Mamas & Papas Legal Director, Jason Curtis Interview
Mamas & Papas Legal Director, Jason Curtis tells us about his in-house legal journey. Before working as a lawyer in the retail sector, Jason started out as resort representative, and then a litigator, in the travel industry and recounts how working on claims led to a more general commercial in-house legal career…
Before you became Mamas & Papas’ Legal Director, what was it that originally led you to becoming a lawyer?
The truth is that I never set out to be a lawyer. I left university with a qualification in Tourism Management and needed a job to save for a trip to Australia and New Zealand. I’d been a holiday rep for Cosmos during my sandwich degree and the company were happy to have me back, albeit working overseas. When I asked to do a stint at head office, they offered me a role in the Litigation Department. It was in the early days of the Package Travel Regulations and tour operators were suddenly liable for failings within the supply chain (food poisoning at hotels, slips by the pool). I got to deal with some really interesting claims and worked with some excellent lawyers. The industry was a fun place to work and I got to visit holiday destinations from Majorca to Mexico, delivering training to reps and investigating claims. I enjoyed the work and the claims handling, so looked in to a post grad in law (then known as the CPE). The company offered to fund my studies and I moved over to sister company, Monarch Airlines, under the tutelage of the Group Lawyer and where I got involved in more commercial work, IP and aviation matters. The rest, as they say is history….though I never did get to Australia and New Zealand! It’s on my bucket list.
You’ve been with Mamas & Papas for over 10 years now – what made the business an attractive option for you to pursue?
There were a number of factors. First was the opportunity to go in to the business as its first in-house lawyer. That was exciting, and gave me the opportunity to shape the legal function. More important was the breadth of work I would get involved with from contracts supporting design, manufacture and development agreements to IT software contracts and work to support the expansion of the company’s store portfolio. I had been used to working on international agreements and the opportunity to deal with cross border contracts in a new sector was really appealing. In the first three years in my role as company solicitor at M&P most of my time was taken up with negotiating international franchise and distribution agreements in different countries around the world. Over the 11 years I have been at M&P I’ve been to cities around the globe, including Moscow, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Athens, Shanghai, Beijing, Beirut and Carlisle!
What do you put the longevity down to?
I not only run the legal team at M&P but a wider Professional Services Department, and therefore there are always lots of things to keep me engaged every day and, even after 11 years with the business, I am continually learning new things and dealing with new issues. I have carried out a lot of employment work in my roles over the past few years but having an HR team report in to me means that I am required to provide support and advice that goes far wider than just the law. I also enjoy developing team members and there is little more satisfying than when you are able to promote from within the team. At M&P I set up a work experience programme, working with BPP law school. This has led to some work experience students going on to do summer work and, on some occasions, taking up training contracts with the company. Even where we have not been able to offer training contracts, it has been good to see students go on and secure contracts with national and local firms, with the work experience they have gained with us playing some part in them securing the role.
It’s great that you’ve been able to offer in-house legal roles to trainees, how else has the organisation changed since you joined?
The single biggest change has been the ownership of the business. It has gone from being family run to being acquired by private equity owners. That has meant a change of management style and it is almost like I have worked for two different companies, just with the same name and from the same office. From a professional point of view, the requirement of the owners to report to investors on ethics and compliance has given me the opportunity to lead a structured ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) programme.
How has your role changed over the years?
I have been given a great deal of autonomy to run the legal function and I have been given the opportunity to expand my role beyond legal. In 2016 I set up a professional service department to bring HR, training, recruitment and payroll in to my area, in addition to legal. Since then facilities and health & safety have become part of the wider department and there is dotted reporting line in to me from quality control.
In terms of legal projects, what have been the highlights?
I have enjoyed many projects I have worked on. Working on international agreements, with lawyers overseas and experiencing the cultural differences in negotiation in different places is really interesting and seeing the business grow and stores open in other countries, following the work you have done from the outset, is really satisfying. I have really enjoyed the big reviews that I have been involved in from looking root and branch and the company’s processes and procedures connected with product safety and review of manufacturing contracts to putting together the company’s first engagement survey and restructuring the group companies. These projects involve working with colleagues from different disciplines around the business and to get a real understanding of what is important to those colleagues and the business. Whether I have led a team or played a part in a team in a project that results in a new set of procedures or documents that help the business, I really like that side of the role.
Who’s been the most influential to you in your career?
I have been fortunate to work with some excellent people, many of whom have been a real influence on me. At the beginning of my career I worked in litigation and dealt with all sorts of holiday claims, many of which involved a personal injury. I was fortunate to work with some really good lawyers that helped shape the way I dealt with cases and sharpened my drafting skills. I was fortunate to work with James Dingemans QC, whom, during the preparation for a trial in the Royal Courts of Justice, was asked by Lord Hutton to work with him on the Hutton Inquiry. James, who led the defence of our case, constantly critiqued statements drafted in the case and I learnt a lot from him. Perhaps the biggest influence on my career, however, was my first boss, having left university, Christine Francis. She was the Customer Services Director at Cosmos and was constantly dealing with a crisis. Barely a week seemed to go by when there wasn’t an incident such as a hurricane in a Caribbean resort, a bandit attack on a safari tour or an outbreak of food poisoning that she needed to deal with, leading the front line for the company. I remember when I was on the emergency incident team with Christine and there had been a coach crash in the US, shortly followed by a mini bus crash in the Algarve. She led the emergency procedures teams with such calmness and organised all of the teams very well from the emergency line for worried families to call to getting colleagues out to where the incident had taken place. She dealt with the families of those involved with compassion, made decisions with clarity and supported the colleagues working on the incident. Her way of working has held me in good stead throughout my legal career and I always think of Christine when there are stressful situations to deal with and advise on.
What piece of practical advice would you give to someone looking to join the legal profession?
Do as much work experience as you can!
What do you like to do when you’re not in the office?
I love travel, good food, going to gigs, reading books and spending quality time with my partner, daughter, friends and family. Music is my big passion. I have an eclectic taste in music and love hearing new stuff. I am completely at home at Latitude Festival, which I have been to 10 times now.
What song was No1 when you qualified?
In a year that brought us the Cha Cha Slide, Eric Prydz was number 1 on the date of my qualification with Call on Me!
What was your first non-legal job?
When I was 14 I had my first part time job, working for Gateway Supermarket!
If you could spend an hour with anyone the world of business, politics or entertainment, who would you choose?
I’ve thought long and hard about this because there are so many people but I’m going to go with Pet Shop Boy, Neil Tennant. I recently read that Neil Tennant has been asked to write an autobiography but commented that he felt his life is not interesting enough. Neil Tennant is, in my view, one of the best lyricists of our time but has also worked with some phenomenal music icons, such as David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr. Together, with Chris Lowe, he is still making really good albums and has been involved in countless arts projects. In being interviewed for extensive notes to accompany re-issued albums, he talks casually about being invited by Liza Minnelli to Frank Sinatra’s hotel suite to discuss the music they have produced for Liza with Sammy Davis Jnr. I think Neil Tennant would have plenty to put in to an autobiography and certainly a lot to discuss in an hour.
Any guilty pleasures?
70s disco music! Need I say anymore?….
What’s the most interesting book you’ve read in the last year?
I love reading and particularly biographies and autobiographies. The time I get to read varies. I do most of my reading on holiday and at the weekends. I’ve particularly enjoyed MI5 and Me by Charlotte Bingham and Spider from Mars (My Life with Bowie) by Woody Woodmansey, though the most enjoyable book I have read in the last year has to be Cold by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. I read the book whilst I was in the Arctic Circle, which certainly added to the read when I came in from temperatures of -24c and looked out at the snow from the lodge I was staying in. The book was also brought alive by having listened to Sir Ranulph tell some of his stories at a dinner before Christmas. The book is extremely well written and Sir Ranulph is really candid about his fears and the things that went well and not so well on his expeditions. There is a lot of historical content in the book to concerning previous expeditions and discoveries and indigenous populations of the arctic, such as the tribes he came across.
My Sonos sound system!
Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?
I have been lucky to visit some fantastic places through personal travel and work. Watching the sun set over St.Thomas in the Caribbean and travelling in India have been highlights but my recent trip to Finland has to be my favourite. My partner and I both had a northern lights trip at the top of our list and in February this year we stayed in Ivalo in Northern Finland. The beautiful sunrises and subsets over the snow covered lodge that we stayed in and the snow shoe walking through the forests was amazing, but above all having the privilege to witness the aurora borealis for two nights during our visit will stay with us forever. We were very fortunate to find out just before the holiday that a friend of a friend had moved out to Ivalo at the start of the season and that her husband is an aurora guide. That meant we got to witness the lights from a remote frozen lake and got some amazing images. It was truly a magical holiday.
Your default tipple is…?
A good Rioja.
Top 3 things on your “bucket-list”?
Polar bear watching in Greenland;
Orca watching in Vancouver via a trip from Banff to Vancouver by train; and
Star gazing in Arizona.
Most embarrassing moment?
Probably leaving my shoes on the plane, on my way to a business trip to India!
I flew to Delhi with a work colleague. On the plane there was a separate storage box by my seat to put your shoes. As it was forecast to be around 40c when we arrived in India, I changed in to some shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops, so I was comfortable on arrival. It was a Sunday so we were not meeting any business partners. On the Monday morning, I got in to my suit for a meeting with a prospective business partner when it dawned on me I had left my shoes on the plane. I had only taken one pair with me. The partner was very understanding and very helpful. As shopping centres open late in the day and remain open late in to the night in Delhi, there was nowhere to go to buy shoes. The business partner was really helpful and opened up a Canali franchise store so that I could go and get some. I had to go to the store in a suit and flip flops and it cost me a small fortune. Some of my friends and colleagues still rib me whenever Facebook reminds everyone on the anniversary of my posting!
Besides being a lawyer, if money were no object and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you most like to try or do?
I’m a geeky music fan, so I guess I would have to say I would love to be a record producer. I watched a music documentary series a few years ago called the Music Moghuls and the best of the programmes was on music producers, including Trevor Horn, Mark Ronson, Tony Visconti and Nile Rodgers. It was great to hear how they took good tracks and moulded them in to great records; the creativity involved. I’d love to do that!
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