Alex O'Connell

Alex O'Connell

Legal Director and Company Secretary at Northern Gas Networks

After ten years at NGN, and after the retirement of his predecessor and mentor, Alex O'Connell took a step up as legal director and company secretary

Alex O’Connell is Legal Director and Company Secretary at Northern Gas Networks (NGN), the licensed gas transporter for the North of England, which delivers gas to 2.7 million homes and businesses and owns and operates more than 37,000 kms of gas pipes – enough to stretch from its Leeds HQ to Sydney and back again. NGN employs around 1,400 staff and 800 regular contractors.

Alex, who is based in the company’s Leeds head office, joined NGN in 2009, having qualified with Cobbetts (now DWF) in Manchester in 2006 and then worked as a corporate solicitor at Brabners and, later, Stephensons Solicitors. Having worked as part of NGN’s in-house legal team for ten years, he took over as Legal Director in April 2019, and now manages a team of eight incorporating the core Legal team as well as the Property and Claims teams.

The Brief caught up with Alex and asked him to describe a typical day in his working life.

My working day begins with a coffee and a quick catch-up with the team before logging on to my emails to see what’s on the agenda for the day and if any urgent actions need picking up. While the legal team works with the business to plan ahead where possible, there is inevitably a reactive nature to the workload as well, so the team needs to be agile and adaptable.

Today I have a meeting with our external legal advisers on a rent review dispute concerning one of NGN’s gas pipe easements. We are working with external counsel on this dispute because it is significant in value and has potential ramifications for the wider utilities industry.

I have also been helping colleagues put together the necessary contractual documentation for a pioneering hydrogen testing project (H21) to convert the gas network to 100 per cent hydrogen, and ultimately provide an affordable, zero carbon solution for heating in the UK. NGN is leading the project in collaboration with the UK’s gas distribution networks and this ground-breaking work has been subject to much press attention.

The legal department is embedded in the company’s governance and contract sign off processes, which means we can ensure legal compliance while operating at the heart of the business.

I would wholeheartedly recommend the in-house life to any budding in-house lawyers as it allows you to make a real difference to the organisation in which you work and the workload is always very varied, which keeps things interesting.  

The inside track

I took over as Legal Director and Company Secretary in April last year, following the retirement of my predecessor, Mike Ashworth, who really helped to mentor me over the years, notwithstanding our football rivalries – I support Preston North End and he supports Burnley!

As Company Secretary I am responsible for administering the process in respect of the company’s Board and Board Committee meetings and ensuring that all the paperwork is in order. I also chair and minute the monthly senior management team meetings, which act as a valuable forum at which significant business issues can be discussed and resolved.

The step up to Legal Director and Company Secretary was made easier by the fact I have been working at NGN for over ten years now and so feel that I have more than served my apprenticeship within the business. That said, the role is obviously more demanding than my previous one due to the increased seniority within the business but I am relishing the challenge.

As we are a relatively small team I still have more than my fair share of the “doing” but my role now enables me to take a wider and more strategic view across the business which I enjoy.

Outside the office

At least a couple of times a week I try to break the day up with a lunchtime swim at a hotel and spa which is conveniently located next door to our office. As well as hopefully helping to keep fit I find that swimming clears my mind and even helps me come up with new solutions to tricky problems.

As the office is based out of the city centre the social side is inevitably a bit quieter than when I worked in private practice in the centre of Manchester as a junior solicitor (which is no bad thing as I am much older than I was back then!) but there are occasional nights out for birthdays etc and there are always networking opportunities available with contacts we have in private practice.

The legal department is embedded in the company’s governance and contract sign off processes, which means we can ensure legal compliance while operating at the heart of the business.

Five-minute commute

My typical office hours tend to be 8.30am to 6.00pm although I often end up taking some documents home to read in the evenings and at the weekends. There is also some travel involved with the role although the work-life balance on the whole is very good and staff are very well looked after by the company.

I also have the advantage of living within a five-minute walk of the office, so my commute at either end of the day is entirely predictable, unlike that of my colleagues who have to battle with the vagaries of the M62 on a daily basis!

In the evenings, depending on how work is going, I tend just to relax at home with my wife and watch Netflix.  When time permits, as foodies and film buffs we try to get out for dinner at one of our favourite restaurants such as Shear’s Yard in Leeds and take in a film.

I also enjoy playing the guitar and songwriting, and watching my football team when I can. Over the summer I also run a Northern Gas Networks cricket team, which is good fun (at least when we win!).

I would wholeheartedly recommend the in-house life to any budding in-house lawyers as it allows you to make a real difference to the organisation in which you work and the workload is always very varied, which keeps things interesting.  

Awards

We’re a Sunday Times Best Small Company to Work For: 2016, 2017, 2018