Governance Game Changers: spotlight on Muriel Thorne

Company secretary

4 min read

Governance Game Changers is a blog and event series that celebrates governance professionals who’ve broken the mould and changed perceptions. Muriel is co-founder and director at Oakwood Corporate Services and a member of the committee of the Chartered Governance Institute’s North West branch.

Muriel set up her own business in 2009, proving that a company secretary’s skill set can extend to entrepreneurship. Here, she shares her perspective on the evolving landscape for governance professionals, as well as her experiences of running a small business and transitioning to employee ownership.

There are lots of opportunities out there — and professional services offers more than you may think

In response to ever-increasing compliance and reporting requirements, greater regulation, and the evolving relationship between stakeholders and business, the remit and workload of the governance professional has broadened substantially. Consequently, the traditional dichotomy between in-house and professional service roles has shifted too as the opportunities presented by these roles have similarly broadened, as have perceptions of them.

Driving this change is the fact that organisations have come to understand better the fundamental need for governance expertise and support, whether internal, external or a combination of both. It used to be the case that the classic route for a governance career would lead to an in-house role within a listed or substantial private company. However, given the increasingly recognised need for this expertise across a broad range of organisations, the opportunities for a challenging, rewarding and fulfilling governance career have expanded.

This change in the perception of governance in all its guises has fueled further changes to the way that service providers operate. Historically, you typically may have used service providers to undertake the basic compliance piece but not much more, but the scope of work of a service provider has broadened. Providers can specialise in different areas, or do things in a markedly different way. At Oakwood, for example, we provide legal compliance services in a very specialized way, very much as technical experts, combining the skillset of both experienced governance professionals and corporate lawyers.

As the governance landscape has changed, so too have the opportunities available through both in-house and professional service roles. In the past, a traditional route may have been to train and cut your teeth with a service provider before shifting to an in-house role at a listed company, whereas that isn’t the only option. I chose not to follow that route as I really like professional practice - I especially enjoy having the opportunity to work with a broad range of clients and being able to add value for them as a trusted adviser. At the end of the day, given shifting perceptions around career opportunities both in-house and with service providers, it really comes down to finding out what you’re good at and enjoy doing. It really is a question of personal fit and what sort of work you find most engaging and where you can add the most value.

Don’t be afraid to take a risk when you’ve spotted an opportunity

In the wake of the financial crisis in 2009, Michael Harris and I set up Oakwood Corporate Services. We had been working within a large law firm and felt constrained by the structure and where the firm was focusing its attention and resources.

We soon realised there was an opportunity to be more impactful outside of this structure. We also realised that, ultimately, organisations prefer to buy services from people they trust and to build relationships that last for the long term. To us, there seemed to be a clear gap in the market for an independent provider built around people with a focus on delivering services that worked for its clients. This belief was vindicated as we won two major clients fairly early on; without trust and the robust relationships we’d built, this would not have been possible.

We also found that many aspects of our governance professional skillset – tenacity, adaptability, and attention to detail – were well suited to entrepreneurship. These skills were vital as so much of what we were doing was outside of my prior professional remit – be it negotiating with suppliers or building the team. I think the latter has certainly been the most rewarding part of building the business as we’ve gathered a fantastic team together at Oakwood with a culture that encourages collaboration, personal development and thinking differently.

Break the mould, and do the right thing for the long-term

Ever since the earliest days of Oakwood we’ve thought long-term, and been mindful of the business’s future, beyond us. I suppose the ‘traditional’ route would have been an eventual third-party sale, but this always felt like the polar opposite of what we really wanted or thought was best for the business and the team.

This led us towards the model of employee ownership, which we saw as having some key benefits. Crucially, the model provided the chance to secure our organisational independence, which I feel is very much a part of who we are. It also offered the prospect of more considered succession planning, allowing us to plan well in advance and manage the process more effectively. We’re still fully committed to the business, but it’s reassuring to know that when the time comes for us to step back we will be ready for it.

Today, any client working with us will be dealing with somebody who is now an owner of the business, with a vested interest in ensuring we deliver them a fantastic service. However, in order to enable your employee-owners to think this way you’ve got to make sure that they understand the model, why we’ve done it, and how they can benefit from it. That isn’t an issue we ran into, but it was definitely something we were aware of in setting it up.

Transitioning to an employee ownership model also provided an opportunity to even more deeply embed our values – ensuring our focus on collaboration, innovation, personal development, and well-being is based on solid foundations and empowered employees. We see the model as a great way to build on our successes since the business’ inception, to provide really exciting career prospects to those in the team and crucially to recognise their dedication and extraordinary hard work, without which none of this would have been possible.

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