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Continuing Education

by Stephen on October 15th, 2012

Continuing Education

I thought I would share an anecdote for those who, like me, subscribe to the view that being in business involves a lifetime of education.

Recently, close to the end of a busy week, I put down the phone after a businessman I know well had growled at me. We have known each other for a long time and I like to think that I have developed an understanding of his business interests and the way in which he approaches issues. He made his point with his usual mix of good humour and his recurrent theme that advisers provide advice and business owners make decisions that require a balancing act between a number of often (competing) forces.

I had advised making a small concession on a very small point to get a contract signed. The contract was for a reasonably long term arrangement. Whilst the amount of money at stake for the businessman was quite small it was important to the other party and they were proving to require a lot of hands on management. At a principal to principal level, the parties get along and the other party realises that the businessman has a lot to offer that goes beyond the financial commitment and that he offers insight and introductions that make this an important relationship. But the advice the other party was receiving was starting to annoy the businessman. To put it politely, it was pedantic about the wrong things and silent on the key commercial drivers of the relationship.

My advice, on a last small point, was to quietly accept it and get the contract signed. This was aimed at enabling both parties to get on with the real work of implementing the arrangement. My five cents’ worth was followed by the phone ringing. I recognised the number and reached for the phone, wondering what else there was left to nail down, to be greeted with a sigh. The businessman’s measured advice was to the effect that I was one of more business-savvy lawyers he had met (phew, must be why he still humours me with this little insights) and, to a lawyer this must seem like a small and sensible concession. To the businessman it was not – as it signalled to the other side that they could continue to think that the list of very specific requirements imposed on them over the life of the contract each came with the ability for a dialogue and some wiggle room if things did not suit them on a given day. This simply, he continued, added to the time and cost of dealing with one contractual relationship amongst the library of such relationships that the business had to manage. As a result, the only answer to the request was – if you want the deal, sign the contract (and, unsubtly, if not the businessman had a lot of other things on his plate).

As I put the phone down, and reflected on the call as well as the other things I had to do before I pulled up stumps for the week I thought about the crossover between this conversation and some of the key takeaways from a book I had recently picked up. In that book, ‘Every Bastard Says No’ by the husband and wife team that developed Level 42 vodka, there are a series of great insights into just how hard they worked, for many years, to develop an iconic brand. This is not a book review, although it was a great read. One important takeaway for me from the book is that also provides some memorable examples of the great contrast between the passion and drive that it took to develop the brand and the single-minded focus brought by its private equity backers (the team behind the ‘Business Bakery’) that was pivotal in making it a successful business.

For a business lawyer and businesspeople alike, the phonecall demonstrates the need not to get bogged down in minutiae that may be irrelevant the drivers impacting on the business and, at the same time, realise that even little things may have an important bearing on the time and effort required to manage a business relationship.

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