Helen Lowe – business manager in Legal – at the Co-op – discusses how the legal team has played its part in the company’s challenges, moving forward & more

Can you tell us a bit about you own career to date?
I trained with KPMG in its audit practice, following an MBA route which was offered at the time, rather than the more traditional ACA route. I joined the restructuring team in 2007, and managed turnarounds and insolvencies until I left in 2012. I joined Sellafield Ltd on a large programme of work which was being redesigned and then in early 2015 joined the Co-op as business manager in Legal.

What does your current role at the Co-op entail?
I always say that business manager isn’t the most descriptive title! I am part of the leadership team, and responsible for the operational aspects of the department; from HR to finance, strategy to change, both at the design and the implementation stage. Having worked with a variety of people, businesses and teams throughout my career, I have a great opportunity here to use that experience and make a real difference.

The last few years have been tough for the business so how challenging has it been for the legal team?
Everything that the Co-op has been through, the legal team, along with other teams across the business, have also lived through. From the long working hours and strategic focus in the rescue phase, right through to the rebuild phase, it has been very uncertain. When faced with very real, personal challenges, the team has proved to be resilient, adaptable, and have faced these challenges head-on. As we move through the rebuild phase though, the optimism of the business is palpable, and this sense of excitement and optimism is very much present in the team.

How does the team deliver value to the business?
We’ve got a number of lawyers with extensive Co-op experience and that knowledge brings huge advantages in conversations with the business. We also have a number of new members of the team who bring with them a wealth of experience outside the Co-op, whether in practice or as part of another in-house team.

The value the legal team delivers comes from blending this understanding of the business and experience with commercial acumen, and being in the right place at the right time. In doing this they can ensure that the business understands legal risk, and makes informed decisions on a sound legal basis.

How do you get the balance right between using internal expertise and accessing external advice when it’s needed?
In a business of this scale and diversity, external advice and expertise will always be required. The balance is moving as the Co-op moves through the rebuild phase, and we constantly review that need as the business evolves. We have a panel which has supported us throughout the challenges that we’ve faced, and know the business well. We view them as partners, working with the team, rather than as ‘supply chain’ firms.

What’s the strategy for the future and how will the team evolve?
The strategy for the team is one of the first areas we developed after I joined the Co-op. The move is towards a business partnering model with teams of lawyers integrated into the business, and relationships and engagement at the heart of what we do. The team has and will continue to evolve to meet the needs of the business; we build the knowledge and understanding of the business and provide proactive, valued and trusted advice when it’s needed.

Success is a team which is so integrated into the business that they are at the heart of decision making, both tactical and strategic. We need to develop the right skills within the team and ensure that the supportive environment is in place at all levels to enable them to deliver value into the business.

What’s been your career highlight?
There have been a variety of highlights, from the stories that get told again and again, through to the more everyday successes. I think a real highlight for me would be the team conference which we held last year. It was so positively received, and signified a step change in how the team was going to work going forwards – I think the team were expecting a day of briefings, when what was delivered was a much more interactive experience which was more focussed on how we work together. It was a real morale boost for a team which had been through a tough year.

Finally, any words of wisdom for our in-house lawyer readers?
I’m not sure words of wisdom is right – I rarely have those!To me it’s about the changing role of the lawyer: moving from gatekeeper to trusted advisor. Be bold, build relationships, and focus on how you can help the business deliver its objectives, not just protect it from itself. That’s the way forwards.