Romana Abdin: SimplyHealth

Romana Abdin took on the role of director of corporate affairs at HSA with a view to reviving the ailing company. Now, following a rebrand, SimplyHealth is fighting fit. By Malar Velaigam

Romana Abdin is a prime example of a new breed of lawyer; one who is also a manager and a businesswoman.

A qualified barrister, Abdin joined healthcare business SimplyHealth in 2001 as director of group corporate affairs with responsibility for the group’s legal concerns. At the time the business was a troubled health plan company known as HSA. Abdin set out to turn the ailing company around.

“It was not just about being a lawyer – it was about helping to lead an organisation,” she says of the move.

The business was, at the time, preparing to become an official insurance company and upon joining, Abdin was handed the task of building both the legal team and the company’s brand, as well as establishing standard procedures and preparing for Financial Services Authority regulation.

“I spent the first six months doing so much: everything from setting up best practices and looking for lawyers,” she recalls. “But this wasn’t just a legal issue – to me it was about building a culture.”

Abdin’s vision was realised in the form of SimplyHealth, which was created in 2006 following an exercise that saw the group embark on a rapid expansion campaign before bringing together all its businesses under one name. Abdin refers to this as a “community” of companies.

Her role has since evolved to encompass the compliance, audit, risk and brand and communications teams, as well as the legal department. In total, this equates to managing 35 people across five units, of which the legal team accounts for three, including Abdin.

“Despite there being only three of us, we do most of the work in-house,” she explains. “Even with M&A, we lead the work internally.”

The bulk of legal matters goes directly to commercial and trust lawyer Rosemary Sinclair, who is Abdin’s second-in-command and SimplyHealth’s head of legal.

“Rose coordinates what work goes to whom initially and then clears it all with me,” says Abdin, who formally meets with Sinclair once a week.

The legal team is currently busy with a new business acquisition, which Abdin remains tight-lipped over. Her team is leading advice on the transaction and is working on issues such as identifying the legal risks and commercial objectives of the deal. The in-house team is also negotiating the contracts involved.

Other work currently piling up on Abdin’s table includes ensuring the group’s HR policies are compliant, defending clinical negligence claims and developing the compliance aspects of the company’s revamped website.

Abdin explains that her legal budget has been in the region of £800,000 each year for the past five years due to the group’s significant M&A activity.

Last December, SimplyHealth acquired medical administration outfit Remedi and powered wheelchair and mobility equipment retailer Totally Active. Abdin used Addleshaw Goddard for the Remedi investment and Shoosmiths for Totally Active.

“The legal spend is actually very controlled: how I spend the legal budget is crucial,” she says, explaining that this is the primary reason why she keeps most of the legal work in-house.

“I try to only involve firms for specific advice,” Abdin adds, citing pension-related matters and the drafting of sale and purchase agreements as work that is typically outsourced.

When it comes to outside advice, Abdin’s favoured firm is Addleshaw Goddard, especially corporate finance partner Neil Woolhouse.

“We have been using Addleshaws for all corporate work for the past five years,” says Abdin.

She also recently used Shoosmiths in a Hampshire-based transaction due to the firm’s presence in the region. “I don’t see the benefit of having an army of external lawyers. I’d just be a manager of outsourcing,” says Abdin.

Amid the company’s compliance requirements, constant acquisitions and Abdin’s insistence on keeping most of the work in-house, it is no surprise that she is looking for another lawyer to add to her team.

“I need someone who has employment and commercial experience, but who is not just a lawyer,” she says. “Someone who is a future business leader.”

This attitude of cultivating leadership is an important factor to both Abdin and the company as a whole. “I’m quite proud of the fact that people have come out of my department and turned to run the business,” she says.

Abdin hired James Wilson from Bradford & Bingley’s in-house team in 2001 as a head of compliance. He has since moved on to become the managing director of the group’s Bristol operations.

“When it comes down to it, my key priority is the management of people, not just providing everyday legal services,” says Abdin of her management style, which won her the Businesswoman of the Year 2007 Award at the Asian Women of Achievement Awards this summer.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t get my hands dirty,” she adds cheekily.

Name: Romana Abdin
Organisation: SimplyHealth
Title: Director of group corporate affairs and company secretary
Sector: Healthcare
Reporting to: Chief executive Des Benjamin
Turnover: £302.5m
Number of employees: 1,287
Legal capability: Three
Legal spend: £800,000
Main law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, Shoosmiths
Romana Abdin’s CV
1983-86: LLB, Cardiff University
1986-87: BVC, Council of Legal Education
Work history:
1988: Called to the bar
1989: Legal adviser, ING International Management
1989-91: Associate counsel, CIC Video International
1991-99: Group legal adviser, Lloyds TSB
1999-2000: Head of legal and compliance, retail distribution, Bradford & Bingley
2001-present: Director of group corporate affairs, SimplyHealth