From retail to law: Graham Johnson, Finance Director, Michelmores

Tesco might not spring to mind as an obvious breeding ground for business directors in law. But when Michelmores hired Graham Johnson, for 11 years Tesco’s Finance Director of UK Operations, it was a statement of intent: this is a firm willing to think differently. And for Johnson? Well, it was the chance to make an impact on law – an industry he describes as ripe for innovation.

Besides which, Johnson thinks there are plenty of synergies between his experience in retail and law – for example, experience in funding businesses, dealing with banks, understanding levers in profitability and managing auditors. But he also thinks he has been able to bring something unique and beneficial to the legal sector, including a highly commercial outlook, skills in communications and business presentation – and, perhaps most of all, leadership thinking.

‘Tesco has one of the largest workforces in the UK,’ he says. ‘It’s very impressive that they have achieved an operation that is highly standardised but also very high quality. And that has been achieved through good leadership,’ he says. ‘The need for strong leadership is ingrained in me.’

The possibility of shifting to law came up when he was seeking a new role following his relocation to the UK’s South West. Here was an opportunity to apply his commercial expertise to a different sector. And the culture of law appealed to him. ‘It was much smaller than the behemoth I’d come from and I knew that’s what I wanted because I’d enjoyed the three years I’d worked overseas for a small Malaysian subsidiary branch of Tesco. I knew I wanted to be a bigger cog in the machine and have influence at a more senior level,’ he says. Law appealed too as a consolidating sector which was offering entrepreneurship opportunities. ‘If you get a role with an ambitious firm like Michelmores, then it’s a real opportunity that’s very rewarding,’ he says.

He describes the recruitment process at Michelmores as fairly lengthy and intense – it lasted around three months in total. The first interview included meetings with two sets of two people – the managing partner, HR director and two senior partners. It was then followed up by further interviews and some work, including preparing comments on financial figures, and doing a presentation on his first 100 days to eight or nine partners, plus the non-exec chairman and the firm’s auditor. By the time interviews were finished, he felt he’d been well tested. But there were advantages, he says, not least knowing exactly what he was getting into.

That also means there were few surprises on starting. There was a new business model (although he doesn’t think law is overly complex) and the legal jargon to get his head around. And there was the different pace to get used to – we are talking, after all, about moving into law from the FMCG sector. ‘Decision making in law is more consultative and about building consensus with owner managers who like to have a say’, he says. But he’s enjoyed developing his influencing skills – seeding an idea, gradually watering it, letting it grow and seeing it blossom, he says.

He cites the example of shifting the firm’s focus to revenue per fee earner. ‘It wasn’t a measure that was previously used but it’s a financial metric that drives profitability,’ he says. ‘I talked about it at a leadership meeting and then at the partnership conference. That was 18 months ago, and it’s now common parlance in the firm.’

His advice to others is to have patience. ‘Look, listen, learn, and appreciate the importance of personal relationships,’ he advises. ‘Immerse yourself in the profession, read around the subject and be willing to innovate.’ There’s a balance to be struck, he adds, between building consensus and knowing when to drive through ideas, but get it right and change will happen.

With three years now under his belt at Michelmores, Johnson is also proving that there are rewards to be offered to firms that are willing to think differently when it comes to sourcing new talent.

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