Not content with helping steer Lloyds through the financial crisis and the new lending environment, corporate counsel Lesley Wan is also driving major efficiencies and leading on diversity and team development. Ruth Green spoke to the bank’s ‘fast change agent’.
A lot can happen in a decade. Since joining Lloyds Banking Group as its first in-house real estate finance counsel ten years ago, Lesley Wan has been instrumental in steering the bank through the property lows of the 2008 financial crisis and proving that in-house lawyers can give much more back to business than pure legal advice.
After a career spanning both private practice and in-house roles in New Zealand and London, Auckland-born Wan landed the job in charge of Lloyds’ commercial real estate legal division in 2006. Looking back, she marvels at how her role at the UK’s biggest property bank has evolved.
‘There have been so many different phases that I have experienced, from transitioning through the initial two years where I was the only lawyer in the organisation who specialised in commercial real estate finance and reporting directly into the business,’ she says. ‘Then we acquired HBOS and overnight I became responsible for two banks’ commercial property portfolios.’
That was when Wan took the first steps to strengthen her team, quickly bringing in nine secondees and embedding them across the business up and down the country. Although she was plunged in at the deep end, Wan says the experience was a huge but enjoyable learning curve that allowed her to focus significantly on efficiencies and improve the bank’s processes.
‘For me, it was a blank canvas: I had to think strategically about what I was going to do with limited resources, how I was going to structure my legal team to support the business, and which law firms were best placed to be appointed onto my legal panel. I then spent the best part of two years creating documentation to better manage the legal risks to make our processes as fool-proof as possible.’
The efficiency drive hasn’t stopped there. In 2010, Wan championed the development of a new real estate investment facility agreement, creating a framework of standardised documents for borrowers and lenders to reduce both negotiation time and legal costs. The idea was endorsed and supported by the Loan Market Association (LMA), the trade association of banks, law firms and other financial institutions across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and set new standards of best practice not only for Lloyds and its external suppliers, but for the UK property industry.
Wan was also recently tasked with leading a large-scale change management project at the bank. ‘Our senior management at Lloyds were concerned with improving efficiencies in the processes and procedures when undertaking transactions in the current model. We were tasked with overhauling it to bring an entirely fresh approach to the fulfilment of a loan transaction, drawing upon and consolidating the finest levels of expertise from origination, legal and execution functions with reduced hand-offs and making the system much slicker,’ she says.
Although she has no formal training in change management, nor led a team in this area, Wan knew she was up to the challenge: ‘I have never led or trained in change management before, but I have led a lot of diverse teams.
‘It was an unusual project since lawyers usually only manage lawyers. Here, however, I was leading a team of ten people of varying seniorities that I had never worked with before. The majority were bankers, along with two lawyers from the legal function. I also had two fantastic Magic Circle secondees for six months to help me sort out this venture.’
Relocating the whole team off-site on the first day, Wan sat them down and together they analysed the existing model, identified the issues and debated what improvements could be made.
‘We were tasked with bringing an entirely fresh approach to the fulfilment of a loan transaction, consolidating expertise from origination, legal and execution functions with reduced hand-offs and making the system much slicker’
‘It wasn’t just about doing this differently, it was about actually challenging the status quo, examining the processes and procedures, and working out what our originators were doing – how we could take some pressure off them, and bring the reviewing and negotiation of technical documents back into a centre of excellence to manage issues centrally,’ she says. ‘It was extremely challenging as I had to manage a huge number of stakeholders, learn about new processes and procedures, identify how best to produce the data, and prove that our model was working successfully.’
After three months of solid work, Wan and the team delivered a brand new model that received resoundingly positive support from the bank’s customers, as well as the business. It is now in the process of being refined for other business areas of the commercial bank, so they too can realise the benefits.
Her success quickly earned her the reputation from senior management as a ‘fast change agent’, which is no mean feat in a corporate structure. ‘It was a really big job, the pressure was on and we had to deliver, but I felt quite confident we could do it. One of the most interesting challenges that I have had in this role was to lead and develop a disparate team and bring them together to support the bank’s vision.’
Indeed, Wan talks passionately about the leadership, development and training initiatives she has pioneered during her time at Lloyds. This started out on a relatively small scale by setting up a real estate finance forum for in-house lawyers, running client care training initiatives both internally at the bank and for trainees/junior lawyers at Lloyds’ panel firms, as well as establishing an annual summer placement programme for students interested in careers in the legal or banking sectors.
Building on this, Wan has gone on to set up a fully-fledged women’s mentoring programme at the bank with a view to helping young female talent rise through the ranks in what is traditionally considered a very male-centric environment.
‘One of the key issues we identified was that female graduates were joining in equal number to our male graduates but that, at a certain level, many of our female colleagues were leaving. We queried why; what could we do to retain our female talent and why were they not progressing? The reasons given included a lack of confidence and self-doubt, thinking they can’t do it because they had other priorities, such as getting married or starting a family, so they felt it was not the best time to apply for a promotion. We had to change people’s mindset and the culture.’
Female employees working throughout the bank, from local retail branches to the trading floor at its head office, are now supported in their progression by Wan’s Breakthrough Women’s Network.
To do that, Wan first needed to get buy-in from Lloyds’ senior management team. After presenting the idea to the senior directors from a number of different business areas, she persuaded them to support the programme and roll it out across the bank. Shortly thereafter, Wan and colleague Sarah Batty created a unique database for mentors and mentees to log their details, including what areas mentees were looking to develop and what skills mentors felt they could give back to the programme. The database operated on a self-selection basis, so that mentees were free to approach anyone they were comfortable with.
The Breakthrough Women’s Network, which now supports female employees working from Lloyds’ call centres and retail branches across the UK to its trading floor on London’s Gresham Street, has proved a remarkable success, and now includes 14,500 members and 4,000 mentors. The Economist’s 2015 Global Diversity List crowned it the number one women’s employee network in the world.
Off the back of the programme’s success, Wan set up a competition three years ago for mentees to nominate mentors who have proved particularly influential.
Although the programme is aimed at women, she believes it has had far-reaching benefits for both women and men across Lloyds’ business. ‘It has now become so popular that many of our male colleagues are registering as mentees because they want to find a mentor,’ she says. ‘In our mentoring competition, a lot of male mentors are being nominated, which I think is wonderful because I am keen to demonstrate that men can also add huge value to the programme.’
Wan has now been called upon to help drive similar initiatives among other networks at Lloyds, such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
‘I’m really proud of this as we are using the know-how that my team and I have already developed and extending it to help other networks in Lloyds Bank. And I’ve met with a number of senior women from other large corporates, such as Bloomberg, WPP and Xerox, to share with them how we set up our mentoring programme. Regardless of what part of the business they work in, this programme has shown how you can build women’s confidence and give them the courage to progress and apply for promotion and try something different.’
When she first started at Lloyds in 2006, Wan was the sole legal counsel in her division. Today, she has three other full-time lawyers working alongside her, plus eight or nine secondees from the City’s top law firms at any given time.
‘That is a lot of secondees for one sector, but we are one of the biggest property banks in the country, and this is a complex and high-risk area. So all the lawyers who come on secondment in my legal team to support the property business must be specialist lawyers, as they are required to help manage the real estate and real estate finance issues which arise on our transactions,’ she says.
Although costs preclude her from having more permanent staff in her team, Wan believes secondments provide a two-way benefit for both her as the client and for panel law firms. ‘I like working with people and seeing them develop and grow, which is something I think is really important. I enjoy managing and teaching people about how to become really versatile in their roles and confident pragmatic lawyers – I like teaching them to become first class in-house lawyers.
‘As long as the secondment is right for the secondee and the client, then it’s a benefit to the firm. I try to spend time with the individual as I want them to return to their firm invigorated and with a newfound confidence.’
Of course, a rolling programme of rotating this number of secondees every six-to-nine months certainly adds to Wan’s paperwork burden, but she believes it’s more than worthwhile.
‘It’s very time-consuming sorting out all the arrangements and persuading law firms to support us, but I have really strong relationships with our panel law firms, and their staff do learn a lot on our secondment. It does take the knowledge away from the team when they leave, but I know I can pick up the phone anytime to one of my former secondees and they’ll help us out – that’s really valuable and what a great relationship looks like.’
The fact that this enthusiasm for mentoring and developing young people has extended beyond Lloyds comes as little surprise. Five years ago, with the support of senior management from Lloyds Bank, Wan set up Through the Looking Glass, a programme which went on to become an independent charity that gives young people from less affluent backgrounds the opportunity to see what the City might have to offer.
‘It’s not about law specifically, it’s about social mobility, and is designed for young people who live in areas that don’t have the same resources as some other parts of the country and are disadvantaged in that respect,’ she notes.
‘I want to give these kids the opportunity to gain a real insight into the City and look at the professions of law, banking, accounting, property and insurance, to see what they can do with their future. The programme is starting to expand outside of these areas now because it’s getting a lot of traction and attention from the business community. We are getting some big names supporting the charity in different city centres across the country.’ After successful roll-outs in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, Wan plans to launch the programme in Leeds in October 2016.
When asked how she has time to run the charity alongside everything else, Wan laughs: ‘A lot of my former secondees have become close friends and are involved, engaged and really want to help. But, yes, it’s like I have two little businesses on the side – this and the mentoring programme – and then there’s also the day job.
‘I have to be extremely organised and efficient with my time. We’re doing more and more interesting work – interesting because of the complexity and the new challenges – but I’ve now had everything up and running for some time which has allowed me the flexibility to take on other projects. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have a brilliant legal team and all our ducks in a row.’
Wan says there’s no sign of things quieting down anytime soon. ‘Given the attractiveness of the UK property market now and in the past couple of years, more and more dynamic and innovative players are coming into our sector,’ she says. ‘As a consequence, I have to have a legal team which is ahead of the curve and able to deal with that dynamism, as well as help the business grow new opportunities. We’re lucky as we get heavily involved in business initiatives, while also managing the legal work. We are in true business-facing roles.
‘We’ve had to grasp complex legal issues, which involve multi-lender arrangements and the emergence of highly structured, complex intercreditor arrangements with sophisticated and well-advised participants’
‘After the financial crisis, there has been a more conservative lending environment for banks, which has led to a number of alternative lenders entering the market. It’s not just banks anymore; we’re now competing against lots of different types of lenders, making for a really challenging market. We’ve had to grasp complex legal issues, which involve multi-lender arrangements and the emergence of highly structured, complex intercreditor arrangements with sophisticated and well-advised participants.
‘Transaction structures are becoming ever-more complicated, which is why you need specialist in-house legal experts to assist the bankers with negotiating the legal issues that arise on those documents. We’ve worked closely with the LMA to develop intercreditor documents so there is a fairer playing field for everyone – my team is all over it.’
In January 2016, Lloyds made its largest commercial property development loan since 2008 – a £185m loan to AEG, the owners of the O2 Arena in London, and Crosstree Real Estate, to finance a new designer outlet village. Wan’s legal team was heavily involved in the deal but, as with many of her achievements, she is modest about its input. ‘Yes, it was a big one, but then that’s what we do,’ she shrugs nonchalantly.
She becomes more animated when talking about Lloyds’ plans to set £1bn aside in ‘green lending’ to offer discounted loans to commercial real estate clients in exchange for them improving the energy efficiency of their buildings.
‘This involves lending to customers that are going to build or adhere to certain environmental considerations, so making sure energy performance certificates are at a certain level, lighting is environmentally friendly, the building is well-insulated, they use air cooling instead of air conditioning, and so on,’ she explains. ‘They have to comply and self-certify on an annual basis, and in return we give them a lower margin for lending, which is a great concept as it’s trying to do the right ethical considerations for the environment.’
With the COP21 climate change agreement continuing to keep energy efficiency and sustainability on the agenda, Wan hopes Lloyds – as the first UK high-street bank to offer property owners this type of initiative – is blazing the trail for other lenders to join the conversation.
‘At the next LMA annual conference, I’m going to chair a panel on this topic to educate the market. I’ll be presenting to an audience comprising a mix of borrowers, bankers, property professionals and lawyers, getting them to really think about this issue. This is a good initiative for our economy, our country and our environment. It’s an example of where Lloyds can be innovative and contribute back to the community. Hopefully others will follow suit.’