Nicola Foulston never intended to become a career woman. In fact, she was ready to retire 20 years ago at the age of 32 to start a family. “My biological clock was ticking loudly,” she explains. “And juggling work and family was absolutely not what I wanted to do. I am a very organised person, so I had compartmentalised my life. I planned to have a career, and then a family.”
Nicola’s idea of a career, however, was quite unlike anyone else’s. Following her father’s death, she took over his motorsports business, Brands Hatch Leisure Group, in 1990 when she was just 22. It was originally valued at £6 million (€6.7 million).
Nicola expanded it, floated it on the London Stock Exchange and, nine years later when her biological clock started ticking, sold it for £120 million (€135,449 million).
“My father died at 40 and although I didn’t realise this until I turned 40 myself, I thought I had to pack it all in by that age. Subconsciously, I had given myself an end date,” she says. “When I arrived at that age, I was rather surprised that it wasn’t the end date and that I was still around,” she laughs.
“But I didn’t have any plans for after 40.” That’s when Nicola decided to make a comeback. “I realised I had a lot more that I wanted to do and that I really wanted to become a contributing member of society again.”
Jumping right in to become the group CEO of Rosenblatt, the law firm primarily focused on litigation or contentious law, in September 2016, it was as if she had come full circle – Rosenblatt was previously the appointed solicitor of Brands Hatch Leisure Group.
It then took her only two years to repeat the same feat for Rosenblatt that she had accomplished with Brands Hatch – getting listed. Going public is an unusual move for law firms; Rosenblatt is only the sixth in the UK to have done so.
One of the aims of the listing was to raise capital so the firm could help clients fund litigation cases, as well as work on them – litigation funding is an area of high growth.
“I am, at heart, an economist,” says Nicola. “I am passionate about making businesses commercially viable because I believe that it leads to better employment, better productivity and fuels the economy.”
“I am passionate about making businesses commercially viable because I believe that it leads to better employment, better productivity and fuels the economy.”
When Nicola took on the role as CEO at Rosenblatt, one of the most common comments was that she has neither an education nor a professional background in law. Yet in the three years she has been with Rosenblatt, she has successfully led the company.
“Can I run any business? I don’t think so,” she says frankly. “As a CEO, you have to have an intimate understanding of your product. There are going to be businesses that I can’t get my head around and, therefore, cannot lead.
“However, the legal profession is very old and very set in its ways and, in this aspect, it is similar to motorsports. Both are inward-focused industries that put a lot of attention on the product; the client is almost a by-product of what they do, rather than the whole point.
“Since joining Rosenblatt, the journey is very similar to the one I had at Brands Hatch. It’s about changing how the business looks at what it does and how it provides services to its customers.”
In Nicola’s opinion, the legal industry is long overdue for a complete overhaul. “The industry is so married to operating in the way it has always done that it is completely blind to the economic unsustainability of its model,” she says.
“We are aggressively commercial. We have a net operating margin of around 35%, which, for the legal sector, is exceptional.”
“My plan is to move Rosenblatt to a very different economic model. We are aggressively commercial. We have a net operating margin of around 35%, which, for the legal sector, is exceptional.
“The more commercial a company is, the more ruthless it has to be; in how it manages its cash, controls its costs and manages risks. The only way for a business to survive is to become the most commercially viable it can be. When businesses fail, it’s often because there is far too little concentration on cash by its senior management. Cash is king: it’s true for every single business.”