Lindsay Beardsell is never one to rest on her laurels. She trained and qualified at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer but, as is the case for so many established general counsel, private practice failed to satisfy the need to be closer to a business.
She recalls: ‘My parents had their own businesses and that always interested me – the cut and thrust. I wanted to be close to the commercial aspects of the business. So I left Freshfields two years post-qualification, which was a bit of a shock to people, and went to British Gas for my first in-house role.’
Stepping into British Gas in 2004 proved to be an enriching experience, with a variety and quality of work you would expect being at a huge listed company. Working with Eversheds Sutherland, one of Beardsell’s major early projects was the offshoring of British Gas’s back-office functions.
Soon she was promoted to work alongside Centrica’s European GC to support more group-level work including commercial, corporate, tax, and treasury advice. But despite relishing the challenge of the new workload, the lifestyle it required proved a hurdle at the time. She says: ‘There was a real variety in the work, which I loved, but from a lifestyle perspective I decided I didn’t want to be in London any more. My husband (who was flat out at the BBC at the time) and I decided that if we wanted to start a family we would have to make a lifestyle change. We were both from the North West originally and decided to move back.’
The move meant a career shift to Warrington-based United Utilities, but the restless Beardsell sought a greater challenge. That challenge came sooner than expected as she was approached for a GC role at FTSE 100 engineering firm Renold. ‘I was in my late 20s at the time, so it was an amazing but scary opportunity. Frankly I didn’t know a huge amount at that point, so I had to have real confidence to say “Yeah I’ll give it a go!”’
During her three years at Renold, she says she learned a huge amount from building up her own legal team, before her next move came calling, this time to Russian energy giant Gazprom. Her role there saw her head up all legal and regulatory matters outside of Russia. She says: ‘It’s a super interesting business and I met some amazing people. But as has happened a few times in my career, I was approached for a bigger role.’
Next it was the group GC role at a totally different company – UK clothing brand Superdry. Beardsell looks back on her spell at Superdry fondly, as the company was a ‘massive growth business’ at the time. She oversaw as Superdry expanded into Asia-Pacific, North America and Europe, and even liaised with Idris Elba on a new design range.
‘He’s just as he seems on TV and just glows Hollywood. A very grounded and authentic guy. He designed a collection with us, and you wouldn’t necessarily expect a GC to be involved with that, but because our design studio was on site I got to see how it developed. It was great to be able to see that from start to finish. A whole host of people suddenly appeared in the design studio that day!’
But then, inevitably, an even bigger opportunity presented itself. Beardsell was drafted into the newly merged gambling giant Ladbrokes Coral to make sure that the recently combined in-house function was integrated effectively and a ‘true partner to the combined business’. She took on a wider brief this time as an off-counsel adviser to the chief executive until 2018, when GVC bought out Ladbrokes Coral in a landmark £4bn deal.
‘I was hoping to finish my career at Ladbrokes Coral, as I had moved a lot beforehand and wanted stability. But clearly the corporate world moves in strange ways. I moved with GVC, but the fit wasn’t right. So I joined Tate & Lyle, where I’m very happy and content.’
In her current role she oversees a legal team of around 20 people, comprising five distinct functions: legal, intellectual property, insurance, risk and ethics and compliance. She says the majority of legal work remains in-house for her team to manage: ‘That’s always been my philosophy. If you’re going to spend the same amount of money on an external provider as an in-house lawyer, who’s going to get to know the business better? It’s a no-brainer.’
Nevertheless Tate & Lyle operates a formal panel arrangement, which was recently cut down from an ‘unmanageable’ 52 firms to a core of 12, plus some local specialist firms. Beardsell describes it as a ‘flexible panel’, and is not afraid to reward or reprimand firms based on performance: ‘When things are going well, I will be incredibly honest and complementary. We did a couple of deals in Thailand and China recently. The firm we worked with did an amazing job so I sent an email saying: “Tough deal, amazing job, fantastic.” You’re a bit more tolerable on fees in those situations.
‘Conversely, if a firm is not performing, we will have an equally honest conversation about it. “We’re not getting the support we need, how are we going to address it?” Firms can be taken off work in that scenario.’
One of the most important considerations for the panel selection process was firms’ diversity policies. ‘There was an expectation they would be doing the right thing so we talked about their policies and the teams they put on the jobs. The firms we work with are very receptive to that, which is one of the reasons why they’re on the panel. It’s not just about race or sex – we look at diversity in its widest sense. My philosophy is the broader diversity you have, the better economic result you get.’
Demonstrating value to the board is deemed a ‘must’, and staying within budget is non-negotiable. She says: ‘I always expect fixed, capped fees, and innovative fee structures on bigger corporate projects. A larger amount of firms are set up to do that. Some you have to pull kicking and screaming from the old hourly billing method, but it’s changed massively over the last ten years.’
With her own teams, Beardsell says she encourages complete honesty and no surprises: ‘Let me know ahead of schedule if anything is coming up on the horizon and we’ll solve it together.’ Thanks to having strong mentors at an early stage of her own career, she insists she is very focused on the personal development of her team too. She is also determined to operate a flat structure: ‘We don’t have senior leadership team meetings, we involve the whole team. Everybody’s got to be involved in decision-making for us to make the right decisions. We have a very diverse team in terms of background, race and sex. It’s more aligned to our customer base, but it also encourages diversity of thinking. I encourage accountability and ownership, I don’t want everything to come through me. Step up, and use me more as a sounding board.’
Among the most prominent matters Beardsell has worked on at Tate & Lyle are two Asian M&A deals, both signed in 2020. Firstly in October, it agreed a deal to acquire an 85% stake in Thailand-based tapioca business Chaodee Modified Starch. The move was significant as it provided Tate & Lyle a dedicated production facility in Thailand that will help service its clients’ increasing demand for tapioca-based food products.
Then in December, the company bought out alternative sweetener producer Sweet Green Fields to further enhance its portfolio of sweetener products. Beardsell comments: ‘We were able to deliver those deals in a Covid world, doing due diligence with limited travel ability. Normally with these kinds of deals you are negotiating around a table, it’s a very different dynamic. I am really proud of the team for getting these deals over the line.’
A commonly cited trend is that in-house functions have matured substantially over the last couple of decades, and while procurement of external counsel in particular has evolved, Beardsell says she had high ambitions from day one. She recalls: ‘I remember I went to a law firm function about 15 years ago, and there was a discussion around what the future of in-house functions would look like. We were already doing that.
‘Fifteen years ago, companies wanted very technical advisers who would talk to them all about the risks. The people in the business would come to the “wise lawyers” in their ivory tower and they would provide advice then go away again. Legal teams shouldn’t do that, they should be sat with their stakeholders, understanding what the business is doing. It’s not about putting sticking plasters on things that don’t work, it’s about asking the difficult questions and getting it right where you identify an issue. My view on what good looks like has never changed.’
Despite the many different roles in different sectors she has occupied throughout her in-house history, Beardsell identifies a common theme of transformation and global outreach. She points out that Tate & Lyle itself, for example, is historically known for its sweetening business, but is now transforming its product to help companies reduce sugar and find healthier alternatives.
And how does Beardsell reflect on her eclectic career? She concludes: ‘The moment you stop learning is the moment you become a bit stale. Whether you’re 21 or 72 you’re always learning and developing. Gambling regulation – I knew nothing about that when I joined Ladbrokes Coral, so had to get up to speed very quickly. At Superdry I had to get up to speed with fashion retail: distribution networks, IP and such. You’re a jack of all trades as a GC. You’re a general practitioner.’