|Thursday, 30 October 2008 11:50|
Heather McGregor asks Patrick Law to recall a career path that led to his role as Barratt Developments’ director of corporate affairs:
A Barratt show home would be more luxuriously decorated than Patrick Law’s office. In an anonymous building nestled in the heart of the West End’s former rag trade in W1, the room of Barratt Developments’ director of corporate affairs is notable for two things: its proximity to his CEO, Mark Clare, and the single painting on the wall, an abstract illustration by the Somerset-based artist Brian Elwell.
The only other objects that draw the eye are the boards propped up against the wall, which depict a Barratt development. But this is not just another housing estate or block of flats. It is the artists’ impression of the zero carbon Hanham Hall, which this year won Barratt English Partnerships’ Carbon Challenge competition.
Law talks animatedly about Hanham Hall, due to open next year, remarking that “it represents the place where my two sector interests collide – energy and housing”. Hanham Hall may still be conceptual, but there should soon be a lot of similar housing built if the government’s target for all new developments to be zero carbon by 2016 is to be met. Law’s 20 years in the energy sector could turn out to be exactly the experience required to move to the most senior communications position in housing.
“Joining British Gas wasn’t a particularly strategic decision,” he says. “I wanted to travel with my girlfriend and needed to extend the overdraft to do so. I thought it would look more convincing to the bank manager if I could say I had a job to go to when I got back. So I applied for several jobs and British Gas offered first.”
Law returned from his travels and stayed with British Gas for 20 years. “I should have guessed I would be there for years. One of the people I worked with closely was Richard Cassidy, in the PR department. He originally joined for a year but was still there, 15 years on, when I met him. He’d planned to go round the world on a vintage motorbike and it was still in the company car park.
Law remembers his first 18 months on the graduate training scheme – writing the annual report, speeches, you name it. “This was a huge government-owned utility going through enormous change,” he recalls.
It might not have been a strategic career choice, but it is hard to see how Law could have done better. To a fresh-faced Oxford graduate interested in politics and economics, British Gas in 1986 was fascinating. The company was dominated by its hugely powerful chairman, Sir Denis Rooke, an engineer who had overseen the conversion to natural gas. He had fought to make sure that British Gas stayed in one piece during its privatisation, often falling out with the prime minister by threatening to resign and wreck Europe’s biggest ever privatisation.
"Like the best in-house communication directors, he knows his own company but he knows the sector well too. Most crucially, he has his CEO’s respect – journalists feel they are speaking to someone completely credible". James Rossiter
Rooke was replaced by Robert Evans, who set up a corporate affairs department. Until then, Law had been frustrated at the lack of opportunities in this area and was considering an offer to join the corporate affairs department of a US oil company. “You have to remember British Gas had the mindset of a nationalised industry,” he says. “It didn’t lobby because it was ‘part of the state’, and it didn’t try to influence the agenda.”
Instead, he joined the business issues department, which turned out to be an incredibly good learning post. His responsibility was for horizon scanning – what issues were going to come up next? How was public policy going to develop? What would be the next big item on the agenda? And most importantly, as it would turn out, would competition ever be introduced – and if it did then when, and what form would it take?
British Gas then hired Zimbabwe-born Peter Sanguinetti, a more aggressive corporate affairs director, from BAA. Not content with a 53-strong team, Sanguinetti set up a government affairs department which Law, who’d worked for an MEP while at university, joined.
This was just as the Mergers & Monopolies Commission started an inquiry to decide the fate of British Gas. Mark Pendlington, who had followed Sanguinetti from BAA, (and returned: he’s now in charge of communications at Stansted) was Law’s boss and together they worked flat out to convince the government not to break the company up. The MMC inquiry found against them but the government overturned the report. Despite legislating to introduce competition, it decided British Gas could remain in one piece.
The arrival of the next chairman, Richard Giordano, changed everything. A charismatic American who had come from BOC along with all the attendant headlines about his compensation, Giordano realised British Gas was much better off in separate parts if it was going to take on domestic competition.
Law got on very well with Giordano. “I suspect it was because of my outspoken nature,” he recalls. “I speak my mind, which in a culture of quite stiff formal people – the sort who populate a recently nationalised utility – set me apart. I learnt much from Giordano; in particular how to develop great clarity of thinking. And never to compromise on the quality of the people you recruit.”
The Gas Act, which enabled British Gas to be split up, was preceded by endless rounds of select committees, meaning Law often spent all weekend preparing Giordano, despite being relatively junior. The demerger spawned BG (oil and gas explor-ation and refining), Centrica (marketing and selling to the con-sumer, and owner of the British Gas brand name) and Transco (the pipeline infrastructure, soon sold to National Grid). Sir Roy Gardner came in to run Centrica, while Giordano moved to British Gas.
With 25,000 people being made redundant in the run up to demerger, Law was facing his first test in employee communications. It was also the time of the biggest career decision of his life so far. Should he go with Giordano, a man who had taught him so much and led the company through this momentous time, or should he opt for Centrica with Sir Roy?
“Both twisted my arm but I wanted something new and different,” he says. Centrica was totally different. It was a retailer, not an energy company. It had no assets. Was that a tough decision for him? “It was a pretty lonely decision, actually. Everybody I consulted had one view or the other.”
Interestingly, Lewis thought Law had the ability to move on from communications into general management: “But I am pleased he made his career and reputation in corporate affairs.”
Public affairs at Centrica would prove critical on two counts. First, it was a new organisation which would have to be introduced to everyone. And secondly, the government had changed and they were now facing New Labour – and the windfall tax.
Fortunately, Law and his team had been laying the groundwork for Centrica’s position many months before while the Labour Party, in opposition, was debating the windfall tax. The outcome was a major coup: although Centrica had to pay the tax, the government agreed to abolish the gas levy. “Even after the windfall tax we came out ahead,” he says.
By this time, Law was a director of public affairs and CSR. Keen for a wider communications remit, he moved to Centrica’s subsidiary, British Gas, as director of communications. Here his responsibilities expanded to include media and employee communications. A notable innovation was to put British Gas radio into the cabs of engineers out in the field, so they could ring up and listen to broadcast messages from the centre. There were also moments of crisis – when British Gas had to push through a 14% price rise, it leaked. As Law said, “I had to go into Mark Clare (then CEO of British Gas) and explain to him the rise had leaked and in the next hour he would be needed and wanted on every radio and television channel and by every newspaper.”
Law’s last 18 months at Centrica were spent as Sir Roy Gardner’s chief of staff, attending, but not part of, the executive committee – good preparation for his current job. In September 2006, Clare left Centrica to become CEO of Barratt Developments and, in 2007, Law joined him as director of corporate affairs. Almost immediately after, Barratt broke its ‘organic-growth’ tradition and acquired Wilson Bowden, for £2.2bn, making it briefly Britain’s biggest house builder.
“What attracted me to the company was the mandate to set up the corporate affairs function from scratch,” says Law. “That meant putting in place capability in external and employee communications as well as investor relations. Now I have a very strong team.”
James Rossiter, reporting on the property sector for The Times, met Law when the Wilson Bowden deal was unveiled. “I noticed how efficient he was at picking up on things I had asked at the meeting and offering to expand on them later,” he says.
Rossiter, a former lawyer turned journalist, had been following the sector for some time, at the Evening Standard and other papers. He had built up good relationships with all the CEOs and finance directors in the sector, few of whom had in-house communication directors. How did he feel about having someone in between him and Clare? “Well, I wasn’t delighted at first, but it is a measure of how effective Patrick is that after a year, when I was calling to check market rumours that Barratt was renegotiating its debt, I was almost indifferent whether he or Mark returned my calls and texts.”
That credibility was helped, no doubt, by Law’s membership of the executive committee at Barratt. Clare says of that position: “Pretty much everything we do as a management team affects one or a number of our stakeholders: shareholders, the media, our people and government regulators. By sitting at the top table, he is able to look at decisions taken and how we operate through the lens of those we must communicate with.”
So what does Law himself think are the key attributes needed for the job? “You need the ability to bring the outside world into the organisation,” he suggests. “You need strength of character to express opinions, but diplomacy to make sure you do it in a way people will listen to. You then have to help people make decisions in the full knowledge of what the consequences will be – it doesn’t mean people will not take the decision, they just have to know how to manage it once they’ve taken it. Quite often you find yourself being the tider of bad news.”
Law has retained links to both sides of the political divide in the public sector. “It helps to have been round the block a bit and it helps when people know you,” he says. “With public affairs, it is key to understand the issues rather than organise parties. You have to engage with the agenda”.
Law, whose green credentials are bolstered by regularly cycling the eight miles from Greenwich to work, has four children at home, a family he has raised with the partner he met at Oxford.
At one point they had four children under six. I joked that was probably enough to make anyone go out and focus on their career. Law smiles, but doesn’t have time to debate the point – he is briefly leaving his sparsely decorated office for another round of duty in the public eye: this time, lunch with the Daily Mail.