Jeremy is a Chartered Accountant having passed the PAAB (Public Accountants and Auditors) exam in 1996 after completing his BCom at the University of Cape Town and Hons BCompt at the University of South Africa. Jeremy was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Werksmans Attorneys in April 2006. Jeremy’s background was initially financial management and taxation at some of South Africa’s largest corporates. Prior to joining Werksmans, he was the General Manager of Adams and Adams, a large intellectual property law firm, for a period of five years. During this time, he gained wide experience in general management, particularly in the financial, information technology, human resources and marketing fields.
Jeremy spoke to SAprofessionals.com in the winter of 2016.
How does your firm ensure that professionalism and customer service are upheld?
It is something that we focus on all the time. We don’t progress people in the organisation until they have exhibited certain attributes. Those include an ability to deal with clients and to demonstrate professionalism. We do client surveys every two years to assist in this assessment. We also have internal training in this area. When it comes to assessing people for promotions, we not only look at performance in terms of fees but we also look at their professional integrity and whether they are team players. We also have professional managers to run the business in areas such as operations, human resources and finance while the lawyers concentrate on servicing clients. It is more cost effective having our senior lawyers focusing on serving our clients than being involved in firm management.
What does your appointment to the position of CEO mean to you?
It is an enormous priviledge. We only focus on areas that we are good at; we don’t just grow for the sake of growing. When I joined the firm, it was easy for me to make quick “wins” as there were areas of the firm which were not running as well as they could be. Wastage was widespread and many processes weren’t efficient which necessitated changes that had quite a huge impact. We are now at a stage where we are very efficient and highly profitable. It gives me tremendous pride in my team and also in the partners who allow us to make decisions quickly unlike many of our competitors where everybody wants to be involved in decision-making. Another thing I enjoy in the role is the fact that every day is different; I could be dealing with bankers today and tomorrow it could be a human resource matter taking up my time.
What would you like to have achieved by the time you call it quits as CEO? I could possibly have done more but I think we are in a great position nonetheless. The firm is well positioned, doing well financially and has the right people. We are also showing good growth. At the moment we have two building projects for new offices in Sandton and Cape Town which are exciting projects that I have not previously been involved with in my career. So a successful completion of these two building projects will be one of my goals.
What keeps you awake at night?
Well it is inevitable to worry about finance and the economy. We have been blessed financially but you still have to be concerned about how you manage your cash flows and how you remunerate people and having cash to pay dividends. Client retention is also a key focus area. We also need to make sure we employ the right people. If we don’t have good people, we don’t have a business so we need to ensure we recruit the right staff and keep them happy.
What would you say is your management and leadership style?
I am not a micro manager either open or consultative meaning I give somebody an opportunity to run with something and I only get involved when I see things are headed off the rails which is very rare. I am fortunate to have been able to recruit very good managers/staff. I believe you are only as good as the people around you. I like to be challenged. I am also quite demanding when it comes to performance simply because that is what is demanded by our clients.
What would you say are the highs and lows you have encountered thus far in your career?
Seven years ago we merged with a Cape Town firm of 150 people which was quite big for us. It was a significant transaction for the firm which required integration of technology, people, clients and cultures. There were some hiccups but on the whole it was extremely successful and I am proud of that achievement.
The low would be a significant fraud in our salary department. We needed to take legal action and it was a devastating period for me personally. It was a time of significant introspection professionally and emotionally.
Do you take part in mentoring?
I am not involved in a formal mentoring program but when approached on an informal basis I try to assist by passing on some of my experience.
How is it managing lawyers as a chartered accountant?
A commercial attorney generally has a lot of self-confidence and is normally a Type A personality. I have had to learn a lot in terms of managing individuals and your emotional intelligence needs to be developed in order to handle them tactfully and diplomatically.
What accolades have Werksmans won recently?
Our firm has been recognised with leading marketplace accolades by the following credible international rankings organisations:
- Chambers Global: The World’s Leading Lawyers for Business – In 2016, Werksmans is ranked in Band 1 in Corporate / M&A, Dispute resolution and Media & Broadcasting, Band 2 in Capital Markets, Energy & Natural Resources: Mining, Corporate Investigations and Environment, Band 3 in Project & Energy, Tax, Banking & Finance, Competition & Antitrust, and Construction and Band 4 in Intellectual Property and Employment.
- IFLR1000: Guide to the World’s Leading Financial Law Firms – Werksmans is ranked Tier 1 for Mergers & Acquisitions, Tier 2 in Capital Markets and Competition, and Tier 3 in Banking & Project Finance.
- Legal 500 – Werksmans is ranked Tier 1 in Corporate/M&A and Dispute Resolution, and is a recommended firm in Banking & Finance, Competition, Construction, Intellectual Property, Investment Funds, Labour & Employment, Mining, Projects & Infrastructure, Real Estate and Tax.
Our leadership in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) has been recognised by diversity of respected national and international research institutions including:
- DealMakers 2015 -Our accolades include:
- Legal advisors for listed deals – M&A category:
- 4th place – deal flow
- Legal advisors for listed companies – General Corporate Finance Category:
- 5th place – deal flow
- Legal advisors for unlisted deals:
- 2nd place – deal flow
- Legal advisors for listed deals – M&A category:
In addition, Werksmans acted as legal, tax and competition law advisors to The Bidvest Group Limited in relation to Ethos’ disposal of Plumblink which won the “Private Equity Deal of the Year” award.
- MergerMarket’s South Africa M&A round-up – Werksmans was recognised as South Africa’s most active law firm in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Our directors’ legal expertise has been widely acknowledged by various international industry bodies and research organisations.
International Who’s Who Legal – Werksmans lawyers are recognised in the fields of Arbitration, Banking, Capital Markets, Commercial Litigation, Competition, Corporate Governance, Corporate Tax, Mergers & Acquisitions, Mining and Regulatory Communications.
How do you make sure that your ethics and integrity are maintained at the firm?
It is all about recruiting the right people. As a law firm, you build up your reputation for years but it takes one day for it to be ruined. We support any lawyers facing ethical dilemmas. My door and that of the Chairman are always open and we encourage communication around these issues.
How as the business fared in terms of meeting its growth objectives?
We are quite conservative when it comes to growth; we don’t just hire any lawyer to increase our headcount. If we see an opportunity to bring someone in with an established client base, we may do so. Our remuneration system is based largely on performance meaning we have flexibility to move people up or down based on their performance. In terms of fees, we have been fortunate in the last couple of years to have experienced significant real growth.
How about transformation?
It is something we are constantly focused on but we can and must improve. That said we are a BEE level 5 and we are in the process of engaging a professional services firm to improve our black ownership.
What would say your contribution to community has been?
I think it’s been very good. We are involved in a whole range of projects including a weekly clinic in Diepsloot where our Pro Bono team gives free legal services. Beyond that, we make donations to worthy causes. We spend in excess of 1% of our profit on corporate social initiatives. I participated in the CEOSleepOut initiative in 2015. It was a difficult night; I didn’t sleep at all and it meant much more than just writing out a cheque.
What has been your contribution to the legal profession?
We have representation on the board of the Law Society and we sponsor various legal events.