Minter Ellison’s Tony Harrington: “Collaborate, innovate and inspire”

Minter Ellison’s newly installed chief executive Tony Harrington is clear on how the Australian firm can succeed: it has to turn words into action. And he means three words in particular.

“We’re building our culture around three verbs: collaborate, innovate and inspire,” he muses. “We have to collaborate within the firm to bring the best to the client and also with the client to truly understand their needs, we need to innovate with very broad-based solutions and to inspire – that’s the hardest challenge of all as a cultural goal.”

Having taken over from John Weber on 1 June (24 March 2014), non-lawyer Harrington talks the law-firm talk like he’s been doing it his entire life. The firm’s mantra, he says, is to “be our clients’ best partner”, adding that “it’s not about us but about our clients”.

Given his career history this is not surprising. Aside from a brief spell at investment bank Meolis & Company between 2011 and 2014, Harrington has spent almost his entire working life in professional services. Having joined PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) legacy firm Coopers & Lybrand straight from school, he was senior partner and CEO of the accountancy giant’s Australian business from 2000 to 2008 before becoming strategy and transformation leader in the international business for two-and-a-half years. This experience, he says, will stand him in good stead for growing turnover at A$416m (£235m) Minter Ellison.

“My life has been in professional services with a strong client focus; that’s what I do,” says Harrington. “My history with PwC started in tax. My skill was about building a business. I started building a small tax business outside Sydney then took over the practice in Sydney then the practice nationally.

“Prior to the merger in 1998 Coopers & Lybrand in Australia was a bit smaller than Minter Ellison is today. We grew that in a very competitive, focused market by focusing on a clear agenda of what problems clients were looking to solve and building out the capability side in a range of areas.”

Harrington will not divulge his plans for Minter Ellison beyond saying he is “in the process of mapping out a 2020 plan” alongside all the firm’s partners, although he does say that “it’s what we focus on that’s important”.

“We’ve got to create out own destiny; we’ve got to make choices as to where our strengths are,” he explains. “The firm has a number – we’re very strong in real estate, infrastructure and construction, and we’ve got a strong funds practice and HR practice.”

Unlike fellow Australian firms such as Mallesons Stephen Jaques, which merged with China’s King & Wood (5 December 2011) and later SJ Berwin (31 October 2013), Blake Dawson, which merged with Ashurst (26 September 2013), and Freehills, which combined with Herbert Smith (28 June 2012), Minter Ellison is not currently looking for an international or UK tie-up.

Instead, says Harrington, it will continue to focus on its domestic business and presences in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Ulaanbaatar, and will only consider further launches as and when client demand exists.

With rivals like Blake Dawson, Freehills and Mallesons no longer competing purely as domestic outfits, Minter Ellison is now the third-largest Australian firm behind Clayton Utz and Linklaters ally Allens, which turned over A$436.7m and A$430m respectively in 2012/13.

However, competition is coming from a new source, with Harrington’s former employer PwC upping its legal services expertise with the hire of former King & Wood Mallesons partners Tony O’Malley and Tim Blue (18 August 2014). This, says Harrington, simply brings a different kind of competition to the market.

“It’s more competition in an already fragmented market,” argues Harrington. “Those four firms [Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young and KPMG] are used to operating in and owning a space.

“It’s a far more competitive but focused market in an accounting firm. There’s the big four then things just fall away. In the legal environment it’s a far more competitive and fragmented market.

“That’s why some of the strategic challenges a lot of law firms have will be around execution. Running firms in an integrated fashion doesn’t just happen overnight. The complexities are constant.”

And how will the firm overcome such complexities? By sticking to its three-word mantra, of course.

“It’s quite a high hurdle and it’s aspirational but if you collaborate the best, innovate the best and inspire the best, and focus on being the client’s best partner, then you’ll do well,” contends Harrington.