AMEC general counsel Michael Blacker tells Alex Aldridge about life in the FTSE 100, walking the beat in Bath and 1980s Baghdad
“Everything goes back to reputation,” says Michael Blacker, general counsel of FTSE 100 project management and services company AMEC, while discussing the increased importance of compliance issues – to all companies, not just banks – in the post-Lehman world. “The old cliche is true: a good reputation is difficult to acquire and easy to lose. And one of the easiest ways to lose it is by breaking the law.”
He cites the nuclear sector – in which AMEC has invested heavily during recent years – as an example of where senior management must be made fully aware of the implications of falling foul of regulation. “Not only is nuclear highly regulated, but it is extremely vulnerable to negative publicity. Naturally, this impacts on strategy. As general counsel, it is about knitting all those aspects together,” he says.
However, Blacker does not expect the next 12 months to be just about guarding against unwelcome surprises: “In the current economic cycle there may also be opportunities for some acquisitions and other corporate activity. It could actually be a very interesting period.” And with AMEC, which employs 22,000 people, recently reporting a 66% rise in annual profit and announcing it is expecting an even better 2009, such optimism appears well founded.
With his measured sentences and immaculate pin-striped suit, Blacker comes across as the epitome of the commercial lawyer as we talk at AMEC’s head office in Farringdon, Central London. But, as he reveals part way through the interview, law is his second career.
“I started out as a police officer,” he says. “I was with the Bath and Somerset Constabulary for three great years: apprehending minor criminals, road patrols, walking the beat…”
However, Blacker, who grew up on a farm, harboured further education ambitions, so he decided to trade life bringing order to the mean streets of the West Country for the more cerebral surroundings of Nottingham University.
After completing an LLB, Blacker qualified as a barrister. However, a preference for business over law saw him decide against a career at the Bar, instead joining engineering company Taylor Woodrow, where he completed articles. From there, he went to BP, on behalf of which he negotiated drilling contracts and operating agreements in, among other places, Iraq. A move to Wimpey followed, where Blacker spent 15 years working on a range of high-profile construction projects, including the Hibernia oilfield project in Newfoundland, rising to head of legal in the process. Then in 1997, after an asset swap that saw Wimpey exchange its construction business for Tarmac’s “slightly dull” house-building operations, Blacker decamped to AMEC.
General counsel since 2006, Blacker heads up a team of 22 lawyers – 13 in North America and 10 in the UK, the majority of whom work out of the company’s regional offices. Blacker is one of only three AMEC lawyers based in London.
“The aim is to make the legal function as decentralised as possible,” says Blacker. “The closer lawyers get to the business, the more effective their service will be.”
A typical day sees Blacker leave his Bayswater pied-a-terre around 7.30am for the half-hour commute along the Central Line to the office. He usually stays there until 6.30pm, with his time mostly spent coordinating the legal team and assisting the board on wider management and strategy issues. When a deal is on – last year AMEC acquired a number of natural resources companies – the hours increase considerably, often encroaching on to the weekends, which Blacker spends as much as possible at the family home near Henley.
For such transactions, Blacker uses AMEC’s panel firms: Linklaters, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Pinsent Masons. The company’s firm of choice in North America is Reed Smith. With litigation rare – AMEC has a policy of negotiating settlements wherever possible – virtually all other UK and Americas legal work (which mainly involves contracts) is handled in-house. Legal issues in the other 30 jurisdictions where AMEC has a presence are outsourced to local firms.
Blacker professes himself happy with his panel law firms, although he believes that, generally speaking, City outfits deserve some of the bad press they have received in recent years for spiralling fees and dwindling levels of service.
“Having said that,” he continues, “the client also has to shoulder responsibility for getting a good deal. It is not as though there are just one or two outlets you can go to for legal services. London has massive choice, so there is real competition.”
At the same time, Blacker argues that those who focus overly on hourly rates “are making a mistake”. He prefers capped fee deals: “The cap may be, say, £100,000. How the firm makes that up is entirely a matter for them. But if they exceed it, there has to be a very good reason.”
Speaking of law firms, has Blacker – who has spent his entire legal career in-house – never been tempted to join one?
“I have had my invitations, but no, it has never appealed to me,” he responds, adding that he believes the notion of in-house being the preserve of those who couldn’t cut it in private practice to be “very much a thing of the past”.
“One thing I do occasionally ask myself, though,” Blacker continues, “is what it would have been like if I’d stayed in the police, or joined the military, which was something else I seriously considered. But then those jobs have been pretty awful for the last decade, so I probably made the right decision.”
Career timeline – Michael Blacker