Stef Nienaltowski met one of Shaping Portsmouth's most active Partners recently; Alison Lee, Managing Director of Biscoes. They discussed the way the company has evolved, and what her plans are for taking it forward.
Stef Nienaltowski: I'm sat in the Biscoes office here in Portsmouth with the Managing Director Alison Lee. Good afternoon Alison.
Alison Lee: Hello Stef.
SN: Alison, Biscoes is a name in my opinion synonymous with Portsmouth, but where did the company start, and how long have you actually been here in the City?
AL: Well, we can trace our roots back, with a law firm that's changed and developed, to 1864.
AL: I always find it quite interesting that the firm that I did my Articles with, it's now called a training contract. which was Cousins, Burbidge and Connors based in Southsea, there are in fact two roads in Southsea named after two of the original partners of that firm; there's Burbidge Grove and Cousins Grove, and both of those are in walking distance of that office, so yeah, we've been around a long time.
SN: Wow, and in fact I know where you are, that's down near the tennis courts and all that isn't it?
AL: Yep, that's right, yeah, and that was part of the original firm. The actual firm as it exists now was a merger of three long-standing Portsmouth firms, and that happened in 1995.
SN: Right, so, your locality, not quite on the high street, but close to it, and branding seems to suggests a different approach to the market that maybe some other local law firms have. Do you have a different strategy for getting to the market?
AL: Yeah, we made a very positive decision, around the time of the first sort of property crash, where lots of firms were looking at consolidating into big large buildings with car parks, out of the town centre, that we weren't going to do that. We established the fact that our client base is local, and we've built on that brand, so our branding, if you listen to any of our radio adverts, which I'm told are saturating the airwaves, both global and now Express FM, are "Local, Experienced, Reliable". So, being local is very much part of our strategy, and we are in a number of areas where those clients don't want to travel outside their locality. So, the likes of Wickham, Gosport, Petersfield, those clients want to come to somebody who is on their doorstep, that they can just pop in if they need to.
SN: And in fact, downstairs just now, true story, a gentleman came in and asked for one of your lawyers, and he had a thank-you card for him. That's brilliant isn't it, it's the personal touch.
AL: Yeah, and because we have such a low staff turnover here, what often happens, our Portchester office is a prime example of this, they're very well known, so our Portchester office which sits just on the edge of the village in Portchester, has got very large, glass windows, the shop-front type window, and regularly have to raise your hand 20- or 30- times a day as people are walking past the window, because they know them. They're clients, they've been long-standing clients, they know the staff. That gives a really nice family-solicitor feel to what is actually quite a go-ahead business.
SN: Yes, and as you said that's a difference to some of the other companies' strategies. So, I've worked with you now for nearly a year- and a bit - I know how committed you are as a parent, and certainly also to advance women in business as well. How difficult is it, as you say, to be the Managing Director of a very progressive organisation, and balance the home life as well?
AL: Well, I guess that's one of the questions you probably need to ask my children - "do you ever see your mum?" - I think it is a challenge. It is a challenge to be working full time in business, and being a parent of any sort, mum or otherwise, but I've always instilled in my children that they benefit from me doing that; they've had nice holidays, they've had the clear benefit of going to an independent school I think, because that's given them lots of opportunities I don't think they would otherwise have had, and I very much push the idea onto my children, particularly my daughter I have to say, that she can achieve anything, she can have the best of both worlds if she wants.
And it's one of those things that actually has led me on to filling up yet even more of my non-spare time. I recently joined up as a mentor for the Girls Network, because I want to express that message a little bit further than just my own two children, which is if you work hard, actually it does bring benefits to you and your family, and your wider community. Hopefully I've balanced it ok, I'll know when they leave home if they still bother to come back because they know who I am!
SN: Exactly, and while I'm on the theme of balancing, your Pompey in the Community role I know is one you treasure. How do you manage to balance that with your other priorities?
AL: Well, I've been a trustee at Pompey in the Community, I was trying to work it out, about 7 or 8 years now. It's a role that does involve sometimes a little bit more work than it does at other times, so mostly I'm there every month or so, signing cheques, meetings, and various things, but I have to say it gives me a new dimension to my life, in that whenever I walk in there, if anybody knows Clare Martin, knows the staff at Pompey in the Community's offices in Anson Road, they will know it's such a positive atmosphere when you go in there. I always come out with such a big smile on my face, so for me, it actually gives me something, rather than me giving it something, although I don't get involved in any of the projects on a hands-on basis, I know they need governance, they need people behind them to make those things work, and it just gives me a really good feeling.
Although, I am actually putting… my face where my mouth is, I was going to say then but that doesn't really make any sense does it?! I've just signed up to be one of the 120 Pompey Stars, which is the new charity fundraising project that they're doing. They want 120 people to commit to raising £100 each, by September because it's the 120th anniversary of the club. And that money will all go to Pompey in the Community, so my idea for fundraising is to sit outside on a plastic chair in the car park, and allow my staff, for the small price of £5, to chuck a wet sponge at me. So, I'm hoping that's going to raise at least £100! 120 staff, so on the basis that they can have one go each, I think that should probably make £100.
SN: I think you should, but well done you. And listen, before we finish with where the organisation of Biscoes will go, I don't want to leave this interview without personally thanking you for your partnership with us. You've just increased your involvement with us up to the Partner level. I've enjoyed our relationship tremendously, and I just want to thank you for that. That loyalty and that confidence in the organisation, so thank you.
AL: You're very welcome, I think Shaping has taken on a new lease of life since you've taken over the leadership of it, and what I'm seeing, certainly the Conference, and the projects I'm seeing, is that it is making a massive difference in the City, and Biscoes wants to be part of that. We've always been a very community based [organisation], our corporate social responsibility policy is there on our website for everybody to see, we've always done a huge amount of charity work and giving, so being a part of that, and seeing it actually feed back into the City is just brilliant.
SN: Thank you very much indeed. So finally, we spin the dice forward, two or three years, apart from maybe a bit more time with the family...
AL: ... maybe
SN: Maybe! Where's Biscoes going to be then?
AL: Ok, we again, a big strategic decision for us, as well as remaining local, is actually to make sure that we modernise. Our method of doing that is very much investment in our staff. If actually we've got the right people, and they're happy in what they're doing, then the clients are going to get the right, and the best quality of service, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy I think. So, we've been very keen to invest very heavily in staff engagement, so lots of little things go on here that probably don't go on in other law firms. Little things, like staff get a handmade birthday card and voucher on their birthday every year.
We run a little Biscoes Superstars where staff get to vote for colleagues, and they get a little token that has a monetary value that they can save up. We have a thing called Perkbox, where they can get money off their shopping and other things, we're just about to bring in a healthcare plan for staff. Basically, we want this to be the destination that anybody looking to work in the legal sector in this area would want to come to, and then we've got the pick of all the best people. And that allows us to give the best service to clients. The other thing that we're very hot on, is the client experience, so unlike probably a lot of law firms, we mystery-shop our staff, so we've been doing that for about 2 or 3 years.
We go through a whole programme of about 3 months where we have people who are professionally employed to ring up and pretend they are a client, and then give feedback on the experience of the initial contact, the [person] they spoke to, how the costs were explained to them, all those kinds of things, so we're making sure that we're living up to all these promises that we make on our website by actually testing that with real people.
SN: Indeed, and you only have to walk around the place to get that feel anyway. Alison, thanks very much indeed, I look forward to the next year, and we'll make some more inroads into the programmes together. Thank you.