Profile: Claire Hafner, FD of Eversheds

Claire Hafner, Eversheds' FD

Should one depreciate the costumes of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and if so over
what time period? Claire Hafner once had occasion to discuss this very issue in
a job at Euro Disney. But as finance director of
Eversheds, the eighth
largest law firm in the UK, there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about her current role.

Since stepping into the financial hot seat two years ago at one of the UK’s
fastest growing law firms – in the news for its involvement in the
loans-for-honours investigation and famous for high-profile clients including
the Beatles’ Apple Corps. Ltd, and Island Records and the Marley family –
Eversheds has seen profit grow 15% year-on-year.

Hafner says she would have been a teacher, were if not for some careers
advice from her husband. ‘My husband suggested I try accountancy,’ she says. So
she did, alphabetically, phoning up the first firm she came across in the Yellow
Pages. ‘Arthur Young was the biggest break of my career.’ So began her career in
the financial world, as a trainee accountant, a far cry from her French family
of educators and her father, a retired don. She admits to being unnerved by her
peers, a rather snooty Oxbridge set. ‘My colleagues were pretty cocky and
confident and thought they were the bees’ knees.’ Perhaps ironically, that year
she was the only one to qualify the first time out of all the new graduates.

Commercial success

The move into accountancy proved something of an epiphany. ‘I loved working
with numbers and commercial matters. It really was terrific,’ she says.

After stints in audit and corporate tax, Hafner craved more
commercially-driven work. Six years later, she was setting up the asset division
of Euro Disney shortly after it opened in 1992.

It should have been fun, but tensions between American and French staff made
the job inherently political. Despite being a native Parisian, Hafner isn’t sure
she would work with the French again. ‘I love the Anglo-Saxon way, which says
that provided people can deliver the goods, you can do business,’ she says.

A temporary respite from tensions came when her team tested park rides to
determine movable and immovable assets. ‘Sometimes they hadn’t got the centre of
gravity right yet, so people who were testing the rides would be throwing up,’
she laughs.

After 18 months at the theme park, Hafner was approached by Guinness, who
were looking for a fluent German speaker to acquire breweries for the brand in
Germany. Hafner didn’t let her lack of M&A experience stop her. Having
landed the job, she helped consolidate breweries in Ghana and Cameroon, and then
obtained a large stake of breweries in the Seychelles.

In M&A, Hafner found her niche. ‘The most exciting thing was learning how
to prepare evaluation models to assess current and potential value before we
took something over, or sold it. You have to be very commercial to make your
evaluation meaningful.’

When M&A activity slowed at Guinness, Hafner found a new opportunity at
BT, heading up the company’s property portfolio, at the time worth billions.

‘I got hired on the spot, I believe, on the basis of my experience of assets
and property gained during my time at Euro Disney,’ she said. But after only
three months, she found herself roped back into M&A, setting up a department
working on all the evaluations, joint ventures and new business that BT was
about to embark on.

The timing of this position couldn’t have been better. It was the very
beginning of deregulation of the telecoms industry, a time of frenzied activity
with a host of competitors suddenly vying for six mobile licences.

‘At any given time I had about 30 deals on the go. We were setting up joint
ventures in the Netherlands, in Italy, Spain, in Germany and then Asia pacific.’
And then came the Internet.

Internet Boom

‘Those three years in M&A at BT were the most exciting times for me. I
worked in a wonderful team. In doing M&A, you have to look at all areas of a
business. You’ve really got to understand the structure from every angle.

‘It’s a bit like putting a puzzle together. And if you forget a few bits, you
could have a really big hole. There were some long hours but a real sense of
community and an amazing sense of achievement in getting a deal done or turning
a deal down.’

During her time there, BT acquired a large stake in Segitel, the French
mobile and fixed operator. Hafner moved on to head BT’s multi-media division,
which she turned into a profitable entity after three years.

Then she was tasked with turning BT’s professional services and research and
development into a more commercially-driven operation. ‘These engineers were so
talented, but they would invent something like a hat with battery phone on top
of it, thinking somebody’s bound to buy it, without giving a thought to its

After nine years, Hafner left BT to join Barclays as FD in charge of business
and commercial banking. But within weeks she resigned from the role, citing
interference in her work from another female executive, which left Hafner unable
to do her job. ‘I sought the advice of older and more experienced colleagues who
suggested we part ways.’

But her already impressive CV had not gone unnoticed. After a stint as a
consultant, Hafner was headhunted into the FD role at Eversheds. Despite marking
such a huge change from the high buzz of an M&A environment, and despite
another offer from an international financial services institution on the table,
Hafner took the job with the lawyers.

‘I liked what I heard about Eversheds at the interview. I was excited by the
challenge of instilling a sense of commercialism. If I could do it at BT, then
why not at Eversheds.’

Changing times

Change is no mean feat in a profession that prides itself on being steeped in
tradition. But she found a real willingness to change among the lawyers. ‘They
accepted they had a lot to learn and were keen to get on and do it.’

One of her first remits was to change the firm’s auditors. ‘Eversheds and
Grant Thornton had outgrown each other. Familiarity breeds contempt, and we
needed a change,’ she says. She asked E&Y to tender, and they won.

‘Your auditor has to be like a business partner, someone you can confide in.
They treat us in the same way they would a plc, asking questions about our
decisions and challenging whether we would do the same if we were a plc.’

Hafner’s arrival at Eversheds has prompted some good results at the firm. In
the last two years, profits have increased 15% each year, while partner
profitability has also seen a 20% year-on-year increase.

And, two years down the line, she is now confident she can spot the
differences between lawyers and accountants: ‘Accountants are ten years ahead of
lawyers. They’re more commercial and open about fees with clients. Lawyers, on
the other hand, are not as comfortable in directly dealing with money issues.

‘They take great pride in their work. But they will sometimes forget they
need to bill clients and work in a profitable manner. And they need to learn to
understand that clients know that the lawyer also needs to make money.

‘They love a good debate and they will argue on any point, especially if
they’ve got an audience around them,’ she says.

Hafner sees her role at Eversheds as a catalyst to driving the firm towards
increased profitability. She misses the frenetic pace of M&A and hasn’t
ruled out a return to her old love.

‘Maybe private equity, maybe one day. But not just yet. We’ve still got lots
to do at Eversheds. We are still in the middle of the journey.’

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