Chief Executive Officer, A&O ConsultingA&O: 2018-present
Managing Director, Asia Pacific, A&O Consulting
Partner and Global Chairman of A&O’s Corporate practice
Managing Director, UK, Europe and the Middle East, A&O Consulting
As September 2019 sees A&O Consulting celebrating its first anniversary, we hear about what the new strategic consultancy is offering clients, its global expansion and plans for the future.
Sally Dewar has had a busy year, even by A&O standards. But then as the CEO of A&O’s new consulting business, she had an ambitious plan.
Since she started her new role in September 2018, Sally has built a team of 17, visited numerous A&O offices and won high-profile mandates from, among others, eight major banking clients and two regulators.
“I believe we’ve put together a strong team with huge expertise across business, professional and regulatory services,” she says. “We can all draw on a lot of experience of driving change through large organisations, and collectively we have a broad network of regulatory contacts. It’s a strong combination.”
Richard Cranfield, global chairman of the Corporate practice and co-head of A&O’s Financial Institutions Group (FIG), agrees.
Richard thinks back to 2016 and the discussions on launching a new consulting business. “We’d been hearing from our major banking clients for some time about the need for higher quality strategic consultancy advice, particularly given the sheer volume and complexity of regulation hitting financial institutions across multiple jurisdictions,” he says.
“We were getting the message that what was on offer from existing consultancies wasn’t meeting clients’ needs. In fact, by the time we’d started putting together the early stages of a business plan, virtually all our major banking clients were asking us to do this.
“When you hear a consistent message like that, you act.”
Finding a leader
“The business plan quickly won support from a core sponsor group in Regulatory, Capital Markets and Litigation,” Richard says. But while it clearly offered an exciting and potentially huge opportunity, it was also a completely new type of work and would take A&O into direct competition with big-name and long established consultancies.
Sally Dewar, as Richard says, was the ideal leader. She had been JP Morgan’s Head of International Regulatory Affairs for seven years; and before that Managing Director of Risk, and a board member at the UK’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), the predecessor to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
“Sally’s significant experience in-house at the world’s biggest bank, as well as at the FSA, brought exactly the experience and credibility we were looking for in both areas. Plus we could see she had the skills to build strong relationships within A&O and with clients,” he adds.
From Sally’s point of view the timing was perfect. She says: “Twenty-five years of being deep within firms and regulators had brought me to the point of wanting to round off my experience doing something different, taking big decisions, building something new.
“As soon as I joined, I knew I was on the same wave-length as everyone here. People have been incredibly friendly and welcoming – and I definitely feel my intellectual levels go up a notch when I walk through the door!”
The business of start-ups
The first stage of a start-up is inevitably “all the granular detail”, as Richard puts it. “We are setting up the organisational and legal structures, developing the products and client proposition, choosing the name and getting all the other administrative stuff sorted,” he adds.
And of course building a team.
In a major recruitment drive at the end of 2018, Sally hired 14 people in London and three in Australia, where the team sees real growth opportunities.
One of Sally’s key hires has been Catherine Gibaud, who joined the senior leadership team in June 2019 after more than 20 years as a barrister and QC specialising in banking and financial services. “Among other things, Catherine is in charge of quality assurance,” Sally says. “It’s critically important for both clients and partners to know we’re focused on this at all times, and that the quality of our output and advice to clients supports the A&O brand.”
On top of building her team, Sally has visited A&O offices, attended practice group offsites and partner meetings, and met one-to-one with her initial ‘hit list’ of 150 partners.
She’s been impressed, she says, with the willingness of partners to engage with her and spend time understanding the model. “They’ve all listened carefully to me – some with a healthy scepticism to begin with – but by the end of our conversations they seem supportive of the business rationale and keen to help,” she says.
“So my focus now is on doing high quality work and demonstrating the different skills and broader service we can offer clients – that will bring even more support from across the network.
“My ambition is to have a consultant working as part of the A&O team on all large mandates. We’re already integrating consultants and lawyers successfully on several projects. For me, this is a huge differentiator.”
The four pillars of A&O Consulting
A&O Consulting positions its people to act as high-level advisors to the most senior executives within organisations, providing strategic direction, frank and independent advice, actionable recommendations and, for regulated firms, a forward-looking view of regulatory risks.
The four pillars of the business are:
- Governance: Applying global best practice to increase the effectiveness of governance and drive sustainable business outcomes
- Corporate purpose and culture: Unlocking people’s full potential by embedding the right values
- Conduct and operational risk: Developing innovative approaches to managing the evolving risk landscape
- Regulatory strategy and implementation: Keeping pace with regulators wherever in the world businesses operate
Richard says: “While this type of work puts A&O firmly in the consulting space for the first time, it’s still closely aligned to our legal work.”
Each of the four pillars is developing well, albeit at different speeds. He adds: “That’s to be expected as they’re dependent on the specific skills of the people we’ve brought in, as well as the feedback we’re getting from clients. It’s a young and evolving business.”
Early – and big – wins
Already, the team has won important and exciting mandates. For major banking clients, it is advising on improving governance models, enhancing corporate culture and implementing business and personal conduct programmes. It is advising the board of a fintech company on the construct of its legal function, and preparing a risk assessment framework, methodology and supervisory plan for a Middle East regulatory body.
“A really interesting project we’ve worked on is to create an interactive culture and conduct product, which we’re now selling to clients,” Sally says. “We’ve designed a toolkit of 50 personal conduct scenarios, like Trivial Pursuit cards. They each present a dilemma – for example on expenses and government officials, or conduct at a client event – and pose a series of discussion topics to help managers and teams unpick everyday situations so that they can understand and strengthen working culture. This also helps teams comply with FCA conduct rules training.”
Richard believes one of the most significant successes to date is being appointed by the Financial Reporting Council to carry out an independent assessment of KPMG’s UK audit practice, culture, governance and controls. He says: “This is a massive win for us – it’s a big piece of work and will likely be very high profile when finished.”
Overcoming early challenges
The first year of A&O Consulting has not been without challenges, though. One that surprised Richard was the complexity of on-boarding clients. He says: “Even though we’ve had relationships with these organisations for decades, we’re dealing with new teams and delivering non-legal services that are regulated differently. So the process of being taken on, effectively as a new entity, has been instructive.
“On the plus side, once we’re on board, we’re getting repeat business from clients. They’re not just paying the bill – they’re coming back to discuss what more we can help them with.”
Another challenge has been converting the enthusiasm and buy-in from across A&O into action. “There’s a pretty open and flat structure here, so it’s been fairly easy for Sally and the team to integrate within the business,” Richard says. “But after the initial conversations, inevitably people go back to their day jobs, so we have to stay front of mind and continue demonstrating how we can help clients. It’s vital that we pick up the work that would normally go to external consultancies.”
Sally agrees. “The first challenge was finding the right people while ensuring we didn’t grow too big, too quickly. Peerpoint has been excellent in that regard – we’ve used five Peerpoint consultants so far in London and Sydney,” she says.
“Now that we’ve got our initial team, the priority is to leverage A&O’s relationships and integrate our expertise into what we offer clients, making sure we’re involved in any pitches with non-legal service components.”
While A&O has relationships with many of the organisations Sally and the team are targeting, the individuals are different. “It’s the CEOs, CFOs, CROs and Chief Compliance Officers we need to get to know,” Sally says. “But it’s important we do this with the support of the clients’ legal teams; otherwise we’re not going to be aligned correctly.”
The new international managing directors
A&O Consulting’s international growth is being driven by the opportunities the team sees emerging, rather than a pre-set plan.
Two key hires boosted the international profile in 2019. Tom Lodder joined from Barclays in February as Managing Director for the UK, Europe and the Middle East; and Lee Alam joined from Commonwealth Bank of Australia in April to lead in Asia Pacific.
Across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Tom’s plan is to maximise work from A&O’s top FIG clients and develop a pipeline of business from asset and fund management clients.
“A&O partners have been open and encouraging, and almost every discussion presents new opportunities,” Tom says. “We have won work with four of our top 15 bank clients and a number of other EU and U.S. banks already. But we want to ensure we build a diverse client base, so I’m pleased we’re attracting fintech clients, plus work from professional services organisations and regulators.”
Lee says A&O Consulting is working closely with legal colleagues across Asia Pacific to build deeper relationships with the domestic banks. “Typical areas include regulatory change and remediation, where a consultancy team is required to design a risk or compliance framework and help implement changes, while the legal practices advise on legal or regulatory obligations and run any investigations or litigation,” he says.
In Australia, in particular, increased regulatory scrutiny is arising from the recent Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, as well as the inquiry by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority into governance, culture and accountability.
“These are unprecedented challenges but there’s a lot we can do to help clients navigate them,” says Lee. “Historically, large consultancy firms have dominated the regulatory market, but we’re offering something more integrated: top quality legal and technical advice from our lawyers, combined with guidance and support from us on how to implement that advice.”
Sally acknowledges the role Tom and Lee have played in helping expand the new business’ internal engagement strategy across A&O. “Tom and Lee are a massive boost to our team,” she says. “They both bring a huge amount of regulatory expertise and global experience, and it’s an important step to be building our presence in Sydney.
“As we’ve said all along, it’s our people that will differentiate A&O Consulting in the long-run. We need the very best talent, which means finding people from different backgrounds who collectively have the depth of thinking and expertise that our clients need.”
Achieving diversity from the start
Diversity was one of Sally’s priorities from the outset. “Gender balance is a hugely important issue to me, as is the need to have people with different backgrounds and experiences in my team,” she says. “Business leaders need to be thinking carefully about this all the time – about how they organise their teams and develop talent.”
With an equal number of men and women in senior leadership positions, A&O Consulting has met its gender targets in Year 1. “As a start-up, I would have felt ‘shame on us’ if we couldn’t get this right,” Sally says.
“We’ve also succeeded in creating a team of people from a broad range of backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Every single person is bringing something incredibly valuable and different – that’s what makes it so interesting.”
Busy times ahead
Looking at A&O Consulting’s first year, Richard is pleased. “The reaction from clients, the team Sally has built and the work we’re already winning – I don’t think it could have gone much better,” he says.
Sally is feeling confident, too. “We’re offering something that clients have been asking for, whether that’s big banks looking for a fresh perspective, individuals coming under the Senior Manager’s Regime (UK regulation to increase accountability of senior people in financial services), or start-ups needing advice on governance, corporate purpose and culture,” she says.
“We’re able to join things up for clients, which in turn leads to cost efficiencies, knowledge transfer and a deeper understanding of areas where strategic initiatives are born out of regulatory changes or actions.”
The aim for the immediate future is to convert this early success into real market credibility and a pipeline of high-quality, interesting work. “I want to make this a sustainable business with a top reputation that complements our legal practices,” Sally says.
Of course you expect highs and lows when taking the plunge with a new business, she adds. “But that was part of the attraction for me – nobody is telling us to do things in a certain way,” she says. “We’re listening to colleagues and clients, using a bit of trial and error, figuring things out as a team and building something really exciting. I feel privileged to be here.”
For more information on A&O Consulting, or A&O’s Advanced Delivery & Solutions toolkit, visit: allenovery.com/advanceddelivery.