THE CROWN ESTATE
Vivienne King is director of business operations and general counsel of The Crown Estate, the property portfolio owned by the Crown, and one of the largest property owners in the UK. Vivienne won The Legal 500 UK in-house award for the best individual in the Real Estate field.
B U S I N E S S T H I N K I N G
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: Have you seen a big cultural change in the years since you’ve been at The Crown Estate?
Vivienne King (VK): Yes. When I joined the business from Herbert Smith, the fantastic thing about it was the portfolio. It was the best job going so far as I was concerned for a real estate lawyer, which was my background - in particular in development. The portfolio is still prime, we’re dealing with some fabulous locations and we’ve got some amazing things going on. But at the time, I think it’s fair to say it was a slower business, it was a traditional real estate business, and there was more of the public body about it. Over time we’ve significantly professionalised the business – it’s changed radically. We’ve really focused our investment strategy on what we’re good at, we’re very clear what our big goals are, and everyone is pulling towards that. There’s a lot more focus on what we’re here for, and what we’re looking to deliver. We just got steadily more and more ambitious and we have delivered. For a business that can’t borrow and is relatively restricted in the structures it can take part in – so access to the market is relatively restricted - we’ve done incredibly well. We’ve made the very best of what we’ve got.
GC: In terms of big goals – what have you got coming up in 2015?
VK: The fact that devolution has meant that The Crown Estate’s business in Scotland is going to be devolved, so it’s our role to ensure that we inform that process, we facilitate it and we make it happen in the smoothest, most efficient way we possibly can. It’s an important thing for us to be doing. It matters constitutionally, and it matters for our employees and our customers that we do that very well.
GC: Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer – was that always the plan?
VK: No. I went through different choices every year of my childhood and teens! I actually wanted to be a politician. I always loved debate and so that’s really what I set my sights on. My father persuaded me to think about a legal route through to being a politician, which was good advice. There are similarities – a lot of lawyers do become politicians. So it was a natural path for me to take.
GC: How did you get into real estate? Isn’t there more of a correlation between politics and a litigation practice?
VK: I wanted to be involved in something that you could see. You get all sorts of choices as you’re going through your training, and I enjoyed litigation, I enjoyed that cut and thrust. But for me I wanted to see tangible results of my efforts, which is what prompted me to do get involved in development work - where you could see something coming out of the ground. The Crown Estate’s developments have been making places not just constructing buildings. That’s incredibly rewarding - you’re creating environments that people want to work and live in - you’re changing the face of cities. That was what prompted me to go into real estate.
GC: What prompted you to go in-house?
VK: I chose to go in-house because when I was in private practice, as is normal in the big firms, I focused on four or five principal clients, and I got to know the senior people in the clients well. I got to understand their business in order to deliver to their requirements that much better. I got to the stage where actually I was more interested in understanding their business than simply being on the periphery and providing a legal service to them. So I wanted to come in-house because I wanted to be at the heart of the action of a business and make a broader contribution.
GC: The Crown Estate was your first in-house role, and you’ve been there ever since?
GC: Why have you stayed so long?
VK: Because my role and the business have changed so dramatically. It’s incredibly entrepreneurial, and the variety of the business lines that you see in The Crown Estate has grown rapidly. You can’t find a real estate business that’s more diverse than ours is. So for someone who loves the real estate industry, this is the best place to be.
GC: In terms of your day-to-day role, what’s your favourite part of the day?
VK: I will come in early when no one else is around - there’s peace and quiet and I can plan for the day. But the role that I’ve got means that I’m making a contribution right across the business, so the intellectual challenge of debating business choices at our executive board is a very exciting place to be and The Crown Estate has always made it very clear that it wants more than my legal knowledge. I have an opinion on most things and am encouraged to share it, so for me that’s the very best part of the job that I’ve got.
GC: Do you have any least favourite parts of the job day to day?
VK: I suppose everybody’s working life goes through peaks and troughs; times when you’re in consolidation and other times when you’re in creation. The peaks are the most exciting because that’s when the biggest challenges are coming along and you can make the most change, and bring the most benefit to the business. But that is also a hectic time and successive back-to-back meetings are draining. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that’s not the best part of the job.
GC: Thinking of your career so far, do you have any moments or projects that stand out as being highlights?
VK: As a lawyer I would say that the biggest highlight has been coming into the role I’ve come into, succeeding a number of very talented heads of legal who were in my role before me, and taking a fresh look at our statutory constitution and really pushing the boundaries. This has included opening up new opportunities for investment that, when I joined the business, just weren’t within contemplation. So having an open mind, being prepared to be creative in the way that I’ve approached the job. That has been a huge highlight.
But being in this role is more than being a lawyer. You’re the manager of a team, or teams, so it’s been a real highlight for me to be managing teams beyond the legal function. That’s been a very exciting thing to be doing. Getting involved in areas right outside my own cognate skills, which I think is a good thing for lawyers to do, because it teaches you to let go. Lawyers can find it difficult to do that because they are focused on having a complete command of their subject; it has enabled me to strike a balance.
Also, developing people from junior into more senior positions, sometimes taking up big jobs elsewhere – that’s very much part of the fun, really, of management, isn’t it?.
GC: It’s interesting, actually, because as you’ve probably seen, one of the articles that we have in the magazine is Ed Smith at Telefonica asking where are all the lawyer-CEOs? And there are more of them, obviously, it is an increasing thing, isn’t it?
VK: It is. I did see that article, actually, and it’s very good to see articles being written on that very topic, because there’s not enough. If I was going to give you a suggestion, it would be that you keep that theme going. In the States there are a lot more lawyer-CEOs because there’s a different perception of lawyers in the States. At the same time, lawyers don’t always help themselves as they tend to want to operate within their cognate areas. Everybody moving into a senior role steps outside their cognate area and has to let go. You can’t have a CEO who focuses on continuing to do the books because they were a trained accountant. So you have to be prepared to do that. You also have to overcome the perception that lawyers aren’t numeric and be comfortable reading a balance sheet. Lawyers are more than capable of filling that role.
GC: Have you seen the legal function transform in terms of the work that you handle in-house? Many departments are handling more and more and more work in-house. Has that been the case with The Crown Estate?
VK: I’d say we were handling more, but it’s very different. When I joined the business, the objective was that most of the transactional work was handled by the in-house team, whatever type of work it happened to be. That was where the greatest value was considered to be delivered. I altered the focus so that now the vast proportion of work is handled externally and the in-house team is right at the heart of what is most critical to the business. They are able to bridge the gap between the commercial teams and the external teams. They play an absolutely fundamental role which is central to our major transactions and issues, because they know the business better than anybody else. And that has proved to be a very successful formula.
Periodically we review whether or not that is the best way to be delivering value into the business – we go out into the business and to our panel firms and we ask that question. And we’re told: “Just don’t stop that; that is where we need you to be adding value.” Of course, because the business changes, and the nature of our transactions that we’re involved with changes, that means we need to be able to bring different skills that slot into those positions - whether that’s grown organically or we bring people in who can support that.
The guys in the legal team are very busy. They’re juggling a lot of important issues at any one time and they handle it extremely well. They’re very competent and professional people, operating at a very senior level, to what you would be able to call partner level in a law firm.
GC: How many of them are there?
VK: We have four lawyers and me, but my role is more strategic. We have a head of legal, that’s Rob Booth and he’s terrific; he’s relatively recently moved into that post. The other lawyers have a business partner role with different portfolios in the business.
GC: You rationalised your panel of external lawyers earlier this year, didn’t you?
VK: Yes, we do it all the time. We’re always looking at how we can best add value to the business, so you can’t ever sit back and be satisfied that you’ve got it absolutely right. You need to constantly be challenging yourself. I quite radically altered the basis of our relationship with our law firms some time back and introduced a panel and competitive tendering, and that’s been running ever since. Over the last year, the head of legal has been really looking to consolidate and reduce numbers, simply because it means that you can place more value with the firm, the relationship deepens as a consequence and you can invest more time in them. So it’s a model that works very well for us and it’s something we take very seriously. Our panel process is relatively formulaic, but it’s very focused on our needs at any one time so it works well.
GC: What would help a firm or an individual lawyer make the grade?
VK: We have some fundamental principles that we judge firms against when we are going to the market. And we carry out annual reviews of our panel firms’ performance and we judge them against those principles.
You’d be interested to know that cost is in there, but it’s not at the top of the list - it features, simply because we want to know we’re getting value for money.
Obviously competency is absolutely critical – we have to get specialists in our sectors. We are a real estate business, but this is the broadest idea of real estate you can imagine – so we have horses for courses. We’re looking for those law firms that have got real brand power in their sector, who have got the reputations that are suitable to match our own, as a major real estate player in the UK.
Cultural fit is very important, so we need our firms to want to understand us, to share our values - because they are representing us. We operate on an outsourced business model generally, so we have agents who are handling our investment work alongside the in-house team, just as we’ve got law firms who handle our legal work. They are our public face in many ways so it’s very important that they’re doing that in a way that truly represents what we are. The cultural fit is quite a difficult thing. It’s an intangible, but it’s something that we look for in the people that are going to be working for us, right the way from the most senior down to the junior levels. That’s why when we are interviewing in a tender situation, we don’t just want to see the senior people, we want to see the junior people as well, just to really try and understand how they are going to fit.
Capacity is important because they’ve got to be the right seniority and the right numbers of people. We are a very reasonable and a very fair client but when it really comes to it, we have to have all hands to the deck and we need to know we’ve got the right people on the job to do that.
And then we need our law firms to be commercial. The last thing we need is our law firms only giving us the law. We need them to be interpreting the law and to be giving us a recommendation based on their own commercial knowledge and commercial understanding of our business.
GC: In your free time, what do you like to do?
VK: I have a very strong family life. I have two fabulous teenage sons who are very good to their mum! So we do quite a lot as a family. We like to do adventurous things - a couple of years ago we all climbed Kilimanjaro, and I’m walking Hadrian’s Wall with them this summer. I like to go out and get a bit of an adventure in every now and then. Trekking, and walking is great. I’m out every weekend, getting the exercise and exploring new places which helps clear the mind.
I also enjoy reading, I’m in a book club. I’m reading Robert Harris’s Pompeii. I enjoy the theatre and cinema. I like to go out and get an adventure in every now and again.
GC: Do you have a favourite film?
VK: Yes I do. It’s Local Hero, which Bill Forsyth directed. That’s quite old now, but it’s still the best film ever. It’s set in Scotland and it’s about an American oil company wanting to buy a village on the West Coast of Scotland because they want to set up a refinery there. So they’ve got to contend with all of the local interests. It’s wonderful characterisation and great music as well. I can recommend that one.
GC: If, for some reason, you decided to throw in the towel and do a different role, what would it be?
VK: Go back to politics, probably local politics at this stage. I’d look to become a local councillor.
GC: Would you want to become Prime Minister?VK: Why not?
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