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Profile: Matt Wilson, Uber

The EMEA legal head of one of the world’s most valuable private companies on sticking along for the ride

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‘I wrote my own resignation letter twice in the first six months,’ Matt Wilson, Uber’s associate general counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says. ‘I didn’t hand it in either time, but it was close.’

Wilson,-Matthew-(2017)A frank, but not surprising, admission. Wilson has, in the view of one peer, had one of the most difficult jobs in the GC community since he became the ridesharing company’s first domestic UK lawyer back in 2015. The company has faced a raft of high-profile legal and regulatory setbacks, alongside well-documented internal issues that saw co-founder Travis Kalanick resign as chief executive in 2017 following pressure from Uber’s largest investors. Its culture and approach have long been criticised too. Add to that the mid-2017 resignation of Wilson’s predecessor, Jim Callaghan, after little more than a year, and the departure of Uber’s chief legal officer Salle Yoo a few months later.

‘It’s no coincidence that I wrote those letters in the first six months, whether it was the volume and pressure of work or the company’s relentless pursuit of growth at all costs, but along the way the company started to focus on the right thing and we were able to recruit great people, so it became easier.’

He adds: ‘The public perception of what it must be like to work here and the reality, certainly in the last few years, are two very, very, different things. There are so many talented, but genuinely nice, people pulling in the right direction.’

Wilson studied economics and politics at Durham before opting to become a lawyer. In the space of a few weeks, Wilson landed a training contract at Baker & McKenzie and met his wife, Amy, in what has been described as the worst nightclub in Europe, Klute.

‘My best mate once turned around to me and said: “We’ll never meet the love of our lives in Klute.” Eight years later he was standing next to me on my wedding day saying: “Apart from the two of you.”’

The Telefónica job was too good to turn down. My ten-year-old self has never forgiven me and probably never will.

Two weeks after meeting his future wife, Wilson had an interview at Bakers on her 21st birthday. The idea was to get the train to London and back in time for the party that night, and while he was waiting at King’s Cross an hour after his interview, the firm’s recruitment partner at the time – Chris Newmark – called with the news he was being offered a training contract.

‘I must have had it written all over my face how happy I was because I had some Geordies on a day trip sitting next to me who said: “So what was that about? Sounds like some good news.” On the three-and-a-half hour journey back to Newcastle, they were very generous.’

Wilson cites Ben Allgrove, Steve Holmes, Harry Small and Tom Cassels (now at Linklaters) as key mentors during his three years at Bakers from late 2004. But during a secondment to Oracle he realised he enjoyed working closer to business more than with lawyers.

He had also been working with O2 and a junior counsel role came up. The credit crunch was just starting and Wilson figured technology would be a robust industry for the next decade at least.

‘Around that time Google was starting to take off, Android hadn’t really happened, the iPhone had only just come in, apps and the effect they were going to have on the whole ecosystem were only just beginning, so I thought it looked like a good place to be.’

When Wilson was just two-and-a-half years qualified he was named sole legal counsel for one of O2’s businesses, effectively becoming a ‘mini GC’. ‘This says a lot about Ed [Smith, UK GC of O2’s parent, Telefónica] and Kate Jarvis, who was the GC at the time, because instead of going out and recruiting someone or getting a senior lawyer in on secondment, they said: “Alright Matt, you’re it.” I can remember really stressful occasions driving down the M4 from home, talking to my wife and thinking I’m in over my head. It was a great learning experience, though, and I’m very grateful to Ed and Kate.’

The role introduced Wilson to Silicon Valley. O2 was acquiring an internet-telephony company called Jajah and Wilson says his eyes were opened to what he wanted to do in the future. But then he took a job at Arsenal Football Club, a team he has supported since he was six years old (the heartbreak of dropping a bag of jelly cola bottles in the urinal at a Tottenham game his dad took him to meant Arsenal’s north London rivals were ruled out).

O2 used to sponsor Arsenal and Wilson knew the club’s GC, Svenja Geissmar. He was there for 18 months before being lured back to Telefónica for a new venture capital arm. The remit was to build and manage an international team, an experience Wilson says would prove vital in ultimately landing at Uber. ‘It was too good to turn down. My ten-year-old self has never forgiven me and probably never will.’

By early 2015, Wilson was spending all-nighters at Herbert Smith’s offices working on the Hutchison-O2 takeover when the Uber job came up. The business was selling its UK assets, he was 35 years old and he figured if he was going to take a risk in his career, that was the time.

The lengthy recruitment process of eight interviews culminated in a final call with Yoo at 5am: Wilson had just helped get to signing on the Hutchison deal and flown to China for another deal, which he worked on until 3am the same morning. He got the job and started at Uber in July 2015.

Key Uber projects have included launching UberPOOL, obtaining regulatory change in countries across EMEA to give regulatory stability and allow the company to expand, launching and scaling Uber Eats, and working to achieve renewal of its private-hire operator licence in London after TfL initially refused to renew it in September 2017. Another battle over the employment classification of Uber drivers was heard in the Court of Appeal in October 2018.

When Wilson joined there were only 15 lawyers across EMEA. The team has since grown to 50 working across 43 countries, with lawyers qualified in 15 jurisdictions. Wilson moved to Amsterdam from London last year when he took on the EMEA role vacated by Callaghan.

The team has brought more work in-house, cutting the proportion of external legal spend from about 75% of budget to 58%. He sees external legal services ultimately accounting for just a third of budget, particularly if litigation subsides, and adds that the company has reversed its previous approach of launching first and fitting in with regulations later.

‘We’ve got really good examples of that: Finland, Abu Dhabi, Portugal, Croatia, Czech Republic all through the course of the year moved to a much better place. There’s no playbook or settled way of doing it – it can be through memoranda of understanding, new regulations, primary or secondary legislation, contracts…’

Wilson does not believe he will be able to keep adding headcount even as the business scales up, whether that be through new product lines such as Uber Eats or JUMP e-bikes. An initial public offering has reportedly valued the business at more than $100bn too. But Wilson talks about adding the right people – one recent recruit had a coding background, while another joined in Stockholm as the company established itself in that region. The team has ten open roles and when a UK position went live recently more than 150 applied in a week.

‘Our team has an important role in contributing to making sure we have the right internal culture. It matters a lot to me that we don’t just get English-qualified lawyers with the same background and experience, and plonk them into different parts of the region. We have a real melting pot and that’s not important for appearances, but it’s important for the debate we have as a team and, after that, for making the right decisions.’

It has undeniably been a bumpy road for Uber over the last few years. The company previously chased aggressive growth at all costs and Wilson says this resulted in many difficulties, which his team is still dealing with today.

‘We are determined to be patient and do things in the right way, which we believe will pay off in the long term. Chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi and chief legal officer Tony West have made huge improvements, but there is always work to do to earn and keep the trust of regulators and the public, especially in Europe. We’re seeing new opportunities to partner with European cities. This means we have to work with, not against, others. That’s not something Uber has always been good at in the past.’

Wilson says Amy and his three daughters have a ‘big red button’ they can press to pull him out of a job at any time, but after about a year at Uber, he decided that he was going to see it through. He takes pride in the part his team plays in changing the company.

‘The extent to which I knew about Uber before I knew about the job was that I’d used it a couple of times in San Francisco and thought it was brilliant. When I started the interview process and really looked into how it worked and where it was headed, the duality between increasing mobility options for people who didn’t have them, as well as allowing people to make money on their own terms, was a powerful combination.’

He adds: ‘Have we got everything right along the way as to how to get to those two aims? No, absolutely not. Do I think that everyone who works here believes in and is doing their best to do both those things, in the right way? Absolutely.’

Hamish McNicol

At a glance: Matt Wilson

Career

2004-08 Associate, Baker & McKenzie
2008-11 Legal counsel, O2 UK
2011-12 Legal counsel, Arsenal Football Club
2013-15 Head of legal and business affairs, Telefónica Digital
2015-17 Legal director, Uber
2017 Associate general counsel for EMEA, Uber

Uber – key facts

Size of team 50
External legal spend More than £2m annually
Preferred advisers Hogan Lovells, Herbert Smith Freehills, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, NautaDutilh, Covington & Burling, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek

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