Tailoring a patched up legal function into a bespoke unit was the task facing Lindsay Beardsell when she took over as GC at Supergroup, parent of fashion company Superdry
Even in a profession where ‘dress-down Fridays’ have become the norm and the tie an endangered species, most lawyers would not skip into the office kitted out in a little number from the latest range at Superdry. Even the trendiest West End media lawyer is likely to balk at a skin-tight tank-top adorned with a growling panther and splashed with random Japanese language characters.
But it’s a fair bet that executives at Supergroup, parent company of clothes company Superdry, would not lose much sleep if that happened with their in-house team. While teenagers and cool 20-somethings are the target market, fashion-oriented 30-, 40- and even 50-somethings can be seen crawling up and down the industrial staircase in Superdry’s Regent Street flagship shop in London.
The business – founded in the late 1980s – has revelled in a recent growth spurt, taking its 2013 turnover to over £360m, with sales in more than 40 countries, mostly in Europe. It boomed after a 2010 stock market flotation, stumbled a year later with a string of profit warnings, and recovered well in 2013.
That sort of whirlwind dictated a cultural change and a move away from the start-up mentality. Management turned a keen eye on corporate governance, compliance and a range of legal issues, not least brand protection in a world where pirates are increasingly prevalent.
That meant recruiting a grown-up legal team for the first time in the business’s existence, which is why Lindsay Beardsell was lured to the group’s Cheltenham headquarters at the end of last summer.
“When I arrived at the business the legal function was quite disjointed,” recalls Beardsell, who came from the top in-house role at the UK headquarters of Russian energy giant Gazprom. “There was no real central function; there was a legal team, which was quite limited, doing the best it could with the resources it had. There was a company secretary function, which was one person, and a brand protection team. But it hadn’t all been pulled together and there wasn’t a strategy behind it.”
Against the grain
As a result of the sparse strategy, Beardsell has spent the past nine months focusing on three strands: organising the teams into a cohesive operation; analysing the corporate governance framework across the group and working with the board and audit committee; and assessing the role of external advisers.
On that last point, Beardsell’s expectations regarding law firm relations were confounded shortly after arriving in Cheltenham.
“I was expecting to be able to put together a pretty slick, streamlined panel that would allow us to select advisers for a number of areas,” she says. ”But I’ve learnt that it’s not that type of business and not that type of market.”
Having to protect the Superdry brand in 40 jurisdictions requires significant specialist local advice.
“With counterfeit and brand protection issues around Europe we need local advisers on the ground, and most big law firms couldn’t do that,” says Beardsell. “That is why I’ve adopted an almost subject matter-led approach to external counsel. It’s not the kind of business where I could put five law firms in place that could do everything.”
But Beardsell still aims to consolidate where she can. A recent example is a deal cut with King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin and Cheltenham firm BPE. The recently merged global giant handles all Superdry’s European property matters outside the UK, while domestic property work goes to the Gloucestershire firm.
“I like a structure in which two law firms are working together,” explains Beardsell. “It allows the GC to manage costs more effectively, and provides an option in cases of conflict. It also brings two sets of experience to the same table.”
Indeed, Beardsell has replicated that approach to her running of the company’s IP instructions. London firm Fox Williams handles the day-to-day portfolio work, while most litigation is allocated to Pinsent Masons.
“Law firms are getting used to that structure,” she says. “It’s not like the old days, when one firm would be appointed to cover an entire field.”
Fit the bill
In common with many younger general counsel who started professional life in private practice, Beardsell has an almost visceral aversion to hourly billing.
“I avoid standard billable hours as much as possible,” she says. “I always push for a fixed or a capped fee, and I’m pretty harsh with external advisers regarding cost management.”
Indeed, Beardsell is convinced that ‘alternative’ billing structures are rapidly becoming standard.
“Traditional hourly billing is disappearing,” she insists. “It’s changed considerably in the time since I qualified, and even in the time I’ve headed in-house legal teams. This is being driven by in-house counsel pushing for more certainty on costs, which in turn is being driven by boards demanding value for money and a clear idea of what is being spent on what.”
Beardsell trained and qualified at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 12 years ago, where she practised in the environment, planning and regulatory department, as well as the European team. She describes the magic circle firm as “a great place to work”, but in the end private practice did not appeal.
She moved to an in-house role with the commercial team at British Gas’s legal department, following that with stints at UK water business United Utilities and Manchester-based industrial chain and gearbox manufacturer Renold before heading to Gazprom.
Of her day-to-day role, Beardsell highlights the brand protection strategy as key. She has just recruited two junior lawyers, bringing the total to three focusing on that task.
Beardsell aims not to over-play brand protection issues, maintaining that Superdry has no greater problem with copycats than any of its leading fashion counterparts.
“Most of the copying of our brand and look originates in Europe because it and the UK form our main markets,” she says, pointing to Turkey as a prime source of counterfeits.
Has the business ever had any legal difficulties in Japan? After all, it’s not difficult to imagine a misplaced kanji, kana and/or hiragana emblazoned on a t-shirt causing unwitting offence.
Not really a problem, maintains Beardsell. First, most of the Japanese script is, in fact, meaningless. And, perhaps more importantly, she says “we don’t do any business there”.
If Superdry goes global, the legal team might have to consider some evening courses in Japanese.