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Greggs General Counsel, Jonathan Jowett

February 13, 2023

Greggs General Counsel, Jonathan Jowett

Greggs General Counsel and Company Secretary, Jonathan Jowett gives us some insights into his career as an in-house lawyer with a number of major UK and international brands. In this candid fireside chat Jonathan shares some of his career highlights and lessons learned along the way. He also reflects on the role of the in-house lawyer, how it has evolved over the years, recruitment and relationships with external legal advisers, and we play fantasy football of the legal kind! 

Our interview with Jonathan is the latest in Florit Legal’s In-house Legal Journeys® series.

How did you come to work at Greggs and why is it a good place to work?

I had been working in in roles in which there was a large element of debt restructuring, a tense and often difficult environment during the last financial crisis of 2008. It included working for a PLC that went into administration. Greggs then approached me and asked if I was interested in joining a cash-generative, organically growing FTSE 250 business in my native North East and added that they would give me more money for the privilege!

There is never a dull moment here and our brand is forever in the spotlight.

Reputation protection is one of the most ethereal, and therefore challenging, objectives and is always on our minds. It’s never simply about the legal risk.

What new challenges have you encountered there and also previously in your career?

On joining Greggs, I was asked to lead functions that I had previously only worked alongside, including Corporate Comms, Internal Audit, and the Greggs charity.

The “call” of the Greggs brand has opened up new opportunities for influencing Government, not least of which came about because of the pasty tax. We are currently trying to persuade Government that the Business Rates system is archaic and unfairly prejudices bricks and mortar retailers. The 2022 Autumn Statement made some progress with this.

Across my career, and from the perspective of an in-house lawyer, I have several highlights. However, it’s important to add a caveat:  the things that provide great experience for a General Counsel can often, unfortunately, be bad news for a company. I have managed three Class 1 Takeover Code transactions and multiple acquisitions and disposals all over the world; undertaken mass tort litigation in the USA and associated insurance coverage disputes. I have successfully defended a brand-threatening product liability case in the UK and a $650m false advertising lawsuit and worked on brand protection activity in the Far East. Then there was overcoming the Pasty Tax, responding to a dawn raid and restructuring (three times over) a debt-laden Tier 1 automotive company. Quite a variety.

What are the key issues facing the food and beverages industry now, and how are you addressing them as an in-house lawyer?

The challenges are quasi-legal at best. They come from taxation, including Business Rates, facing into the obesity crisis and potential legislation, the Extended Producer Responsibility rules and how deposit return schemes will impact small store food retailers, ensuring our customers are as safe as possible by quickly adopting allergen labelling requirements. We keep close to government and try to influence so that legislation is based on practical experience e.g. by taking MPs and Regulators into our shops.

How do you see the role of GC and the interaction with external legal advisers has changed over the years? 

I think the responsibilities for General Counsel have generally broadened beyond Legal. But this isn’t really a recent phenomenon.

In the smaller companies, in my career, the GC quite often combined the role with that of the Company Secretary – so would also be responsible for insurance, payroll, car fleet, HR, and Governance. More recently, for example, I now regularly hear of GCs who are taking responsibility for their companies’ sustainability strategies, an area which has grown dramatically in the last 2-3 years.

The challenges that we currently face are mainly around recruitment and attracting great people away from the huge salaries being offered in private practice. I’m still pretty sure that the work/life balance is much better in-house than in private practice, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s an easy life, to which I’m sure my team would attest.

When it comes to law firms, in 1993, I was quoted as saying they should show me their customer service principles, not their lunchtime menu! The latter seems to have gone thankfully. Now we generally get offered a Pret or M&S sandwich 😂, but I don’t think SLAs have made much progress. Litigation cost is the most difficult area to manage, particularly when the budget is tight, and sadly there still doesn’t seem to be a solution that is acceptable to management.

When you recruit in-house lawyers, what are the key things you look for? 

Risk-assessed pragmatism, and an acceptance that we are not going to spend time on fruitless legal arguments where both sides know what the ultimate reasonable middle ground will look like.

I once had an external lawyer tell me that trying to disrupt the normal outcome was half the fun – “not at my company’s expense” was my response!

Why might now be a good time to join Greggs?

We are a growing business, planning to double in size in the UK by 2026.

We work in a relaxed, hybrid environment, where there are no egos and no office politics.

We are a growing team, and there are opportunities to expand and broaden your experience as a lawyer in one of the country’s most recognised and respected brands.

You’ll get the inside track on the next fantastic social media campaign (having probably signed it off) and know what’s new in our award-winning vegan range.

What attracted you to being an in-house lawyer and have you ever been tempted to take a different direction? 

I was probably influenced by my Dad, who worked for an engineering company as in-house counsel.

I moved in-house over 30 years ago and, like many back then, I started off in a small high -street practice doing “dog-bites and divorce”, but after 18 months of that, enough was enough and I moved in-house.

Since then, there have been opportunities presented to me to go back to practice (albeit not in the last 14 years) but I have never fancied going back to business development and time recording. I’ve looked after the legal sharp end for some of the world’s best-known brands, including Avon, Durex, Dr Scholl, and more recently Greggs (although we’ve yet to conquer the world!!)

What’s the most thought-provoking interview question you like ask?

My favourite question to ask an interviewee is “How important is money to you”, which nearly always elicits a comment about salary. Those who respond by talking about business profitability and cash flow, showing that they have looked at the financial results of the company they seek to join, are in with a real shout of getting the job. This probably comes from my experience of working for a company that actually ran out of money – it’s not a place I would recommend to anyone!

Who’s been the most influential to you in your career and what is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

The person most influential in my career was Stephen Bogira, who was UK Finance Director at Avon Cosmetics, to whom I reported. Stephen taught me to be a manager, rather than a lawyer. He provided me with management training in the art and science of negotiating, in presentation skills, in lateral thinking and problem solving, and, funnily enough, how not to manage someone!

I once made the mistake of providing some advice to another Board member and hadn’t let him know. I got a message from his PA one Friday that he wanted to talk to me on Monday about that, and that I should bring my “tin hat”. I didn’t enjoy that weekend and the anticipated b****cking. Fair to say though that the prospect of it was actually worse than the meeting itself. But I have never done that to any of my team. Nevertheless, Stephen is that one who really set me off in my career.

What advice would you give to a lawyer thinking about moving in-house?

Actually, to do it as quickly as you can; I expect you will never look back.

Seriously though, you need to speak the language of the business; forget all that nonsense about spouting caselaw and statutes, because your colleagues won’t be interested. They just want to know how you will solve their problem, expressed in plain English. Oh, and that means getting used to making decisions on legal and even quasi-commercial matters, and not just being an “adviser”.

Can you recall any particularly awkward moments in your early career that taught you something you’ve never forgotten?

I once issued a public company Notice of AGM without a dividend resolution because in the previous year we didn’t pay a dividend! No-one else spotted it either, but it was embarrassing when I had to circulate a revised Notice to 2500 shareholders!

Don’t always trust a precedent and use a checklist!

What makes a good in-house lawyer and how should they start off? 

The best in-house lawyers offer a pragmatic, incisive interpretation of a problem and a solution to fix it.

In your first 100 days, make sure your new employer gives you a thorough induction across the business you’ll be working in, and beyond if possible. You should look to meet external advisers, talk to people about the business, get to understand the culture – it’s the only way you can become a part of it. Don’t get swamped with the day job – a good employer will give you the space to grow into your new company.

At what point in the corporate growth curve should a company hire its first in-house lawyer?

I’ve been the first in-house counsel at a senior level in several companies.

The most likely impact that a first in-house counsel will make will be financial, either through focussing on managing the external legal costs, knowing where to look at time-recording and the challenges that should be laid at a law firm’s door.

You should get a payback on the company’s investment in you very quickly or  a welcome embrace from offering to take people’s legal problems away and fix them so they can get on and run the business.

What particular pieces of legal technology could you not do without and do you see a role for AI?

I have never used legal technology as such. When I was in private practice we had a paper-based Kalamazoo time recording system. I suppose that was the technology of its time, and I remember when the small firm I started out in got its first Word Processor! Otherwise, it’s probably my mobile phone and its subsequent iterations.

Back in 1992, I had one of the brick-sized phones with a battery that would power a car engine and then a Blackberry when that became the management weapon of choice. Nowadays, I think Office 365 is a godsend, and I wonder if everyone would have so quickly embraced video-conferencing were it not for the pandemic. Funny how needs must….

I haven’t really explored the usefulness of AI yet (and that isn’t an invitation to salespeople), but if there is an ability to improve productivity and reduce costs, particularly for legal churn, then I am in favour.

How do you encourage good mental health in your team? 

I make sure they get time for themselves, that the workload is fair, that they take their holiday entitlement, and get the work/life balance right.

I am totally opposed to so called presenteeism: trust the people to do the work they are set, and they will respond with energy, enthusiasm and commitment, and go above and beyond.

Has work changed there post-Covid?

Without doubt, and to my mind for the better.

Flexibility is key, and hybrid working probably the solution for most. But we mustn’t lose sight of the need for human beings to satiate their instinctive gregariousness, and in the legal profession trainees still need to sit alongside their colleagues, learn body language, how to communicate (and how not to communicate), which is incredibly difficult over Teams. So there has to be a balance. Senior leaders might well prefer to work predominantly at home; but their teams need to see them in the office.

I felt for those who lost someone during Covid, either as a consequence of, or just during the pandemic. Those harrowing pictures of people standing outside care homes, or not being able to get married, or bury their departed. 

Personally, I was very lucky, and enjoyed much more family and free time, not travelling – even to the office. Life was just as hectic, but in a different sort of way, and not having to deal with traffic and trains was a blessing. Some of that has returned, but not totally back to how it was – which works for me.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at Greggs?

Actually, different work!

I have a non-executive role in a large hospital trust, I chair the Trustees of an Air Ambulance service, and am company secretary of a semi-professional football team. I play golf badly and will watch most sports (apart from cricket). My wife suggests she is number 3 or 4 in the pecking order – an assertion I absolutely refute. (Was that the right answer Catherine?). I’d be lost without my wife and my family, which now includes twin two-year old grandsons.  

What was your very first job?  

I had a milk round when I was 13, getting up at 5.30 to run around for a couple of hours before going to school. We worked 6 days out of 8, and it was much better paid than having a paper round. I didn’t know what to do with my £15 a month! My first Saturday job was in the carpet department of a store in Darlington, before moving onto the cooked meat and deli counter! Food retail was always there, somewhere!!

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with and what would you want to ask them? 

Actually, I used to live in Northampton, then home of Express Lifts, where the testing tower was known locally as the Northampton Lighthouse!

Taking a slightly political position, I would actually like to speak to David Cameron, and ask him what on earth he was thinking by giving people a Brexit vote.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve read recently?

“Viral. The Search for the Origin of Covid 19” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley. I read this whilst undertaking business interruption insurance litigation for Covid 19.

Do you have a hidden talent? 

Not so much hidden, as forgotten; I did a duet at the Royal Albert Hall Schools Prom in 1977 playing a Euphonium. I gave up brass-banding to earn my fortune on a milk round!

Favourite film?

So many! Shawshank; any Daniel Craig Bond film; and other Bond films; and the Bourne series.

Favourite gadget?

Currently my bean to cup coffee machine, but the most used is my iPad.

Favourite restaurant?

Bistro Italiano in Durham (but don’t tell anyone), or L’Enclume for a rare boat-pushing-out meal.

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

Anywhere with sunshine and temperature in the low 30s.

At the end of a hard week, what’s a treat that you look forward to?

3 points for Darlington FC – hopefully not a rare treat.

Most annoying phrase you’ve heard at work.

Starting a sentence with “As a business….”

What would be your ideal job?

General Counsel of Premier League and European Champions League winners Darlington FC, having just negotiated the free transfer (what a negotiator!) to the team of Erling Haarland, Kevin De Bruyne, Virgil Van Dyjke, Mo Salah, and Mason Mount.

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