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My career story: “I went from corporate at Clifford Chance to a niche car collector practice”

Written by: Richard Simmons
Published on: 3 Apr 2016

Clifford Chance article image

Damen Bennion started his career at a small regional firm, worked in the corporate team at Clifford Chance, spent time in-house at Excel, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis, and is now a partner in the niche collector car practice at Goodman Derrick.

How did you start out in law?

I suppose I wanted to become a lawyer from a very young age, having seen Rumpole of the Bailey on the TV. My father’s family used a law firm, Fishers, that has offices in Leicester and Nottinghamshire – I went and did some summer placements during school holidays and they offered me articles. The firm had a number of unusually big clients for a small firm, and very quickly I got involved in a whole host of corporate and commercial work.  

I qualified and was given a lot of responsibility for a junior lawyer, but at the same time I thought I needed more structure and guidance to my career, so I went to work for Wragges in Birmingham. I really enjoyed it. It was a much bigger firm, with lots of structure and training at a really busy time in the late ‘90s.

But lots of my friends were down in London. I interviewed at a bunch of magic circle firms and took a job at Clifford Chance, doing much the same thing as at Wragges – corporate, M&A. I really enjoyed it but I worked super-hard, very long hours.

Moving from a very small firm to the magic circle is relatively unusual – it’s often the other way round…

It made me bit unique. When I went from Fishers to Wragges, I probably had a lot more exposure to doing the whole deal at a more junior level.

There’s no doubt that massive firms like Clifford Chance give a first-class training, though. I think my advice would be that, wherever you move, make sure you do your due diligence on the firm properly. Interviews will only give you a snapshot of what the firm is like. If you make it through the interview process, ask to speak to some of your contemporaries at the firm.

You then moved in-house…

Clifford Chance was fascinating, working on the biggest, most exciting transactions. But I suppose I worked too hard, so I started thinking about where I wanted my career to go.

If I stayed as a corporate lawyer, maybe I would have ended up being a partner – but still doing those crazy hours. I started to look at other options and eventually, having spoken to friends and recruiters and partners I’d previously worked with, it all suggested looking in-house was the right thing to do.

I interviewed at a number of FTSE 100 companies and took a job at Excel, the logistics company.

It was a bit of a leap of faith because I wasn’t going as a corporate lawyer but to be a generalist. So I moved from being a corporate lawyer to an all-rounder. I was given responsibility for a lot of their automotive work. It was pure chance. I’ve always been passionate about cars, but that wasn’t the reason I applied there. However, I ended up doing lots of interesting automotive matters.

What was great about that the role was that I had to become a generalist. I had to know my way around commercial stuff, there was a bit of corporate, I had to learn all about TUPE, there was a bit of property, could I spot a tax angle? It was a really different working environment – making sure the lawyer was understood within a business, learning that you don’t just move on to the next deal but  once a transaction is done you need to own it and manage it. I look back now as Excel being my in-house apprenticeship, where I learnt my trade.

But I was one of a team and I’ve always been ambitious, and I was keen to run and manage a team.

I looked around and the role of head of commercial law came up at Sainsbury’s. It was an exciting time for them. ‘Making Sainsbury’s great again’ was out there as a slogan and after some tough times Sainsbury’s was turning a corner. I jumped at the chance to head up and also to build a team.

What was Sainsbury’s like?

I hadn’t done retail before, and I hadn’t thought of retail as a sector that excited me, but when I got there I discovered it really is exciting, because shops and grocery touches everyone’s lives. Sainsbury’s had outsourced all of their IT to Accenture, but the relationship had soured so I was  involved in bringing a lot of it back in-house.

I did a whole bunch of sponsorship deals – all of the Jamie Oliver transactions. I rejigged all of their supply chain, and then I went and did some work helping re-jig the Sainsbury’s Bank JV. At the time, it was a 55/45 JV with HBOS in Sainsbury’s favour and there was a challenge to make it a true JV. That gave me an exposure to Sainsbury’s Bank and getting to know how it worked.

I’d never done banking before. That’s the beauty of in-house. People think of Sainsbury’s as a supermarket but of course it’s got its finger in all sorts of pies.

Then all of a sudden Sainsbury’s was the subject of a couple of, ultimately failed, takeover bids. That was very exciting. The share price went through the roof. Then Sainsubry’s was approached by Lloyds, which has acquired HBOS through the banking crisis. The JV was no longer core to what they were doing. They wanted out, so I was asked if I’d like to head up the transaction to acquire the bank, so I took on a new role as head of projects.

I never guessed that what I’d do when I moved in-house, but I then spent the best part of two years acquiring a bank. It was fascinating. I was a corporate finance lawyer, who’d become an all-rounder, who’d ended up buying a bank. I think that gives a flavour of what can happen when you go in-house.

Then I got a call completely out of the blue from John Lewis. They probably just caught me on the right day, and I went and spent three years as their principal lawyer, looking after John Lewis and Waitrose. They are two very different businesses: there is so much to get your head around.

Now you are back in private practice, working in the very niche area of collector cars. How did that come about?

Away from work I’ve always been passionate about cars: going to race meetings as a boy, then when I was old enough, buying a car, restoring them, competing, winning concourse competitions, doing track days. I was approached by Simon Draper, who set up Virgin with Richard Branson, to write a book with him on Aston Martins, and that took me all around the world.

I ended up meeting some of the world’s biggest billionaires and looking at and driving their cars. My network within the car world grew and grew and I was aware that Martin Emmison at Goodman Derrick had this interesting car practice. About three years ago we met to chat about it and got on terribly well.

Then then about a year ago we met again, and the more we talked the more interested I became. Martin had built a fantastic practice worldwide: his automotive practice deals with the buying and selling of the most valuable cars in the world and all the issues surrunding them – so importation tax, registration and indeed when things go wrong there is interesting litigation as well. We started talking about me joining a firm as a partner.

What made you make the move?

I think if you’d asked me if I’d like to go back in to private practice as a partner doing corporate or commercial work, the answer would probably have been no, but the chance to put together 20 years experience of deals – and I love doing deals – and my other big interest which was cars…

Goodman Derrick provided me with a unique opportunity to combine the two, and the chance to work in what I considered the leading practice anywhere in the world. We talked and there was an offer, and I took it.

I think what’s really important in terms of the move, is that it’s going to be the right thing for you – that you’ll fit in culturally. Although I’ve not been here long, I’ve never been more excited about getting up and going to work. I’m doing an area of law I thoroughly enjoy, Martin and I get on like a house on fire, so it’s like having your best pal in the next office rather than just another colleague. And I get to meet the most fascinating people and see the most exciting cars you will ever imagine.

Such as…?

Just before Christmas we were involved in placing a Ferrari in an auction in New York and it sold for $28m, the third most expensive car ever to sell. I’ve just been to Retromobil in Paris which is the start of the classic year, in May there will probably be a trip to Villa D’Este in Italy where there’s a great big concourse on the side of Lake Como.

It’s amazing, for me it’s a dream job – and now I’m doing it.

Was there culture shock coming back into private practice?

I was asked that a number of times at interview: how are you going to cope with the move back? I think law firms have changed enormously in the last 20 years. They’ve had to modernise and become a bit more similar to in-house departments – get closer to business, be little less strait-laced and more savvy and flexible.

There has been no culture shock coming back. I suppose doing time sheets is not the most exciting thing, and in private practice that’s something you have to do whether you are the partner or the trainee – but I really mean it sincerely when I say there hasn’t been a culture shock at all.