Mike Hughes goes beyond an impressive CV to get to know Lupton Fawcett’s Jonathan Oxley, chairman of the IoD in Yorkshire.
Goulden, Lee, Priestley, Lupton, Fawcett, Denison, Till might well be the start of a debate about the best tactical formation for a Premier League club. Add in IoD, MPC, White Rose and the University of Nottingham and it reveals itself to be the very full CV of Jonathan Oxley.
The breadth of experience makes it easy to understand how he is now a director at LFDT and chairman of the IoD in Yorkshire. The other elements are Gouldens in London where he spent seven years, including handling corporate law affairs for Hanson Trust; Lee & Priestley in Bradford and Leeds, where he spent 20 years before they merged with the much larger Lupton Fawcett (who then merged with Denison Till) and White Rose Technologies, where he was company secretary until he took up his present title at LFDT in 2012.
He did, as you might expect, get his law degree with honours, at Nottingham in July 1983. But if you think that is his story told, read on. Jonathan Oxley is a pivotal figure in Yorkshire business – and a very decent chap.
“All that consolidation has worked well for us, with offices covering the region and the ability to attract big names to joins us,” he told me. “It sometimes means you have to trade off some of the luxuries about being a smaller business, like the collegiate atmosphere, and a greater control over your own destiny, but that is all versus a much more powerful offering that is robust and geographically extended.”
His personal CV actually goes back to the 1700s, with the Oxleys making their name in Dewsbury pubs (in a managerial sense, of course) including the Elephant & Castle which no longer exists, and the Black Bull that still trades on Market Place. The law gene came later.
“My grandfather was a solicitor’s clerk for his whole life for a firm that is now part of Chadwick Lawrence and there are still – just - people working there who remember him taking my dad and aunt in there when they were kids.
“My dad could never quite decide what he wanted to do, but he was quite bright and got a scholarship to Oxford to read English. He opted to do his national service after university and then never left, working in army education and military intelligence.”
When the young Jonathan was choosing his own path, his father guided him away from English (‘because you don’t know what the hell you are going to do at the end of it’) and so he chose law, which he describes as ‘a broad church,’ saying that most personality types can find a bit that they are good at.
Lee & Priestley’s move to Leeds completed the early picture for him and progress has been regular and impressive ever since. “When we first planned the move from Bradford, we perceived the LS1 brand was a powerful plus and enabled us to grow the business pretty significantly over a sustained period.
“Because we didn’t have a lot of Leeds clients at the time, we took a medium-term view that we could focus on smaller firms that would grow with us. It was strategic decision, the challenge being that young small businesses aren’t going to pay you a lot of legal fees in their early years, and probably have more important things to spend their money on.
“We became reasonably good at picking the ones that were going to be worth spending time with and it has been great to see those businesses grow and prosper.
“It was a matter of potential rather than turnover. Could this person with a brand, a platform, know-how or skill take that somewhere?”
That skill for talent-spotting was an essential tool when the business was establishing itself in Leeds and it is one Oxley has been honing ever since and which is again showing its value as his work at the head of the IoD in the region helps firms prosper and contribute to the local economy.
“I’ve always had a real delight in developing people and building teams. Probably one of the things I am most proud of professionally is some of the people I have trained who have gone on to become really successful in their own right. They are great lawyers and great people.”
The company also has very active links with Leeds Beckett University, as part of a competition to help spin-out young firms. He has a particular enthusiasm for this sort of work, and is genuinely impressed that these entrepreneurial ideas are not scrawled on the back of a fag packet but are thought through, researched and tested.
“The model of university, businesses and local authorities is very powerful for the region, particularly with advanced manufacturing going so well, because bits will fly off those businesses and make a difference in the supply chain. We seem to be succeeding finally in getting a focus and saying we are going to concentrate on an area and get everyone bought in to it. Put all those things together and you might even end up with a Northern Powerhouse.
“Law firms can sometimes be very short-sighted, but I think you have to have a medium and long term view of things and I have always found that particularly easy. What you do today may not generate immediate fees, but I’m a great believer that if you keep on doing the right thing comes around.”
Oxley’s natural interest in the work of directors led him to join the IoD about ten years ago. “I have seen some shocking director behaviour in my time, as well as some very good stuff and the raison d’etre of the Institute of Directors is to become better directors and ensure there is a better standard of direction in corporate life.
“I am also very interested in politics and policies like devolution, so I am fairly comfortable being a voice for the region on these subjects.
“George Osborne has made his views patently clear on the way forward for devolved powers and for me that is the open door – walk through it rather than say you want the door in a different place or a different colour. The opportunity is there, with the backing of a chancellor who is there for the next five years.
You could be cynical about it – when you read the manifesto and get to the bit about the Northern powerhouse, the next paragraph says ‘....and we will make the Midlands an engine of growth...’ and you think, hang on a minute, are you just telling all the girls what they want to hear? But I think there is a genuine commitment there to getting real momentum and growth in the North.”
Away from the desk, and briefly putting aside devolution and corporate law, Oxley turns to sport for his relaxation – although you get the impression he’s very much ‘in it to win it’. He would be courteous in defeat, but he wouldn’t be happy with it.
Tennis “to quite a good level” and cycling take up his free time along with his daughters, aged 15 and 12 - and a Golden Retriever that needs plenty of exercise. The conversation about how busy home life and work life is hits a more sombre note when Oxley mentions that things had been “a bit bonkers” a year and half ago.
“I found myself on the office floor thinking ‘I’m dying’ and, even worse, people gathered around me were thinking ‘he’s dying’. “It started as a kick in my chest and I thought ‘at least my arm isn’t going tingly’, and then it did. It turned out to be stress, and the fact that I was combating pressure at work by exercising really hard – like a 40-minute 10k, which was just too much. So my body just said ‘you’ve had enough, mate’.
“I had about three months off work and it took a while to get back to full speed.
“My family got to see more of me, which they enjoyed, and it has made me particularly aware of getting that life balance right – which is absolutely doable now with the sort of support I have had here.”
His mind turns to others who may be going through the same situation, unaware of the ‘stress backwash’ they will get at some point and he has plans to try to do some work around stress and how to manage it.
Now through the offices of Lupton Fawcett and his chair at the IoD, the region has had an Oxley working for it for more than 300 years, developing business and serving the region. Grandfather, at his desk at Chadwick Lawrence, would be proud.
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