Olswang’s future was uncertain following a series of seismic management and strategy changes. Now CEO Paul Stevens talks to The Lawyer exclusively about international plans, his new team and why a merger is not on the cards.
Olswang has been in the headlines since late last year, when the sudden exit of former CEO David Stewart, the successive departures of most of its management team, and the closure of the firm’s Berlin office gave way to speculation about a potential merger or a massive downsize of the firm’s operations.
Throughout all, IP partner and newly-appointed CEO Paul Stevens kept his counsel and refused to comment. Does he regret this tactic? Not really.
“The news has thrown up a lot of opportunities, teams and firms approaching us. We seem to have an array of possibilities and it’s about picking the right thing for the firm and the partners,” he explains.
He flatly denies that his mandate as CEO is to tie up loose ends ahead of a merger or a sell-off.
“No, is the short answer,” he says. “We are looking at a bunch of opportunities, but this strategy isn’t about pre-packing the firm. As soon as one door closes, another one opens.”
The most recent door to permanently close was in Berlin, where Olswang’s entire team decamped for Greenberg Traurig after an announcement that the office was “decoupling” to focus on TMT.
Stevens insists that Olswang did not push the Berlin team out because of a change in strategy for the firm’s overseas offices. In fact, he maintains that Olswang’s international ambitions are far from over.
“I know many people have written about Olswang retrenching and going back to being a UK firm and turning into a boutique. This is all nonsense,” he claims.
”If I were to propose that, 90 per cent of the partners would say ‘why am I here then?’ Much of our talent want to work on an international basis. They want to be part of something that stretches and is aspirational.”
The problem with Olswang’s previous international strategy is that it sidestepped its client ambitions, Stevens suggests. “You can look at some of those decisions and it makes you wonder why we did them at the time.”
Singapore is a success story, with an “unbelievable client roster for its size and amazing work and jobs”. Set up to replicate the firm’s London offering, Olswang is in the process of hiring more partners to join its current 12 fee earners in the city-state.
Munich, which was one of the offices Stevens helped to build, is another. Since the firm announced its Berlin withdrawal, Stevens says the amount of work to Olswang’s other German hub has increased.
“The office is really something that was very client-driven,” he says. “Clients were struggling to get good representation particularly for patent work and so we opened on the strength of what clients wanted to do in the region.”
France is growing, Stevens says, as the firm added a corporate partner and a telecoms partner last year as part of its promotions round – although office founding partner Stéphan Alamowitch quit for local firm UGGC & Associés in February with a team. Meanwhile Madrid has shrunk in the last couple of years, with only one partner remaining following an investment made four years ago.
“Opening in Spain in 2010 was a very challenging time,” Stevens explains. “We’re keeping Madrid, that’s not going anywhere. We slimmed it down and we’ve moved it from a very large space to one that’s more in keeping with its size.
”Does Olswang have appetite to be elsewhere? Yes.”
Another bone of contention for Olswang were the recent management changes, which saw an entire team leave to be replaced months later with a new lineup.
The firm added former Linklaters global head of shared services Kevin Bye as head of strategic development and EC Harris CFO Neil Morling as chief finance officer.
Olswang HR manager Sarah Tucker took on the role of HR director, and partner Stephen Hermer is now the firm’s general counsel and head of acquisitions.
These appointments came months after a string of management departures at Olswang. Head of strategic development Nigel Rea left to join Lexis Nexis as a director; marketing director Michelle Elstein left to join Morrison & Foerster’s London office; general counsel Simon Callendar left to join Addleshaw Goddard as the firm’s first general counsel; and veteran HR director Ffion Griffith is understood to be seeking roles outside the legal world.
The one remaining vacancy is for director of marketing, which the firm is still advertising.
Stevens claims the exits were the cause of management change. “I think when you have a change of CEO inevitably you end up with changes in the C-suite,” he says.
“If I saw mass partner defections I would start to infer the worst, but we haven’t had that. I think we’re in really good shape.”
What about the rumours of tension between former CEO Stewart’s team and partners? “There was none that I’m particularly aware of,” he says.
Stevens’ new team will help him to achieve a three-point strategy, aimed at driving Olswang to be “more embedded with clients”, as well as going back to the firm’s entrepreneurial roots and “enhancing the firm’s ability to change and evolve”.
“I think we’ve been behind in the last 10 years in terms of what we’ve set out to do. We’ve not spent enough time as a firm listening to clients, and asking what they want from us,” he says.
“I guess it’s making the most of what we have in terms of relationships and offerings. We are exceptionally well placed for corporate technology work and telecoms work, and to a large extent real estate work. It’s about commoditising those relationships and monetising them.”
Although Stevens refuses to be drawn on how he will achieve that in practice, he has revealed his plans to develop Olswang’s Reading office from its current two partners and 12 associates.
“We can replicate some of what we’ve done in Reading by doing similar things in other service lines,” he adds.
Stevens also plans to grow practice areas, focusing on the firm’s corporate tech capability in particular.
“You will see hires from us in the next few months that are strategic for us, bulking out some of the areas that are important like real estate,” he says.
Stevens says the firm is budgeted to have another good financial year after posting a 7.7 per cent increase in revenue in 2014/15, growing from £117.6m to £126.7m.
Stevens stresses that he does not expect any reputational fallback from this transition period.
“I think the clever people in the market look past the management changes, look at the firm, look at the practice and the client base and think ’there are opportunities, I would work with them’,” he concludes.