Chris Hart- From The Heart
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Nick Hook
Chris Hart is the CEO of leading regional law firm Wollen Michelmore LLP and Honorary Secretary of the Devon & Somerset Law Society. Simply put, he is one of the good guys.
One of the harsh realities of modern business is that we sometimes have to deal with people who we don’t particularly like. In Chris’ case, however, I doubt this has ever been someone’s sentiment and, if you have ever had the pleasure of meeting him, you will know why.
Softly spoken, self-assured and comfortable in his own skin, Chris is clearly a man who has chartered the stormy seas of business during a career spanning four decades and, it seems, he has discovered a calm and confident wisdom which only comes with experience.
I recently sat down with Chris at Wollen Michelmore’s new office, located on Cathedral Green bang in the centre of Exeter, and had one of the most pleasant and relaxed interviews to date since becoming Editor of Grow Exeter.
Hi Chris. You’re such a busy guy so thank you for carving out some time for me to talk. Perhaps we could start with a look back to your upbringing, education and the beginning of your career?
Of course, Joff. I was born and brought up in Torquay and really feel like I have the seaside town in my blood. I attended Torquay Boys Grammar School and now sit on the Old Grammarians Committee at the school, which allows me to stay involved with the school, decades after I attended.
After leaving school, I studied in Chelmsford, Essex where I gained my Law Degree and then went on to do my Solicitors final exams in Guildford. I passed those exams in 1986 and had two subsequent offers of a training contract; one at a firm in Windsor and one at a firm called Hooper & Wollen in Torquay. In those days, the starting salary for Trainee Solicitors was £4000, so moving back home to Torquay was an attractive option! I have been at the firm now for 32 years and I have never looked back.
During the first part of my career at the firm, I specialised in litigation work, mainly dealing with contract disputes, building disputes and employment work. This quite quickly developed into an interest in the wider practice of the firm and, in 1999, I became the Managing Partner, which more recently changed to CEO.
Since then, I have gradually been doing less day-to-day legal work and have been focussed more on the big picture and management of our growing firm. It is important to stay involved with the daily function of our practices, so I continue to look after our licensing practice and make sure to get around to each of our practices as often as I can.
It is so rare to speak to someone who has had such a geographically consistent career and such a long term of service at a firm. You and the firm must be doing something right! I imagine that life outside work must have been a key factor to staying in the area too?
Professionally, I have been lucky joining such a good firm but even luckier to forge a career alongside people who I absolutely love and in a culture that is so positive and healthy. Outside of work, I live in Newton Abbot with my wife and we have two children. Our son works as a Business Development Manager in Berkshire and our daughter is studying International Business at the University of Birmingham.
I’m an avid cricket fan and I’m a member at Somerset Cricket Club. I also sit on the Devon & Cornwall Area Committee for the club too. I play once a year in the Sponsors Match at South Devon Cricket Club, but that’s about as much time at the crease as I get nowadays. Torbay, but more widely Devon is incredibly close to my heart. In my opinion, it is the greatest place to live and work in the country. In fact, I became involved with the English Riviera Tourism Company and had the pleasure of being their chairman for six years up until about eighteen months ago. That was a fantastic experience as it meant that I got more involved with the promotion of the area that I live in. The English Riviera is a real asset of the South West region and deserves to be celebrated nationally and internationally.
Even recently, my wife and I took a cottage in the South Hams for a week and were reminded all over again how amazing the coastline is there and how many fantastic places there are to explore. I think you just become a bit blind to what’s right in front of you sometimes. It is so important to make the most of what is right on your doorstep.
Agreed. As a 13-year resident of Devon, I am still a relative newcomer but there are still large swathes of the region that I have either never explored or at least not fully. And it seems that your firm is closely tied to the geographical locations and communities that they exist within too?
Yes, indeed. Arguably this is one of the single most important elements of our business. Notwithstanding the fact that we are expanding fast as a firm, we like to think of ourselves as one big family, even if that is a bit of a cliché. Our internal relationships within the organisations are vital to the external relationships that we hold with our clients.
We actively encourage that ethos within the firm. Despite first-and-foremost being a commercial operation, we always try to remember that people are at the heart of all that we do. Them having a long-term sense of belonging is crucial to their happiness and job-satisfaction so, therefore, is crucial to us as their employer.
A part of that is social activity with colleagues and clients alike, so we encourage our people to spend time away from the office, networking and/or socialising with the right people. Some firms take a very dim view of this, but we see it as key to our continued involvement with the communities around us. We want them to be supporting charity events, seeking trustee or governor positions for trusts and schools and engaging with culture and sporting events in their communities. It is the right thing to do and also a positive thing for our business.
When you boil down all of the busyness, complexity and density of working life, business is all about people and relationships. It really is that simple. After all, saying that we are really good solicitors is surely a given to potential client? The only thing that makes us truly different from our competitors is our people; their personalities, mindsets, characters and skills. That is what makes Wollen Michelmore special.
That cultural piece must have been ‘front and centre’ during your recent expansion and merger activity then, I’d assume?
Yes, absolutely. A core part of our recent merger activity with Exeter’s Morgan & Pope and our upcoming merger with Barnstaple’s Toller Beattie has been the question of cultural compatibility. The starting point has been ‘Do we get on with each other?’. Everything has to be built upon that fundamental question. What’s the point of going through such a big change if you fundamentally don’t enjoy working together? It’s not even a question of better or worse; different cultures are simply either compatible or not.
Those projects have been several years in the making though. These things need time. After cultural compatibility has been established, clearly there are many more factors to consider: looking at each other’s financial numbers in detail, starting to introduce key people within each organisation to one another, starting to make logistical plans for proceedings and, of course, legal due diligence processes. It is no small feat.
To give you an idea, our Practice Director created a spreadsheet for all departments to feed into with individual tasks that needed to be performed before the agreed merger date with Morgan & Pope and we ended up with over 180 tasks on the spreadsheet. None of them were small jobs either. All significant, time-costly action points.
It is all worthwhile though as it is one of the main ways that we continue to offer, what we believe to be, the best legal services in the region. It is also one of the only ways that we can continue to grow at the rate that we want to. When I became Managing Partner in 1999, we were a £1m turnover business with 40 employees in one location. Now we are a £10m business with close to 200 employees across multiple locations spread around the county. We have a desire to keep finding ways to innovate and grow our business moving into the future too.
And, finally, could you talk to me a little more about your recent move to Exeter?
As a South-Devonian, for some time I had felt that Exeter was ‘over-lawyered’ and, therefore, would have been a hard market to expand into. Increasingly though, we felt in recent years that the Wollen Michelmore brand had the potential to sit amongst other firms with a clear point of difference in terms of our approach, ethos and culture. We saw a real opportunity in terms of our private client expertise and became convinced that the time was right for us to expand into the city; in particular, the city centre. We were absolutely delighted when the merger with Morgan & Pope became a reality. We are loving working together under the Wollen Michelmore banner.
You really do have one of the most fantastic business locations in the city Chris. Stunning views of the Cathedral and right in the heart of the city. Come to think of it, being at the heart of things seems to be a common theme for Wollen Michelmore. We look forward to seeing the firm continue to grow and also to working with you in the process.