Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Senior Legal Counsel at Compass Group

Mike Owen, speaks to us about counting pies at Compass Group UK

I joined Compass in 1996 following working in an in-house role at Lloyds Bank, prior to which I had been in private practice for four years. Compass is a worldwide catering and support services company with operations across around 50 countries. We work in sectors as diverse as education, defence, hospitals, offshore installations and major sports and leisure venues together with more general business and industry locations. It is this diversity and consequent breadth of legal requirement and opportunity for engagement in high value deals that provides one of the real challenges and motivation for the legal team here. .

Having three children, I’m well aware of the difficulties of explaining what dad does all day (absent the wigs and gowns of the Old Bailey, it can often be a challenge to get beyond the image of paper pusher) and as I’m penning this on a Sunday evening, a good insight into my working day should come from looking at what tomorrow holds.

The alarm goes off at 6am. There is the normal chaotic rush of children preparing for school (key arguments to be had before they leave the house etc). After a shower and quick breakfast, I do a brief check on the previous evenings’ emails. Our business can be 24/7 and many colleagues, particularly those in direct operational roles, work long hours and the only time they get to deal with emails can be late in the evening. Therefore, it’s useful to get a heads-up on any issues that may need urgent attention ahead of the planned tasks for the day.

I endeavour to leave the house by 7.00-7.30am or earlier if, during the summer, I get the chance to cycle to work (which I try to do a couple of times a week). Lacking the speed of Brad, or the drugs of Lance, this involves a one hour plus ride. As the trip also necessitates riding home, I can only do this where time and meetings etc allow but at least the return leg is more downhill.

Arrival at work can vary between 7.30 to 9am depending on commitments. Most recently, my working day has been largely taken up by the restructuring exercise we have been undertaking with our client contracts team and this has meant a lot of time dedicated to interviews, management and HR issues. Compass UK is a c£2bn turnover business and we’re currently in growth mode which generates challenges both in terms of increased volume of work for the legal team but also in terms of the complexities and sophistication of some of the contract models our business is dealing with (with increased emphasis on multi-site/multi-national opportunities and joint ventures or other strategic partnerships as well as a more diverse service base with the development of our wider facilities management business).

The key for us as a legal function is to continually evaluate how we best manage and meet the demands of the business. In dealing with these challenges, it’s important that we’re seen as a pro-active and trusted partner to the business. More than ever, our role is about being a legal risk manager, enabling the business to maximise opportunities rather than about purely transactional advice. Our team needs to be able to analyse risks and take commercial decisions and so we’ve set out to ensure we have a dedicated team who are closely aligned to our individual business sectors. The intention is for our new senior team members to be more greatly involved in the key projects and contracts, delivering solution-based advice and able to take an active part in the decision making process. We’ve also then recruited some good junior resource to bolster our general support offer and, at the same time, provide some management and development opportunities within the team.

The demands of the restructuring exercise mean that early mornings and late evenings tend to be the only time to catch up on the contracts work and generally the first task of the day is to re-check emails, print-off any paperwork required and then start work on any priority matters.

First task this Monday is to catch up on a couple of potential dispute matters to ensure that I’m aware of any developments. Next is a conference call with the sales director from our Defence business and our external client regarding a new contract. As the contracting model for this is quite complex (involving both standard and bespoke form MoD contracts documents and revised NEC3 terms), there’s a fair amount to run through on the call. Then it’s on to preparing for the next conference call of the day with one of our leading venue clients from our sports and leisure sector. This is a contract renewal exercise with the call intended to help finalise any outstanding contractual issues with input from the relevant Compass finance and operations directors.

I generally eat lunch at my desk whilst finalising any smaller jobs or doing any background reading/research or perhaps checking out our intranet and company-wide news etc. We also try to hold a weekly meeting to catch up with the team. This is an opportunity to both briefly review the key projects each lawyer has on the go and any specific legal points that we need to discuss, but also to discuss wider department matters or organise internal training sessions etc. The team here all work fairly closely together - both geographically and support-wise - so everyone normally has some awareness of the projects others are involved in. However, it’s always useful to try to find at least some time to bring everyone together, particularly given recent new arrivals in the team.

After grabbing a sandwich from our on-site restaurant, it’s straight into the next meeting which is with our HR business partner to discuss the development of the team and the forthcoming performance development reviews.

After that, I’m meeting with a newly appointed sales director for another of our business sectors. This will give an opportunity to ensure the sales and legal processes are aligned by providing a brief induction on what we do and how we assist by providing legal support to sales opportunities.

In between the various meetings or calls, there are always a number of larger scale projects or contract negotiations on the go in addition to the constant feed through the team of tender/contract reviews or the many and varied one-off legal queries. Like most in-house teams, our accessibility means that demand always outstrips our supply capacity and so learning to properly prioritise and manage business expectations is a key skill for all our lawyers.

I tend to leave the office at around 7pm or 8pm depending on demands and often finding a new impetus to finalise outstanding matters after the phones quieten post 5.30pm. It’s also an opportunity to make sure I’m on top of HR and management requirements and can continue to drive forward the restructure of the team. After getting home, I tend to check emails again towards the end of the evening or follow up on any reading required in preparation for the next days’ meetings/calls.

Evening engagements are infrequent but I will attend business/social events organised within the wider business where possible and we also arrange occasional team or social events with our external advisers. This less formal environment often helps promote a better relationship and understanding between our team and the external teams we use.

If the above insight leaves you non-the wiser as to what we do, I’m reminded of a tale one of our finance directors recounted. At a party he was asked where he worked and said, “Compass.” “Aren’t they a catering company?” came the question. “Yes”, he replied. “So, you’re a finance director for a catering company, what do you do all day?” Avoiding a more tedious response, “I count pies” he replied.

In a similar vein, we read and write the stories about who wants the pies, what sort of pies they want, how many they want, who will make them and what we get paid for them and, if all goes well, no-one need ever read the stories!