not a part-time activity,” he says. “I’m working harder than I ever have before.”

He admits, however, that the change from fee-earning to management came, with hindsight, just at the right time for him. “It’s difficult to make a change when you’re into your forties. I think if the job hadn’t come along, I’d have made a career change, possibly out of law to do something in management.”

But while Jarrett-Kerr may be feeling the strain professionally, on a personal basis he remains utterly affable and charming.

To vouch for that, let’s once again refer to to Perrin, who says of Jarrett-Kerr: “He’s a real gent and easily the nicest thing about Bevan Ashford. He’s the sort of bloke who you’re always pleased to see.”
Nick Jarrett-Kerr
Chief executive
Bevan Ashford