The Journal Runs Profile on Senior Partner

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On 12 December, The Journal ran a profile on our senior partner, Hugh Welch. Please find the article below:

Despite Hugh Welch’s broad smile, friendly demeanour and obvious commitment as a family man, evidence would suggest his guilty pleasure is solitude.

As well as being a keen marathon runner, the loneliest of sporting pursuits, he remembers fondly the time he spent on sabbatical at a silent retreat to gather his thoughts.

He also recalls with a smile, the period in his life when he worked alone as a gardener in the vast grounds of a Northumberland retreat house and relished the thinking time he had away from his high-flying career.

Throw in his admission that his ideal job in a parallel universe would be to spend his days as a truck driver out on the open road, and a profile of a non-people person emerges.

However, after an hour in the company of Muckle’s senior partner, a very different picture is revealed. Not of an anti-socialite but rather a person so active as a business leader and charity champion that, every now and again, he needs to be alone.

“I couldn’t think of anything that would give me a more complete break from work than going to spend 10 silent days in North Wales,” he says of his time at a Jesuit retreat during the six-month sabbatical he earned in 2006 after two decades at the commercial law firm. “Once you got into it, it was really nice because you didn’t have to bother making small talk.

“The sabbatical just gave me a chance to think about what I wanted to do. I also worked as a gardener for a charity and it was great fun. I wasn’t paid, I just pottered about cutting grass and it was all part of working out what was important to me.”

Fortunately for Muckle – and North East charity the Community Foundation in which Welch plays a key role – the Cambridge graduate returned refreshed and ready for action.

“After a while I started to miss work and I hadn’t realised how much I would miss it. I missed the whole invisible web, or network, of being in business with people. I missed the chat, the interaction with colleagues and I even missed the hassle. I realised I’d be lost without work and it put the difficult days into perspective.

“Whatever you do there are probably days when it all seems to go wrong but it made me realise that they were just a real minority and you’ve just got to work through the hassle.”

This meeting with Welch takes place in an office which, if not for the sound of beer barrels being rolled into Gallowgate pubs and the din of the China Town lunchtime crowd, could easily be located inside a Canary Wharf or Manhattan skyscraper.

Welch admits the opulence and size of Muckle’s current home at Newcastle’s Time Central building is a world away from the company he joined from Dickinson Dees in 1985.

Back then there were just 15 people working at the firm, compared to around 150 currently, and he had no idea just how much enjoyment he would go on to have in a sector that, as a student, he found “indescribably boring”.

He says: “I had no burning desire to be a lawyer but I’ve actually ended up doing something I love and in that respect I’m incredibly lucky.

“Muckle was very small when I joined but we’ve grown steadily since. We focus on businesses and the commercial sector and we haven’t got sidetracked into personal injury work or medical negligence work, we’ve stuck to looking after the business community.” Although clearly having a major hand in Muckle’s rise to power since its early days in a considerably stuffier office near Newcastle’s Central Library, Welch remains modest and is a strong believer in the power of team play.

“The firm is not successful because of what I do, it is successful because of collectively what everyone in this firm does. It’s not just the partners, it’s the job that everyone does at the firm which is critically important. If Amy the receptionist doesn’t look after you straight away, then you’ve already got some form of impression about this company.”

The formula followed by Welch and his 27 fellow partners looks to have worked. In the year to March 2011, the group completed 106 deals worth £403m.

The company was relatively unscathed by the recession, although it did suffer staff cutbacks, and this year recorded solid results despite the tough economic climate. In the year ending March 2011, the practice saw revenues increase by 10%, from £8.4m to £9.3m, with pre-tax profits rising 20% from £2.5m to £3m.

Highlights of recent years include its involvement in the £173m sale of South Shields- based fashion retailer Visage to Hong Kong firm Li & Fung and several key appointments alongside an increase in the number of partners at the firm to 28.

Welch laughs when it is suggested that the company powered through the recession. “We were careful about costs and overheads but then you’ve just got to get on with it,” he says.

Looking forward to 2012 he believes there are opportunities for growth for the Newcastle firm, despite the threat of another plunge into recession and the ongoing turmoil in Europe.

“I am absolutely certain that there is a real opportunity still out there for a firm like ours that is absolutely committed to the North East but we have no intentions to expand into Leeds, Manchester or anywhere else.

“There is plenty of work that we can do both here in the region and by the increasing number of businesses from outside the region that are instructing us to act for them, which are national and international businesses.

“In terms of next year, it’s hard for any business to make accurate predictions about growth and you’ve just got to get on with what you’re good at and keep doing what you do well. There’s no point in sitting here worrying about what’s going to happen in the eurozone. If you are going to worry – and I do worry quite a lot – you might as well worry about things you can actually control, like how well we can look after clients, how competitively you are priced and keep focused on the things that you can influence.”

When not worrying about the factors Welch can influence, much of his time is spent in charitable roles both in his pro bono and CSR work for Muckle and in his role of vice-president at the Community Foundation.

“Lawyers are in quite a privileged position and it’s right that we use it to make a fairer society,” he says. “We can’t help with the hard social issues like domestic violence or housing or some aspects of debt because we just don’t have the skills to do that but what we can do is help charities of all sizes on an unpaid basis very often with their governance and property issues and their issues as employers.”

His 10-year involvement at the Community Foundation, which acts as a hub for community philanthropy in the region by matching donors with causes, began at a community project in Benwell in Newcastle’s West End.

“I have been incredibly fortunate in my life and it’s part of my Christian belief that when you are as fortunate as I have been, it is incumbent on you to do what you can to help others. And so the Community Foundation was a great opportunity for me to do something with my skills as a commercial lawyer and with my knowledge of business.

“One of the great challenges is to continue to promote the idea of the Community Foundation and the work that it does.”

As someone who is heavily entrenched in the daily rigours of running a charity (Welch is also chairman of the Archbishop of York’s Youth Trust), he has a strong understanding of the significant impact the economic downturn has had on the region’s underprivileged.

“There is a huge need in the North East that is not going to be met by all the charities that are out there and they are finding it very tough. The amount of work we can do is also limited but you can’t shy away from doing something or trying to change a situation just because it’s a massive task.

“If everyone did that we’d never get anywhere, but it is going to be difficult for a lot of charities in the coming months.”

Away from his legal and third-sector guises, Welch’s recently-developed passion is long-distance running. Motivated by the taunts of his sons over a pint in his local, who claimed he was too old to get into marathon running, he began training a couple of years ago. Before he had time to change his mind, he was pounding the streets of Rome in the first of several 26-milers.

“I like the solitary nature of running,” he says. An unsurprising response from a business leader whose drive to help people, family commitments and appreciation of spending time alone exist in ambiguous harmony.

THE QUESTIONNAIRE

What car do you drive?
VW Golf.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Artisan in Corbridge.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Mr Bean.

What’s your favourite book?
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.

What was the last album you bought?
The Promise by Bruce Springsteen.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Long-distance lorry driver (but I failed my HGV test!)

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Listen before you speak.

What’s your greatest fear?
Serious illness or accident affecting any of my children.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Be decisive.

And the worst?
Put your pension with Equitable Life.

What’s your poison?
Anything from Wylam Brewery.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Quarry labourer – seemed a lot at the time.

How do you keep fit?
Running.

What’s your most irritating habit?
According to my family, always wanting to be in control of everything.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Family holidays.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Winston Churchill.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Jesus Christ, Haile Gebrselassie, Bruce Springsteen and Capability Brown.

How would you like to be remembered?
A good father and husband and an OK lawyer.

HUGH WELCH’S CV

Education: St Bees School, Cumbria; Cambridge University.

Employment: 1979-84: articled clerk and subsequently solicitor, Dickinson Dees; 1985-current: solicitor, partner, managing partner, then senior partner, Muckle LLP.

Other appointments: 2001-current: board member, trustee and chairman (2004-10), now vice-president, The Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland; 2009-current: chairman, The Archbishop of York Youth Trust; 2002-current: director and trustee, Stirling Newall Trust; 2003-11: trustee, Traidcraft Pension Scheme; 2001-05: director and trustee: St Chad’s Community Project; 1992-2001: governor and then chair of governors, Ascham House School Trust Ltd.