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‘You don’t have them at hello’: Linklaters London corporate chief talks getting the right people in the room and tackling the US

Stuart Bedford became head of corporate at Linklaters‘ London HQ in September after his predecessor, Sarah Wiggins, was promoted to head of client sectors after just three months in the role. One of the strongest voices for private equity within the firm, Bedford talks to Tom Moore about how he hopes to capture US clients in the City.

TM: Why do you feel you were selected for the role?

SB: It’s important that when you’re looking at the next stage of an initiative that the right people are in a room. I can make that happen. I know the partners in London very well and they don’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming. I’ve just got to make sure I talk to the right people and go about the process in an inclusive and an appropriate way. That goes with leadership.

You need to be incredibly coordinated across corporate and there is a role in making sure that, collectively, everybody feels part of a greater whole. We need to be a combined group and it’s never a bad thing to have someone continually reminding people that that’s the way we go about our business.

TM: Despite its strength, there’s never been a loud voice for private equity within Linklaters. Will that change with your promotion to London head of corporate?

SB: Singapore, where I was recently based heading the Asia corporate practice, was largely a PE office. It’s not a bad thing for the private equity group to also have someone plying the broader corporate role to make sure that the issues and developments within that group are always front of mind when we’re looking at the division as a whole.

There are some very strong junior partners in that group, Matt [Elliott], Stuart [Boyd] and Alex [Woodward] are just three. There’s a really strong junior to mid-end of that group. It’s a great group now, so it will be tremendous in five years. We’ll carry on taking share and building out relationships.

TM: It feels, for the first time, that Magic Circle firms believe they can crack New York. What has the firm achieved to date and what’s your strategy?

SB: When the US corporates are looking to invest outside the US in Europe, Asia and Africa, that we have a platform the US firms don’t have by and large. There are some of the ubiquitous ones like White & Case and then you have Baker & McKenzie, which is at a different end of the spectrum, but when it comes to US corporates doing deals in Europe, Asia or Africa, those companies may not be able to get the depth and spread of coverage that we bring.

The US is an obvious market to approach and we’ve had a greater degree of focus on the US than in the past. For two or three years we’ve been identifying US companies where we think there could be an opportunity and where we thought we could bring something to their strategic aims.

TM: It’s a long process. How long does it typically take to win a client and are there any sectors that you’re focusing on?

SB: We’ve picked up a lot of work from the North American pension funds and the sector we’ve led most heavily with has been FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] as we saw that a lot of US corporates had done everything they can do in their home market and were ready for the next stage, which is to push outside.

The reality is that it’s still early days. You don’t have them at hello. Most of the relationships that we have built have taken a very long time to move from the ‘initial meeting’, to ‘these guys know what they’re talking about’, to ‘we’ve got something we’re going to try you with’ to ‘that went well, here’s a panel spot’.

TM: What’s next and will you be using your private equity group in London to help mould more relationships with US clients in that space?

SB: We will focus more definitively around pharma and TMT. Bringing the tax and TMT teams into the corporate practice will help us with that.

Within each sector there are always a number of on-going initiatives. For example, there are a number of funds and PE houses that have energy funds so we need to make sure we are targeting them as the falling price of oil will mean a lot of projects will stop being economic so some funds will look to move into that space to seize the opportunities that arise.

TM: What’s your long-term target?

SB: We need to continue with a sharp focus. Every partner here has too much to do so we need to narrow that into a plan. You need to be rigorous around how you assess an opportunity and what you spend time doing.

It’s not about changing the list of clients. It’s about being ready for opportunities at all points in the cycle so we can assess, analyse and shift our focus to different transactions and clients. That doesn’t mean abandoning our current clients, we have to deal with the reality of who’s going to be active over the next 18 months.