Hart and Soul
Wollens managing partner Chris Hart describes the evolution of his firm and the personal journey he’s taken alongside it
Serial mergers and acquisitions (M&A) can be a risky strategy. For some firms it’s a direct route to growth, and if the timing and the deals are right it pays off, but many a firm has come unstuck mistaking M&A for an easy route to expansion. When Wollens chief executive Chris Hart set out on his merger journey in 2006, little did he know that 12 years later he would have grown the firm’s revenue by 560 per cent, from around £1.5m to £10m, and completed no less than six mergers in total (see Fig.1). Looking back on it, he admits it was a steep learning curve. Back in 2006, he says, he would not have even contemplated two mergers in one year, which is precisely what the firm did in 2018, tying up with Exeterbased Morgan Pope and North Devon’s Toller Beattie.
The two mergers brought over a decade of M&A to a close and paved the way for the period of consolidation that Hart is now navigating the firm through. “I have to say doing two in one year is not to be recommended”, Hart says wryly, implying the adrenaline rush wasn’t entirely unwelcome. “It wasn’t how we intended it to be. We’d been in talks with both sides for a little while and I’d thought one might come off, I didn’t think they both would, but they did.” It was “a fluke of timing” he says, that due to the various accounting periods of each business, the deals had to be completed in the same year. It is perhaps Hart’s consistency of leadership throughout the last 13 years of growth and beyond that enabled Wollens to succeed where others may have floundered. He is, as common parlance would have it, Wollens’ ‘man and boy’.
He trained at legacy firm Hooper & Wollen, before swiftly proceeding to partner in 1992 and managing partner in 1999, at the tender age of 36. Hart seems somewhat surprised at his career trajectory. “I don’t know where that would stand now, in those days that was very young to take on that sort of role”, he says. However, during the nineties law was undergoing perhaps the first of a series of renaissances and in Hart’s own words, “the old gentleman’s profession thing was disappearing fast”. The profession was ripe for ambitious young lawyers to take the reins and start leading firms from a strictly managerial perspective, rather than ending up in leadership roles purely by virtue of time served. Hart set out on what he describes as a “strategy of opportunity”, essentially a growth strategy that is powered by agility in the face of opportunity. “People ask me, ‘how do you choose or strategise what’s next?’. To be honest, there’s nothing magic in that at all”, he says. “It’s about having a growth plan, certainly; but it’s also needing to find the right partners. And sometimes you don’t find them, they find you. And that’s just an opportunity that appears. It’s about being able to respond to opportunities that come along and be agile and maximise them.” You certainly couldn’t accuse Hart of failing to maximise opportunities.
Starting off with a well-known and respected local private client and property firm, Hart has built a go-to full service legal business covering the whole of Devon, with offices in Exeter, Torquay, Barnstaple and Newton Abbot. What is even more astonishing about the exponential growth Hart has managed to guide the firm through, is that he did it all over a decade in which he was diagnosed with kidney failure. In fact, just as he embarked on the final two mergers in 2018, he underwent a kidney transplant. Having been on a donor list for years and struggling to find a match, medics eventually felt that immunosuppressants had improved enough that they were able to proceed with a donor kidney from Hart’s wife. At the same time the firm was embarking on a major rebranding and marketing project, with branding expert Tom Banks from consultancy Quite Early One Morning. “I was physically away from the office for a couple of months”, Hart remembers. “The operation was the beginning of November. So I think I was back in full-time by the beginning of February. But we were having branding meetings with Tom and the agency people on my dining room table at home in dressing gowns”. It seems extraordinary that someone could be so seriously ill and lead such a remarkable programme of change across a 10-year period in the way that Hart has done at Wollens. However, in some ways his diagnosis of chronic kidney disease in 2008 may have helped fuel it. “My consultant said very early on, ‘right now you can either go home and sit around and mope about it and feel sorry for yourself and give up work. Or you can throw yourself into it and make the most of everything, and every opportunity you get’. I certainly try to do that.”
Last year the firm was recognised with a LawNet business development and marketing award, having rounded off the growth strategy with a hugely successful rebrand. Wollen Michelmore became, simply, Wollens and the full-service firm took on a new tagline of providing “full spectrum law”. Maintaining a distinct identity and proposition is perhaps one of the biggest challenges a firm can face after an intense period of consolidation. However, Hart says keeping the culture of the firm on track has always been a priority. “We’re trying to be very strict in terms of ensuring that departments are run across offices, ensuring that all systems are applied across offices. We don’t have offices that do it their own way. We’ve worked really hard on making sure everybody can feel part of the whole practice. I think that’s paid off. Although fundamentally the issue is trying to find like-minded people you think you can work well with”, he explains.
There have been casualties along the way, of course. Some staff fell by the wayside as the firm scaled up and became a modern, professional entity. Partners from smaller firms, who had been used to voting rights on every management decision, left when they realised Hart was operating a more corporate style of business. In 2012, shortly after becoming Wollen Michelmore the firm became an LLP, and Hart created a new senior leadership team becoming chief executive rather than a managing partner. The firm had just merged with Harold Michelmore in Newton Abbott, taking turnover to around £4.5m. “By that stage the growth was picking up quite significantly”, Hart recalls. At around 16 partners by that time, Hart decided to move from monthly partner meetings “where everyone would sit around the table discussing how much loo paper to buy” to a more corporate structure where regular meetings were held between the leadership team, and minutes circulated to partners to keep them informed. In 2014 the firm went on to merge with Charter Ferguson, which had offices in North Devon. “That really got us on the map in that location as well and it meant that we had cross-Devon spread between the south and the north coasts, and that in itself is quite unique”, Hart says. After that, the firm had gained the local recognition it had been striving to achieve and began winning awards, both regionally and nationally, for the management of the practice, as well as its private client team. The firm had by this stage built up a strong following in key practice areas such as private client, property and family, but it was still looking to gain a foothold in commercial. That was where the 2018 merger with Toller Beattie came in and Hart says he now feels the firm can legitimately say it has a fullservice offering. While consolidation remains his immediate goal, Hart says recruitment in the South-West is a perennial problem, particularly in commercial law where lawyers are far more likely to head to major cities to practice than move to the regions. “There’s almost this myth that South-West firms, and particularly firms on the coast, are merrily offering a great work-life balance that you won’t see anywhere else”, he says. “But the reality is that we have to work as hard as everybody else. And our people, all of our people, are expected to work as hard as everybody else. The difference is we might be in a location where, yes, you can go off surfing at the weekends and you’ve got moors and beaches on your doorstep. But sometimes that perception can go awry, and you end up with candidates who really just want an easy life. But really, it’s just a question of having that geography on your doorstep and, you know, making the most of it in your spare time, rather than interviewing clients on the beach!”
LIFE AFTER MERGERS
It is perhaps unsurprising to hear that having dedicated so much time and energy to Wollens throughout a period of relative illhealth, Hart expects a significant work ethic from his people. As a result, he has opted to follow a “grow your own” strategy and, for a regional firm, Wollens has a significant trainee programme. “Going back 15 years, it might have been the case that we’d take a trainee every now and again. And there wouldn’t be much structure or policy to that recruitment process.
Whereas at the moment we’ve got something approaching 10 trainees and there’s a real focus and drive on developing young talent. “We’re hoping that once they qualify, they stay with the firm. I see us recruiting anything between two and four per year going forward. I think we’ve got a slightly higher number than that just at the moment because of the way some of the years are going and we’re not necessarily sticking to the traditional October to September year”, he explains. Hart is very clear that the team he has built around him is just as much to thank for the success of the firm in recent years as he is. Wollens’ practice director Clive Meredith, for example, is responsible for much of the dayto-day management of the firm, while Hart’s primary focus is strategy. “There is a lot of cross-over as well”, Hart adds. “We work very closely together and it’s good to have somebody to bounce things off. Sometimes these positions can be very lonely actually. When everyone’s looking at you to come up with the answers.”
Having that team around him will be key to the success of the firm’s next major project, which is relocating the Torquay office to brand new, purpose-built premises. Wollens is taking 14,000 square feet of new space to replace its current, somewhat outdated, traditional law firm office set up. Hart says the new space will “revolutionise” its Torquay offering. The move is tabled to go ahead this summer.