Travis Perkins general counsel Deborah Grimason grew up around business – though she’d be the first to admit that her father’s bakery delivery business in rural Northern Ireland was a far cry from the FTSE 100 company she now guides through legal minefields.
Grimason knew two things growing up: that she wanted to enter a profession and that she wanted to leave Northern Ireland. It was this train of thought that brought her to London where, after completing a law conversion course, she found herself interviewing at London firms.
“I thought I had made a huge mistake,” she says. “Dry, dusty offices, ten-partner firms… it wasn’t good.”
It was a chance interview at British Coal which sparked her interest in in-house legal work. “I found my niche from the off,” she says. She ended up completing her articles at the company, those years coinciding with the aftermath of the mining strikes.
Her qualification in 1989 also coincided with the economic crash and so she formed part of the first TUPE transfer when British Coal transferred its legal department to Nabarro, at which Grimason spent five years before going back in-house with a job at the Royal Mail’s international division.
She didn’t stay still for long however. “I’ve got a real thing for gadgets and technology,” she says. “So I jumped at the chance when I was headhunted by Nokia. It was 1997 and it was a huge brand.”
Grimason became sole legal counsel in the UK at a time when the company was growing rapidly – “two Finns on a plane” is how Grimason terms its expansion strategy – and she spent a year travelling to Helsinki to better understand its needs. After her term as UK general counsel she moved onto divisional responsibilities: travelling around the world to negotiate contracts with BT CellNet (now O2).
“It was cracking,’ she recalls. “I was 37, but the average company age was 33. I loved the products. Every deal was huge. I had gone from small mailing contracts to delivering £700m deals in eight weeks.
“The share price was going up and up and I was so excited. I was never intimidated by the challenge because it went so fast: we did weekends, nights and days – negotiating with heads of huge telecoms brands.”
She spent six years this way until curiosity struck. “I was sitting at my desk one day and I thought ‘I could do this for the rest of my life and be happy’,” she says. “‘Or I could go and see what else I could do’.”
A fortnight later a headhunter pitched a heavy industry job to her: deputy general counsel of a division at gas company BOC Group. Although worlds away from the glamour of the tech bubble she was lured by the challenge. It took her six weeks to realise that it was not the right choice for her. The job market was poor at the time and so she decided to make the best of her situation, getting to know people around the business and eventually taking a role at another division.
She was recruited by another two departments in her two and a half years, taking her job count to four including a spell as a commercial director. “You hear lots of lawyers saying they want to do that but it was a huge challenge,” she says. “You are no longer the legal expert – it is a completely different animal. There is a lot more upfront winning of minds to be done.”
Finding the right role, Grimason made the leap to LaFarge UK. “I thought it was the job I could retire from,” she says ruefully. “But after 18 months I got a call from the GC in Paris asking if I would lead the M&A team for Latin America and Europe.”
She terms the three years she spent in Paris ‘the most stretching of my career’. “I was learning something new every day and after completing a joint venture with Anglo American to create Lafarge Tarmac I was given three options: stay in Paris, run a division in China or go back to the UK and be the GC for the new joint venture. I chose the UK because I didn’t want to take another expat assignment.”
Swapping the arrondissements of Paris for the more humdrum surroundings of Leicester, Grimason returned. But she lost her verve for the role after redundancy rounds and a change of corporate culture.
Another call from a headhunter later she arrived at Travis Perkins. Although the building supplier is a FTSE 100 operation she inherited a very small legal and company secretary team and consequently spent the next six months reviewing it, aligning teams to business needs and creating business partnerships. Now she’s focused on embedding her team into the business, helping each develop in tandem.
“We’ve changed from being a centralised business to much more divisional structure over the last year or so,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges is to help my team develop and deliver what the business needs while helping the business realise what it needs from a legal team.
“We need to protect legal risk without being seen as the sales prevention squad – if you’re seen as a policeman you’re dead in the water.”
She’s swapped small business for FTSE 100 life but Grimason might just make a return yet. “You know what I really want to do?” she asks. “Open a stationery shop. That would do me nicely.”
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