In this week's SME Focus a woman who developed a successful career in pharmaceuticals explains why she decided to risk her own money on a venture in the evolving legal business world.
Position: Chief executive
What is your business called? Law At Work
Where is it based?
Glasgow and Edinburgh
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
LAW manages risk in all areas of employment law, HR and health & safety for employers across the UK. We also offer a training programme for HR and line managers.
Who does it sell to?
We work with clients in more than 20 business sectors, with workforces ranging from 10 to 10,000 employees.
What is its turnover?
Approaching £2 million
How many employees?
When was it formed?
The company was formed in 2001 and was bought out by the management team in August 2012 from its then major stakeholder Maclay Murray & Spens.
Why did you take the plunge?
Coming from a non-legal background, it seemed sensible to use my background in business to help move LAW from being supported by a larger legal firm to a standalone business consultancy. The time was right; we felt we had the right people in place with the right expertise and the business was in a position strategically to support the move. Now, almost six months later, we are keeping the bank, and importantly our customers, happy as we continue to grow.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
My first job was an admin assistant in local government. However, it wasn't long before I realised that it wasn't for me, although I did learn to type.
After this, I leapt straight into the pharmaceutical industry, where I stayed for around 17 years.
I started out with no knowledge of the industry and quickly progressed to regional sales director, which equipped me with great skills for managing huge teams and budgets. From here, I then had a fantastic opportunity to join Diageo and switched from drugs to drink.
Finally, after many busy years in the drinks industry, I made a return to drugs for a few years.
Having developed a keen interest in human resource and employee matters throughout my previous posts, I saw the role at LAW as a great chance to make a difference and tackle a challenge in a sector new to me.
I joined the company in May 2010 as chief executive. Luckily, I was in the right place, at the right time, and the board saw how I could combine my business experience and interests to lead their ambitions.
Having never worked with lawyers before, I wasn't sure what to expect. Most people's preconceptions of lawyers are that they are buttoned up, overly serious characters. On joining LAW it was refreshing to find that our legal team are highly professional, easy going individuals with great personalities. The office is certainly noisy, fun and with a lively buzz – we even have a graffiti wall, which is well used.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
HSBC bank saw the value in our proposed business model and were willing to back our MBO.
That, together with equity from the three of us involved in the MBO, provided the funding we needed.
What was your biggest break?
I am eternally grateful to the pharmaceutical area manager who took a gamble in giving me my first real career break; given I had no medical experience or knowledge, no sales experience, was a dreadful driver (which many claim I still am) and had no sense of direction.
That single chance gave me the opportunity to focus on developing a career, in preference to having a job, and gave me belief that I was capable of doing more with my life.
What was your worst moment?
My worst moment was early in my career when I was working at an organisation involved in a major company reorganisation.
The reshuffle involved me having to make capable people redundant. Tough decisions around people are always the ones that impact on me personally and the process definitely caused a few sleepless nights.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
No day is ever the same and despite several years leading teams and being involved on management boards, I am still faced with new challenges, which is hugely appealing to me.
This was especially true for the MBO, which was a totally new experience for me and really took me outside of my comfort zone. I learnt a lot, especially dealing with banks and putting a business case forward.
What do you least enjoy?
I am extremely ambitious and have a great vision of where I would like the business to be.
However, it can be frustrating knowing that you need to take the small steps in order to get to the bigger picture.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
I am focused on driving growth and developing our services further in line with our clients' needs. In the next couple of years, I want to see LAW become a recognised leader of employment law, HR and Health & Safety support south of the Border.
What are your top priorities?
Pay the bank! Continue to develop the services we offer, so that we retain our existing clients and attract new ones. Increase our client base south of the Border.
Continue to provide what we think is a great place to work for our people. We aim to raise £10,000 for our 10 chosen charities.
A significant change to our sector has been the arrival of Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in England. Scotland will allow these shortly.
This means that non-legal companies may opt to be regulated legal service providers. We have yet to see any additional effect on our market as many of our competitors are owned by non- lawyers already. We will weigh up whether we should become a registered ABS once we see the new system in action.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish Governments do that would help?
From our clients' perspective, it would be helpful to stop playing around with employment law legislation. It can be very frustrating, particularly for the average SME, to have to constantly adapt to new pieces of legislation (even those that purport to cut red tape rarely do).
I would love to see Scottish Enterprise provide more funding for the professional services sector in the same way that they support sectors such as technology and life sciences.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
You are only as good as the people who surround you and that you have to continually look to improve what you do to be competitive in your market. Also, that I still have a lot to learn from others!
How do you relax?
I spend as much time as possible in the fresh air, either walking or running with Henry, my beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback.
I have recently returned from a trip to Everest Base Camp and I am already planning my next adventure – perhaps something a bit warmer!