Sally Hutton is the managing partner of Webber Wentzel and is a partner in the Corporate/ M&A Practice. Sally Hutton has experience in all aspects of private equity transactional work, but specialises in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), especially leveraged buy-out and exit transactions (both public and private) for private equity funds. Her work includes structuring the consortium and shareholders arrangements, the management participation arrangements, broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) structures and funding arrangements, as well as reorganisations. She has acted in many of the largest and most high profile private equity transactions done in South Africa in recent years. Her expertise has been recognised by various international research organisations including Chambers Global(Corporate/ M&A, Banking, Finance, Capital Markets), IFLR1000(Capital Markets), Legal 500 (Private Equity), The International Who’s Who (M&A, Private Equity) and Best Lawyers (Corporate Law, Derivatives, Finance Law, Private Equity Law).. Sally has BA and LLB degrees, both with distinction, from the University of Cape Town and an LLM degree, with distinction, from the University of the Witwatersrand. She also has a Masters of Studies from the University of Oxford. She attended an executive education programme on Leading Professional Services Firms at Harvard Business School in 2012.
- What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Managing Partner?
I have spent my entire career at Webber Wentzel, so it was a great honour to me that my fellow partners entrusted me, alongside Christo Els as our Senior Partner, to lead our firm for a five year term from 1 March 2015 and to continue the legacy of all those that have gone before us. For me, the real value of being in a leadership position is that it gives you the opportunity to effect change and the platform to make a difference.
- What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term as Managing Partner?
It is our firm’s vision to be the dominant law firm in South Africa and to offer clients the leading legal and tax advisory platform for sub-Saharan Africa, with our alliance partner Linklaters and our local networks.
We have a clearly articulated rolling five year strategy for achieving this vision. We have a strong firm culture of excellence and client-centricity that has brought us this far. I want us to leverage off that and collaborate with our clients to build stronger businesses in South Africa and across the African continent. Our people are central to this – we can only do great work for great clients if we have great people, so it is our ambition to continue building a transformed workplace that embraces diversity, where all our people feel at home to be their best and do their best work, and against this increasingly competitive landscape to continue our legacy of being a firm where the very best talent come to shape their careers. If, at the end of our five year term of office, we have made substantial progress in achieving this, this will feel like success to me.
- How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
You’ll have to ask my partners and our people that question! I would like to think I am collaborative, open-minded honest and fair. After 21 years with Webber Wentzel I am fiercely protective of the culture and values that underpin the success of a firm that has produced some of the greatest legal minds South Africa has to offer.
Having said that, I believe that ‘what got us here, won’t necessarily get us there’ so as leaders we have to manage the balance between preserving all the good that got us to this point whilst remaining flexible and nimble enough to change where necessary to stay ahead.
My leadership philosophy is always to harness the benefits of diversity around a common goal. We are operating in a rapidly changing legal and economic landscape and to compete effectively we have to learn from our successes and failures and adapt accordingly. I don’t believe we can do this effectively unless we have a transformed and diverse workplace, otherwise we will simply do what we have always done.
Collaboration is key. Our leadership team is made up of a combination of lawyers and other professionals with a diverse range of skills and experience, including chartered accountants, management consultants, engineers and even a psychologist. This allows for a broad range of views which prevents ‘group think’, fosters ‘positive disruption’ and allows us to develop innovative solutions for our clients and people alike.
- Are there any particular challenges you have experienced as a woman in a leadership position?
I don’t think the challenges I have faced in building my career are particularly different from those faced by any man or woman juggling the demands of work and family. I have never felt explicitly disadvantaged because I am a woman, although I have experienced the far more subtle effects of gender stereotyping and unconscious bias.
I think though that women in senior positions have a responsibility to be role models, to be more visible, to be more vocal. We can help dispel stereotypes and demonstrate what is possible – especially by providing working examples for young women and girls who want successful corporate careers after children.
- What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position as Managing Partner?
Staying ahead of the pack in an intensely competitive environment. I am constantly looking for ways to improve our service offering to our clients and the proposition we offer our people.
Leading a law firm is very different from leading a corporate – as a partnership, there are over 100 individual owners of the business – they are highly intelligent, autonomous individuals with a deep vested interest in the success of our business. The challenge as a leadership team is to persuade all of them to move in the same direction for the greater good. Christo and I are leaders, but we are elected leaders and also our partners’ peers. It is our role to provide a clear and compelling vision, set out the plan to achieve it and then contextualise how everything fits together. In our busy day-t- day work world it is also critical for us to make the time to have individual conversations, because although we are a big business, we are still ultimately a partnership, which is dependent on personal relationships and we have to work at keeping the bonds between partners strong. Our challenge is always managing the tension between the need to run our large business in a business-like fashion and the need to keep the collegiality that attracts partners to private practice.
I recognise the weight of responsibility my generation of leadership carries in preserving the legacy of one of South Africa’s greatest law firms and I feel compelled to leave it better and stronger for the next generation of lawyers.
- How do you take part in mentoring others?
In my view, there is no better way to learn than to do the job, so I provide exposure and access to clients and quality work. I am always accessible – by email if not always in person as I travel weekly between both offices, and also have an open door policy so people can pop in to bounce ideas around or brainstorm solutions. I believe mentoring should happen in ‘real time’ when the discussion is focused on something relevant to that moment, so I prefer a more informal approach to formal scheduled engagements. As a firm we do though have formal mentoring programmes and Christo and I meet regularly with representatives from our junior staff to ensure we are in touch with their thinking – they are after all the future of our firm.
- If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
The high of my career would probably be my election by my partners as their managing partner. My low was probably the six month period immediately preceding that election where I had to stand down from the board for a year as I had served the maximum permitted term of four successive years. As a result I spent six months feeling completely disconnected from what was going on in the firm. I realised then, as much as I love my practice, how important it was to me to have a seat at the table setting the direction of the firm. The fact that we have split the senior partner role into two roles – the senior partner and managing partner role, allows Christo and I to continue to practice in addition to our leadership roles, which for me is the best of both worlds.
- What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
Year on year we continue to improve our rankings in global directories: in Legal 500 2016 we gained 11 Tier 1 rankings, more than any other firm in South Africa and in Chambers Global 2016 12 of our practice areas are ranked Band 1 with 49 individual rankings amongst our partners, again, more than any other South African law firm.
Over the last 2 years we have received a growing number of accolades and achievements which we are very proud of. To name a few, in 2014 we were named African Law Firm of the Year by Legal Week; in 2015 we were named South Africa Law Firm of the Year for the seventh time by Who’s Who Legal and we are the only South African law firm to ever have been selected as a World Economic Forum Global Growth Company.
- How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
Our revenue continues to increase year on year. In a flat growth environment, this is a clear sign of the strength of our proposition for clients. Our partnership has grown from 110 partners 5 years ago to 150 today, but the most important indicator of growth and success for me is the growing number of blue chip clients that instruct us to lead on their most commercially critical matters as well as the growing number of coveted awards we receive in recognition of our standing in the market.
Webber Wentzel is a key player in some of the most complex business transactions that take place in South Africa and across the African continent, for example we have advised on the highly complex African Bank restructuring, as well as the trillion rand deal involving Anheuser-Busch InBev’s (AB InBev) acquisition of SABMiller, which was named Deal of the Year at the DealMakers Awards. We acted for AB InBev in respect of the South African and African aspects of this R 1, 53 trillion deal, said to be the third largest M&A transaction in history.
We were rated top legal advisor of the year in the category of Mergers & Acquisitions by Deal Value at the 2015 DealMakers Awards – one of the most coveted legal awards. We were lead advisor and the only firm to have acted on all four deals shortlisted by DealMakers for Private Equity Deal of the Year – which reinforces the standing of the multi-disciplinary Webber Wentzel private equity team as the go-to team in the private equity sector with an unrivalled integrated offering.
Together with our alliance firm Linklaters, we lead the Mergermarket rankings for announced deals with Africa involvement, by value for 2015. We are ahead of both local and international competitors in these league tables.
We are able to achieve this success by leveraging our alliances and networks model to provide our clients with fit for purpose teams drawn from a deep and diverse pool of talent. Our collaborative alliance with Linklaters enables us to provide global coverage where our clients need it and as the only South African member of the African Legal Network (ALN) we offer our clients seamless access to the very best, top tier, law firms across the African continent. This model provides a unique and flexible offering for our clients and allows us to tailor solutions to meet the needs of any matter in Africa.
- Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?
Webber Wentzel has always had an impeccable record for ethics and integrity. We have a set of seven core values which form the foundation of our vision and strategy, and we communicate them widely and reinforce them in each and every business decision we make. We have made some tough decisions where we have clearly chosen our values over our commercial interests.
In regard to managing risk, over the years the firm has established and nurtured a culture that is commercial in outlook yet risk aware. We are committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards and the quality of our people is obviously key to maintaining these standards.
We have a risk committee, made up of partners and managers, who are always available to discuss and address any questions or concerns. Our corporate ethics policy, amongst others, encourages an open-door policy for all employees, as we have found this to be a proven method for mitigating potential problems.
We also have a dedicated Head of Risk, who establishes the firm’s compliance processes and coordinates compliance oversight activities, and we provide regular ethics awareness, education, mentoring, compliance and training programmes, most of which are mandatory for our people.
- Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
At Webber Wentzel transformation and diversity is one of our top strategic priorities – we do not believe that we can be the dominant South African law firm unless we also lead the way on transformation and diversity. Through our continuous efforts, the firm’s transformation strategy has gained momentum, with a positive change in the firm’s demographics, both from a race and gender perspective. This is being achieved through various concrete initiatives driven through our Transformation Action Plan. A key focus is on ensuring that the firm has an inclusive culture where all of our people feel at home and are able to fulfil their potential. Equal access to high quality work and experience is also fundamental. Transformation and diversity considerations are at the forefront of all our hiring and promotion decisions. Some other critical transformation milestones include increasing the proportion of fees billed by BBBEEE fee earners and maintaining a best in class BEE rating under the new codes, through adhering to rigorous preferential procurement, protocols and procedures. Significant progress has been made in achieving a diverse leadership pipeline within all our business units. That said, we still have a lot of work to do and it is a key priority for Christo and I who both sit on the Transformation Committee.
We are also making great progress on gender transformation. We have the highest female equity partnership of any major South African law firm (35%), which exceeds the global target threshold of 30%. We are committed to push this target to 50%. There is also strong female representation in leadership positions across the firm: 33% of our board, 50% of our executive committee (including our head of Corporate and head of Tax) and 50% of all business services heads of department, including the firm’s Chief Financial Officer, are women.
- Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community
Being a responsible and contributing corporate citizen is a key component of our overall business strategy at Webber Wentzel. We are committed to improving the lives of all South Africans by encouraging the economic participation of disadvantaged individuals and communities; the protection and promotion of human rights; and the safeguarding of the rule of law and equal justice for all. We invest in this commitment through 2 different avenues, our Pro Bono Practice and our CSI initiatives.
Webber Wentzel was the first major South African firm to establish a pro bono practice which we did in 2003. Since then this team has provided over quarter of a billion rand’s worth of free legal services to various individuals, organisations and communities on issues such as enterprise development, land reform, housing, education, healthcare, children’s rights, gender equality and service provision.
In terms of CSI, we have identified 3 areas where it makes sense for us to leverage our capabilities as a leading law firm, namely, Education, Access to Justice and Economic Development. We support and have introduced numerous initiatives within each of these areas.
For example, we invested R4.9mil last year in setting the Webber Wentzel Empowerment Trust (WWET) which is aimed at contributing to the transformation of the South African legal sector and creating access to careers in law. The WWET scholarship programme is currently supporting 7 black South African law students for the duration of their studies. These students, who were selected on academic excellence and financial need, are supported through a mentorship programme and a series of life skills workshops and they receive full funding for their tuition, catered residence and textbook fees as well as a monthly stipend. The trust has also committed to provide sponsorship to the UWC law faculty to assist in employing more tutors on the Graduate Learning Assistants’ (GLAs) Programme.
We also fund the advocacy program of Inclusive Education SA (“IESA”). IESA lobbies government departments for improved policy to ensure effective implementation of inclusive education. We also sponsor the resources needed for the Equal Education Law Centres to provide legal representation to schools, learners and communities that are struggling to realize their rights to education, equality and dignity.
- What contribution has your firm made to the legal profession?
As a leading South African corporate law firm, we have played an important role in building South Africa’s reputation as having a stable and sophisticated legal framework within which to do business.
In addition to our day to day business, we take very seriously our broader responsibility not only to the profession but also to our country. Some of the high profile public interest matters handled by our pro bono team have had a lasting impact on the legal profession, such as:
- Our representation of the University of Stellenbosch’s Legal Aid Clinic and 15 applicants in a landmark ruling regarding the issuing of emolument attachment orders without judicial oversight. The outcome and implications of this matter are so significant and widespread that the firm was awarded the ‘most impactful pro bono case’ at the 2015 Pro Bono awards in September.
- The urgent application on behalf of the Southern African Law Commission to compel the arrest of the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, in terms of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court
- The challenge to the powers of South Africa’s Public Protector to “take appropriate remedial action” and whether her finding that the President of the Republic of South Africa is required to pay back a reasonable portion of the money spent installing non-security upgrades at his private residence, Nkandla, in his personal capacity is binding
- Our pro bono team has also contributed significantly towards national efforts to protect the rights of people living with HIV/Aids. The firm has taken on a number of HIV stigma related cases, protecting many vulnerable people from suffering discrimination based on their HIV/TB status, especially in the workplace.
- How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
Client service and professionalism is at the heart of everything we do … our values are built around it and our reputation is based on it.
We employ only the best people. When recruiting we are not only looking for a commitment to excellence, exceptional skills and commercial judgment but we are looking for those stand-out individuals who can demonstrate a natural understanding of and dedication to the highest level of service to external and internal clients alike. Once they join the firm they are trained and coached on-the-job in how to deliver excellent and consistent client service.
We also have a world class business services team who support our lawyers in delivering tailored solutions to our clients, for example, ensuring that we are able to provide effective technology platforms for engagement, providing alternative pricing models to fit their business needs and assisting in the legal training requirements of an in-house legal team.