Fenwick’s Head of Legal, Julia Naylor
Fenwick’s Head of Legal, Julia Naylor talks to us about her experiences as an in-house lawyer within the retail industry in our latest edition of In-house Legal Journeys. Following a surge in sales in the last financial year, and the recent sale of the company’s Bond Street store at the end of 2022, exciting times lie ahead for this long standing family-owned retail business after more than 130 years of trading.
Our interview with Julia is the latest in Florit Legal’s In-house Legal Journeys® series.
What factors made you choose to work at Fenwick and why is it a good place to work?
Fenwick is a family-owned chain of premium department stores founded in Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1882. There are currently nine stores, all located in England, plus the digital platform which delivers across UK.
Having completed my training contract in Newcastle, I was very familiar with the Fenwick department store so, when the role came up, I was immediately interested. I love the retail sector and I am a firm believer in the High Street so, after almost 5 years in my previous role, I felt ready for the change. Fenwick is such a great brand, with a brilliant history yet it has so much growth potential still, so it’s a really exciting time to be with the company. Everyone is treated like a member of the family, which is so nice. The Fenwick Values are all about putting the customer first and ensuring that anyone who walks through the doors of a Fenwick store has the most hospitable experience; and as someone who only joined a year ago, I believe this resonates into the offices too. I had such a warm welcome from everyone I encountered from the moment I joined, and I’ve felt empowered and encouraged to share ideas and opinions since day one.
Have there been any particular highlights so far?
As with starting any new role, you are immediately thrust from your comfort zone so, for me, the move was to affirm my own capabilities as a Head of Legal. I worked my way through the ranks in my previous role so when I became Head of Legal, my main challenge was the running of the function and setting budgets, as I already knew the workload and business inside-out. So, when I joined Fenwick, I had to learn the business whilst demonstrating to everyone that I was the right person for the role and the right person to lead and grow the function (in all senses!). The remit of the legal team has developed and is now involved in significantly more projects and matters.
Being able to identify gaps in the business activity which can benefit from legal value-add has given me real job satisfaction. One example being that the business had good relationships with local authorities, however, it did not have a primary authority relationship with any. We have now partnered with Newcastle City Council to form a primary authority partnership; I am a huge supporter of these partnerships. This new partnership will benefit Fenwick’s growth plans as we can proactively work with and seek endorsement from Newcastle City Council, giving the business a greater confidence as it launches new initiatives. A further example of the legal value add is the work I am involved in with our Buying teams Implementing processes and ensuring the understanding of differing product categories is embedded within the Buying team empowering them to have more confidence to ask the appropriate questions when bringing in product, be it own-brand or third-party brand.
How does the future look in retail?
I think retail continues to be a challenging sector as, in the current economy, consumer spending naturally reduces as people cut their cloth. In addition, I think that consumers expect, and deserve, an experience when shopping instore. Therefore, this generally involves some level of investment from retailers, be that financial or otherwise, which when consumer spending is down is not always easy to come by. In order to convert consumers to customers instore, not only does the product have to be right, but excellent customer service is essential now most product can be sourced at the touch of a button. This is why, at Fenwick, we believe customers should have an experience of hospitality, far beyond just ‘good’ service. To do this we have gone back to basics and we are really looking at what a customer wants and how we can deliver above and beyond that. This involves additional training to upskill colleagues. It involves upgrading equipment to ensure a seamless transaction instore. Then looking at how we replicate that instore environment and experience, online.
Fenwick is embarking on a business wide growth project. Following the announcement of the sale of Fenwick of Bond Street, the capital release is going to enable significant investment in the stores and in our online platform. It’s a really exciting time for Fenwick!
As someone who has recruited in-house lawyers, how do you think the role is perceived now, and what do you look for when hiring?
I think the role requires a lot more value-add than it used to; I don’t think it is enough anymore for an in-house to just sit and churn the contracts. Of course, that is still important to the role but I think the opinions and skills a lawyer develops peripherally to the ‘black letter’ legal skills are equally as important. The in-house lawyer is now much more involved in the wider compliance of the business, rather than the strictly legal aspects.
Enthusiasm for learning about the business and progressing themselves is a big one for me. Attention to detail is also important, as is initiative – but I find initiative can be hard to spot at interview as I think sometimes using initiative develops itself once confidence is found, so I take some responsibility myself for giving them the ability to show initiative.
What attracted you to the law?
I regard myself as fairly lucky, in that I knew I wanted to have a career in law in my high school years; those careers questionnaires we had to complete always returned my future career as a barrister or lawyer, and I just went with it. I would tell anyone who would listen to me when I was younger that I wanted to be a barrister but, following a work placement with the CPS in my late teens, I soon changed my position on that! However, I really enjoyed learning about and gaining as much experience as I could in different areas of law but once I did work experience in-house, I knew then that my long term plan was to be in-house!
What would you say to a lawyer who is unsure about moving in-house?
I would say, do it! You won’t look back; it will educate you in so many non-legal ways. But, critically, don’t be under the impression that it is ‘easier’ than private practice, the challenges are just different.
How should a newly recruited in-house lawyer tackle their role?
Get involved. Get known around the business. Don’t be afraid to make your own introductions. Speak and, importantly, listen to people at all levels and across all departments and functions because a big part to succeeding in-house is knowing and understanding the business and you cannot do this from behind your desk! Ask all the questions because none are ‘silly’. Don’t be a face-less lawyer!
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
To continually challenge yourself; say yes to doing tasks or getting involved in projects which are out of your comfort zone.
Have you encountered any awkward interview questions along the way?
Interviewer: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” [I proceed to give the standard 5-year-career-plan response]
Interviewer: “And how about personally, what does the next 5 years look like for you?” [I get slightly embarrassed, hide my engagement ring and waffle on about how I’m so focussed on my career I essentially don’t plan on having a personal life!]
Have you ever been coached in your professional life?
Yes, although not formally. I (still) love to learn and love to understand more about other people’s experiences and careers and I have been lucky to work with lawyers and non-lawyers who have had really interesting careers who have (whether knowingly or not!) taught me things which has helped me to think different about certain things and make decisions I don’t think I would have made, had I not been fortunate enough to learn from them.
How has work changed at Fenwick as a result of Covid?
We now operate hybrid working for functional colleagues, so we are in the office, Mon-Wed, and then have 2 days working from home.
How did lockdown affect you and have there been any surprising highs, lessons or things you have learned?
The first lockdown happened whilst I was still on maternity leave in a previous role, following the birth of my first daughter. So, whilst a scary time in the world, it didn’t affect me initially. However, when I did return to work in May 2020, a lot of changes had taken place during my maternity leave. A new CEO (who was my line manager), new FD, new working practices , so in some ways it felt like I was starting a new role. As we were not going in the office it felt quite scary being completely remote working. I was suffering with RTW lack of confidence, coupled with wondering how I was going to build rapport with my new boss, entirely from home! Fortunately for me, my boss was happy to have a regular Teams call and, as/when we were permitted, I made sure to go into the office to meet face to face to establish rapport.
Lockdown taught me that solicitors can work remotely, and that we don’t have to print absolutely every document out to read! But fundamentally, it made me realise how important it is to be able to go into an office and be visible within the business. My fear, throughout lockdown, was the conversations and projects going on which I wasn’t aware of and ought to have been.
What was your very first job?
I worked part time in River Island. I was so excited to even get an interview at age 16 so when I got the job (and the staff discount!), I was over the moon. I guess I’ve always been drawn to retail!
Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with, in the world of business?
Karren Brady – and I would ask her for tips on how to juggle work and life with a young family and how to ignore the constant “Mum guilt” of being a full-time working mother.
What do you do to support your own mental health and that of your team?
I try to make sure I take a walk out during my day, whether I am in the office or working from home. Getting some fresh air and time away from the desk really helps me to refocus my mind. In terms of supporting the team, I try to make sure my team know that they can talk to me but, if they don’t want to talk, I am here to support them. I think, particularly in the busier times, you have to lead by example and encourage breaks being taken – pop for a coffee, go for a walk – as the work will not go anywhere!
How about life outside work?
I have two young daughters, so family time is everything; weekends and spare time are for making memories with them. We try to be outside as much as possible (which is definitely harder in the current weather!) but our lives revolve around whatever will be ‘fun’ for the girls, although, my husband and I desperately try to avoid soft plays (although we do look forward to the girls being of an age that we can sit with a (hot!) coffee whilst they go and play together, but we are some years away from that!). I also love (all) carbs, chocolate and the odd glass of fizz!
I love going to the theatre! However, seeing ‘Chicago’ years ago at the Alhambra in Bradford has always really stuck out in my mind. It wasn’t long after the film had come out with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in and I just remember thinking how fantastic the live show was and that it was performed so perfectly. I had so much awe for the dancers and actors, I genuinely preferred seeing it in the theatre over the film.
At the end of a challenging week, what do you look forward to most? And do you have any guilty pleasures?
Such a simple thing but having a slower paced / less regimented morning; lie-ins are a thing of the past but being able to stay in pjs, make a nice breakfast for the family and then think about getting dressed and getting on with the day – it’s a nice break from the strict routine we have Monday – Friday!
My guilty pleasure is reality TV! I’m currently 100% invested in Love Island…
What 3 things would you put at the top of your “bucket-list”?
Canada to see my family who live there, Disneyworld and – slightly closer to home – Cornwall, I’ve never been but it looks beautiful.
Most embarrassing moment?
Not knowing how to say ‘quinoa’ and, rather loudly, saying in the office how much I was enjoying this new salad for lunch which had ‘QUIN-O-A’ in it – I must have said it about 4 times before the person at the desk next to me leant over and said “I think it’s pronounced ‘quinoa’.” They had been discreet, but I felt very daft and I haven’t been able to look at the word ‘quinoa’ the same since!
Most annoying phrase you’ve heard at work.
“I know it’s last minute, but…”
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