Life in the fast lane

BHP Billiton’s hire of John Fast as chief legal counsel and head of external affairs saw the company’s legal function become almost painfully efficient. Emma Vere-Jones reports

Fast by name and fast by nature. I just cannot help feeling that John Fast’s surname is a reflection of the way he runs his life – and his legal team. This sparky Australian, the chief legal counsel and head of external affairs at BHP Billiton, obviously knows the meaning of the word ‘efficient’.

“The best way to get things done is with the minimum of distraction in the shortest way. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” he says of the internal legal function at BHP Billiton.

He has certainly shaken things up since taking on the role of vice-president and chief legal counsel at BHP – as it was prior to the merger with Billiton – in 1999.

On his arrival, Fast completely restructured the in-house legal team. He pulled the lawyers out of the business groups in which they were embedded and formed what is effectively a small private practice operating solely for BHP. Now the lawyers report in to four regional counsel heads, who in turn report in to Fast, the practice head.

“As you can imagine, not everybody was thrilled by the change,” he says, noting that lawyers can be rather more resistant than most to change. “But we found that lawyers who had been embedded in the business groups weren’t being heard as loudly and as forcibly as they should have been,” he notes. Now, with the lawyers reporting to him, Fast can air their concerns and views at board meetings. Consequently, he believes the voice of the legal function carries much more weight.

“When we have issues as lawyers, we now have a very clear channel to communicate those issues and to make sure they’re being addressed, and we have those processes embedded,” he explains. “And so the way we perceive risk and the way we measure risk has changed quite dramatically.”

Fast is certainly not exaggerating when he says that he runs his 71-strong team like an external legal practice, right down to any lawyer’s biggest bugbear – the timesheet. “That’s proved to be a good management tool,” Fast notes, “both in terms of getting a sense of what the real cost of transacting is, and also in terms of monitoring the flow of work and where people are busy. There’s a lot of data we can use to properly allocate our resources.”

Fast has also set up a standard suite of contracts, which are updated regularly, to increase efficiency within the practice.

As in any business, staff development is another concern. Fast has implemented a mentoring programme for the more junior lawyers, and ensures there are no holes in either their legal or business knowledge. “If we find that we’ve got some lawyers who don’t know how to read a balance sheet – which I hope we don’t anymore – we try to provide them with some financial skills and get them into some learning system that’s going to give them those skills,” explains Fast.

He is also introducing a reverse secondment scheme, sending his lawyers back into private practice for a period of time “to hone up their skills a little bit to get them back into the mindset of having more than one client at a time”. Allens Arthur Robinson and Blake Dawson Waldron have already shown an interest.

Fast’s easygoing manner shows that he is obviously a people person, so it is not surprising he chooses his external firms by individuals rather than by brand. “One of the things we’ve changed is that we’ve adopted the model of going to the person that we perceive to be the best in their given area,” he says. “We’re not tied to using one particular firm, we’ve made that very clear to everybody.” In the UK, Slaughter and May’s Nigel Boardman is his preferred choice for large corporate work, while in the US his principal contact is Lyne Coleman of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.

But it is not just lawyers that Fast has to worry about: there is also the client – in this case the business groups within BHP Billiton. To make sure the team is providing the company with the best possible service, Fast has not only made the legal function more efficient (and reduced its cost), he also surveys his ‘clients’ regularly to ensure they are happy with the service.

“I think the measure of success is that people will actually now say, ‘I need legal advice on this, let’s get one of the lawyers involved’,” says Fast. “Whereas if you went back 10 years, at the old BHP the attitude was, ‘Your job is basically to write up the contract that I’ve negotiated with the least noise and interruptions possible; don’t make waves, don’t cause problems; we’re not really interested in your opinions; just do what we tell you to do’. So it’s been a pretty significant shift.”

You can just tell by the look on his face that Fast is pretty proud of what he has achieved, so it is surprising that until 1998 he had never even thought about taking on an in-house role. It was not until Paul Anderson, the former chief executive at BHP, rang Fast’s PA and made an appointment that the thought even crossed his mind. He had been at Australian firm Arnold Bloch Leibler for 26 years, 23 of them as a partner, but it did not take him long to realise that Anderson’s offer was a good one. At 50, he felt it was an ideal time to make a significant change to his life. And despite the fact that he loved his position at Arnold Bloch, there were aspects of it he could readily do without.

“There’s a certain sameness after a while. The words are different, the music is the same,” he says. “Also, I was growing increasingly tired of the politics of the partnership. All partnerships have them, we weren’t unique, but partnerships are places of egos, of politics. They exist in most places, but after a while it’s pretty debilitating when you’re trying to do some work.”

But taking an in-house job was not a sign that Fast was changing down a gear. As he points out, there are very few jobs that are larger than his. In fact, considering his gruelling schedule, surprisingly he looks so sprightly – and considerably younger than his 54 years.

“I’ve learnt to live without sleep,” he chuckles, when I ask his secret. “Never close your eyes.” And although he is joking, I somehow suspect his comment is not too far from the truth.

John Fast
Chief legal counsel and head of external affairs
BHP Billiton

Organisation BHP Billiton
Sector Mining
Turnover $15.6bn (£9.4bn)
Legal spend Internal $40m (£24m); external $40m-$50m (£24m-£30m)
Employees Approximately 38,000
Legal capability 71
Chief legal counsel and head of external affairs John Fast
Reporting to Chief executive Charles Goodyear
Main law firms Main law firms: UK – Herbert Smith (litigation), Slaughter and May (main corporate adviser); US – Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom (main US corporate adviser), Sullivan & Cromwell; Australia – Allens Arthur Robinson, Blake Dawson Waldron, Mallesons Stephen Jacques