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Sofina Foods Group Legal Director Europe, Tim Saunders

October 20, 2022

Sofina Foods Group Legal Director Europe, Tim Saunders shares some highlights of his own in-house legal journey from sole legal counsel to GC and then Group Legal Director for Europe. In this interview he offers some sage advice for newly appointed in-house lawyers and suggests some questions you’ll need to think about (and answer) if you want to become one, including how not taking the safe option can often pay dividends for your career.

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

Who are Sofina Foods?

Sofina Foods is a privately held, major international food manufacturer based in Canada. The European business is headquartered in Malton, North Yorkshire, and employs around 7,500 people in food manufacturing across the UK, Ireland, Germany and France.  It is the largest supplier of white label and branded pork and seafood food products to UK supermarkets, with a major presence in Germany.  Young’s Seafood is our most popular consumer brand in the UK, but I can guarantee that if you eat fish or pork, chances are that you will have eaten something that we made within the last month, whatever supermarket you frequent.

Why is it a good place to work? 

I work with great colleagues across all functions, and we all have a common purpose to drive the business forwards, with shared camaraderie.  I’ve also the real pleasure of working with some excellent lawyers in the legal team over the last five years.

I love working in a business that is on a journey, and having a hand in making that journey become reality.  I joined Karro (a predecessor organisation) from Wm Morrison supermarkets as “first lawyer” in late 2017 when it was under VC ownership, to help it stabilise, grow, bulk up and then get to exit, either through private sale or IPO. This was a part of the business journey that historically I hadn’t been on before, but wanted to experience.  We did that through some small UK acquisitions in 2018, the acquisition of Young’s Seafood in 2019, Greenland Seafood (major EU seafood business) and several Republic of Ireland food businesses in 2020 and early 2021, finally selling the business to Canadian multinational Sofina Foods Inc in Spring 2021.  I’m pleased to have stayed with the business post-acquisition to help with its integration into the international Sofina family of companies.  Joining Karro in 2017 was a bit of a gamble, as I also had an offer to stay on at Morrisons.  However, my decision to move here was the right call, as it has been an amazing journey of learning and growth.  I would have missed out on so much if I’d played it safe. 

In terms of personal growth, what have been the highlights for you so far? 

From sole legal counsel via General Counsel to Group Legal Director for Europe, the leadership of the business under all owners has actively encouraged me to learn more about the operational and commercial intricacies of the business, to develop new skills, and to take on non-legal responsibility.  That has included taking on company secretarial responsibilities, becoming a pension trustee, administrator of the death in service scheme, working on cross functional project teams, and becoming part of the European senior team. I feel it has definitely made me a better rounded lawyer and business person.  The more you know the business, the better the advice you can give, and more pertinent solutions you can bring to the table.

Keeping the factories running, colleagues safe, and food on supermarket shelves so that the public were fed during the early days of the pandemic was an exciting, if slightly scary, challenge that required a lot of legal support.  Working as part of multi-disciplinary crisis team gave real insight into operational parts of the business that lawyers normally wouldn’t get to see.  Buying several businesses in EU jurisdictions during the second and third lockdowns, and then selling the business immediately thereafter helped me to hone a different set of project management and co-ordination skills, and I also had to dig deep into my resilience reserves!  I was lucky to be part of a great team, and we had some great secondees helping us during this period (you know who you are). These all started off being real challenges, and have ended up as key highlights, as we were successful.

What are the biggest challenges for in-house lawyers?

Nowadays I think most GC’s find that their role is much wider than just being a senior lawyer or even a wise old (or young) owl.  In addition to providing excellent legal support, we need to help the business gel and get stuff done by being a facilitator; an aligner to the purpose and an evangelist of the vision. We need to be the unseen glue that shares information, breaks down silos and gets people talking to each other.  It takes time to build up the necessary rapport and trust with senior colleagues to achieve this.   Post-pandemic, most legal leaders I’ve spoken with have commented on the current challenge of recruiting and retaining excellent legal talent, even more so in the current uncertain economic climate.  But this isn’t unique to our profession, it’s prevalent across all professional disciplines.

In my fantasy law firm, all the fee earners would have been on secondment in-house for at least twelve months…

What would you like law firms to do that some of them might not be doing currently?

Law firms, to be “commercial” in their advice, and hence to be really useful to their clients, need to have lawyers that understand more about how businesses work in real life.  This can only really come from fee earners spending time within those businesses to see how the advice they give, and the resulting decisions that are made, play out. It takes it out of the theoretical into the real world.  It is also quite a surprise for some secondees to experience classic law firm “bad behaviours” from the client side. In my fantasy law firm, all the fee earners would have been on secondment in-house for at least twelve months, as a result of which: service would be timely; advice would be pragmatic and tailored to the real situation; costs agreed up front and stuck to; billing accurate; and everyone happy.  I’ve worked with some great secondees over the years, all of whom are now excellent lawyers in both private practice, and in-house.

What do you look for when you recruit in-house legal counsel?  

For me, it is always attitude and fit. 

Are you a positive, glass half full, person? Are you able and willing to share your particular legal skill with the rest of the team? Since you’ll have to become a bit of an all-rounder, how willing and able are you to learn new legal skills from the team?  How will you fit into our team?  Will you be “all for one and one for all”? Can you take guidance on the commercial context? Can I put you in front of the board?  Can I put you in front of the shop floor? Can you explain that legal point to a director / finance colleague / engineer / marketing colleague / facilities person in a way they will understand? How will you handle things or react when your advice is ignored or actively rejected, or if you make a mistake?

Technical skills can be learned, attitude rarely can. 

How did you become a lawyer yourself? 

My careers advisor in sixth form sold me the concept of doing a law degree as a way to “keep your options open”. I then found out during my degree that I quite enjoyed it, and in my early career, I discovered that I was okay at it.  In house is a great way to get under the skin of all sorts of different businesses and to learn the ‘behind-the-scenes’ angle of how things work in the real world. 

If you’d asked me as a kid what I wanted to do when I grew up, I probably would have said being an archaeologist or a product designer.  I’ve been blessed to be able to work with and alongside a wide range of brilliant professionals in different sectors, including with product designers, research scientists, IT techies and in high tech manufacturing.  And food – the things I could tell you about where it comes from, the economics of it…  The law has given me an exciting way to have a career, and to learn more about the world every day.

Who has been most influential to you in your legal career? 

I had an amazing boss called Neville Hamlin who I worked for in the research sector.  He was very light-touch in his management style, and coming out of ten years of “command and control” in private practice, it was the first time I had come across the concept of servant leadership, let alone experienced it.  He put a team in place around him who he acknowledged were stronger than him in their areas of expertise, and actively encouraged and supported each of us to develop and grow as professionals within our areas.  He was generous with sharing his business expertise and commercial knowledge, forgiving when we made the occasional mistake, and frequently encouraged us into making the right decisions for the business that he could have just imposed – but he wanted us to figure it out and get there by ourselves. The loyalty he engendered was phenomenal, and he was an inspirational mentor. Sadly he passed away from a brain tumour in 2016.  I often think “what would Nev say?” when dealing with a tricky commercial conundrum, and try to follow his example in my business relationships.

Have you benefited from coaching in your professional life? 

I have been coached and have coached others in the past.  Having a neutral, non-judgemental mirror held up to oneself, to enable you to work through your own thoughts, needs, and desires in respect of a situation is a really valuable thing.  It gives you a safe space in which to make decisions clearly and in a considered way, rather than in a rushed emotional or reactive way. It was with the help of a colleague at Morrisons, Paul Styles (with whom I was in an informal mutual coaching partnership) that I took the decision five years ago to leave what I called “the safe option”, and move to a small food business (Karro) with future potential, but which carried some risk. After an exciting five year business journey that I’ve had the honour to take an active part in, the  “strange little piggy business” I joined (as another Morrisons colleague called it) has become Sofina Foods Europe, one of the leading suppliers of seafood and pork in Europe.

What would you say to someone looking to move in-house for the first time, particularly with regard to their first 100 days?

Don’t be shy, and don’t think you have to pay your dues in private practice first.  If you can, try and get on secondment into a business.  This will give you a taste for what it is like and whether you will like it – it will also boost your CV and attractiveness to businesses for a future move.  Any other non-law business related experience you can get will also stand you in good stead – for example, being a school governor, being a trustee for a charity, having a side hustle selling vintage stuff on ebay.  Anything that shows that you have an interest in business and have a bit more commercial nouse about you than just being a “legal robot” – which is what most business employers fear the most when hiring lawyers.  

The best in-house lawyers are those who are keen to learn in the widest sense, not just in terms of expanding their legal skills, but also in terms of understanding how business works and in developing their commercial skills.  This comes from time at the coal face, I’m afraid, spending time working with different parts of the business, observing senior colleagues and being constantly curious.  Every day is a learning day. Ask them what they are doing, and why, and what the impact for the business is. I’ve found most people in business to be very generous with sharing their knowledge and insights, and they are actually quite pleased to talk about their areas outside of a purely legal context.  It also breaks down any barriers about “stuffy lawyers” and gives them the confidence that you now get the context of whatever their legal issue is.  Over time, it enables you to build up a bigger picture of the business and how it works and to see things with wider impact that colleagues in their own discrete areas won’t be aware of, enabling you to add real value.  As in-house lawyers, we have a privileged window into getting to know most of what is going on across an organisation, that other colleagues don’t get to see. Getting to know the business is critical during that first 100 days, and on an ongoing basis.  I’d also make friends with the finance team and get a crash course in the specific economics of your company, as everyone will assume you understand the financial side once you get into it.

Having been first in-house counsel yourself, when would you say is most appropriate for a company to hire its first lawyer?

As soon as it can realistically afford to, keeping in mind that legal is a support function (albeit a very important one).  That is because a decent in-house lawyer can add so much in terms of helping maximise value on exit.  This is particularly the case for a business with intellectual property, where getting the exploitation model right will drive revenue, EBITDA and valuation, but also in most other businesses by getting everything in shape early to minimise the risk of a “chip” on exit price later.  

In my experience of start-ups, hiring in-house lawyers rarely happens during the first five years, where the focus is quite rightly on getting going and making money.  It tends to be after the first big legal problem (and big law firm bills) that the first in-house lawyer gets hired, usually at the request of investors to pull things into shape.  Please don’t think of us in-house lawyers just in terms of what can be saved on external fees – we can also add real financial value to day to day operations, and to what is realised on exit.

How do you feel about AI in the legal profession?

In the words of Mulder (from the X Files): “I want to believe!” – but I haven’t seen anything that really delivers on its promises yet, and which is economic.

What do you do to support the mental health of you and the legal team, and what do you enjoy most away from work?

Positivity, a shared sense of purpose, and humour goes a long way towards a happy team.  It’s less stressful if all in the team have each other’s backs and support each other.  On a practical level I try to give flexibility, openness and clarity, and strong personal support to the team.  On a personal level I make sure that I have one evening mid-week carved out with my daughter for quality time, and enjoy a bit of cycling to get the endorphins going. I know it’s a cliché, but spending time with my family is very important.  What else do we work for?  Having fun with them is definitely the best reviving tonic.

How did lockdown affect you in the food industry? 

During lockdown as a food business, our staff were all designated key workers, and as part of the senior team I was still on site every day, as our head office is part of a large food factory.  There were a lot of tough challenges in the food industry that went on behind the scenes to keep the country fed, which perhaps weren’t as high profile as those in the news, with related legal work to keep staff safe and supplies flowing. Food industry workers truly were the hidden heroes.  The advancement of remote working technology and the adoption of Teams almost globally over this period felt like a quantum leap forward, with the rest of the legal team being fully engaged from home.  We also bought several businesses in Germany, France and Ireland during lockdown, and then started the sale process of the business (to Sofina), so the legal team was kept very busy and remained critically important to the business throughout the pandemic.

What was your very first job?  

Apart from a paper round at 13, my first proper job that paid wages into a bank account was working in a video hire store one school night a week, and at weekends, from 16 to 18 (this was back in the eighties, pre-Blockbuster).  It wasn’t much like the movie “Clerks” (showing my age here), but it did teach me the value of hard work, excellent customer service, and keeping a good sense of humour and smiling through the long hours.  I also can’t watch certain eighties movies now, as they were on loop in the shop – I’ve probably watched Big or Top Gun (the original) over 100 times.

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with?

Social mobility is really important for me as I have benefitted from it, so I would love to be stuck in a lift with my ancestor William Aspinall, who around a hundred and fifty years ago started out at the bottom, as a grubby young lad stacking canal barges in Goole, shifting cargo around Yorkshire, but ended up as a master seaman owning and operating the first iron hulled sailing vessel built on the Humber, with a crew of seven.  He was clearly a canny man with grit, drive and a vision to improve himself and his family’s lot, and I know he would have some great wisdom to share.  I love the fact that he used to sail in and out of the mouth of the Humber past Grimsby docks, and used to look out on the same view I can see from the Young’s office.  Sadly, whilst dashing to deliver a cargo of potatoes to Dundee from London in time for Hogmanay in 1903, during a horrendous winter storm, his boat struck a notorious set of rocks off the coast of Northumbria, and all hands were lost in sight of Bambrough lighthouse. Hopefully I won’t suffer a similar fate!

What’s the most interesting book you’ve read of late?

“The Dip” by Seth Coren.  It outlines very useful ways of looking at how you are progressing in any area of endeavour – be it your career, learning a new skill, or achieving business targets, and assessing whether it has become pointless, and best to switch to a fresh approach or challenge, or whether to lean in to the difficulties you face to push through to the successful result you have defined, or which you now re-define. A really good read with plenty of food for thought for anyone who is wondering what to do next. 

Do you have a hidden talent? 

I speak Portuguese as I grew up in Brazil.  It’s not so much a hidden talent, just one that doesn’t get used enough.

Favourite restaurant.

The Black Swan at Oldstead used to be our local before it got its Michelin star, although it’s quite hard to get in there nowadays.  Roots, their York spin-off restaurant is excellent and they have a very good wine list.  I particularly like the fact that they focus on using local North Yorkshire produce, and that most of what is served comes from their own farm which is close to home.

What would you say is your guilty pleasure?

I have an addiction to West German pottery.  I have way too many old pots. I’m a sucker for mid-century art and design, and can’t resist a good hunt for a bargain and a haggle at our local car boot on a regular basis.  By the time I eventually retire from lawyering, I plan to have accumulated enough stock (aka old junk) to set up a fantastic vintage interior design shop (at least, that’s my excuse).


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