This year Wolverhampton saw the emergence of one of biggest law firms in the West Midlands. Ross Reyburn meets the man who handled the merger.
You don’t get many senior partners of law firms who have started their working life as farm labourers. But Black Country solicitor Gavin Southall can lay claim to this unusual career path.
At the age of 16, he left Tettenhall College to work on an 80-acre mixed farm at Lower Penn just outside Wolverhampton.
“I was not particularly comfortable with school,” he recalls somewhat guardedly. “I became a farm labourer - that’s when I learnt to love the countryside. The farmland is still there but the old farmhouse has been turned into a des res.”
Did his lawyer father approve of the rural move? “He was more concerned I didn’t get a motorbike,” recalls 58-year-old Southall.
“He was a Victorian type. He liked people with effort and energy. My father’s view was if you are interested in something, get on and do it.”
However, Southall’s career working on the land lasted no more than a few years as he spent his spare time studying and A Level passes in ancient history, history and German led to a place at the Birmingham University.
After his law degree, he was to spend two years doing articles in London’s Holborn district and living in a Chelsea flat in the capital transformed by the late 60s into Swinging London.
“Everybody tried to look like Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger,” is his recollection. “I wasn’t a fan of either. I liked West Coast American music…The Doors, Santana. I also quite liked The Grateful Dead although that’s not the sort of condition one wants to be in.”
In 1973 he returned to the Midlands to work for Manby & Steward when his father was a senior partner in the firm and by 1977, Southall senior was a partner.
Fast forward to 2006 and he emulated his father when he was appointed senior partner and went on to mastermind two significant mergers. The first was with the Shrewsbury firm Bowdlers in 2007 and then nearer at hand FBC in May this year.
Both firms are long established Wolverhampton practices. Their offices were little more than 100 metres apart – Manbys in a modern block in St John’s Square while FBC in a Georgian building just off the square.
“The merger should have happened years ago,” says Southall. “In many respects we have run a parallel course.
“We’ve known the FBC partners as friends and to a degree as competitors over the years. We both had similar aspirations.
‘‘We were stronger on the commercial side and they were stronger on the non-commercial side.”
This year’s merger means FBC Manby Bowdler LLP is now the fourth biggest firm of solicitors in the West Midlands.
“It makes us the largest firm between the centre of Birmingham and the centre of Manchester,” Southall points out.
“We are now able to do more significant transactions for a greater level of clients old and new than we could as individual firms In the corporate department for example, we have six partners plus the appropriate back-up of solicitors and support staff.
“What we are hoping to do is to provide a service to our clients, commercial and private, as a regional player that means you don’t have to go to Birmingham and pay Birmingham rates.
“Some Birmingham firms are charge over £350 an hour – our current hourly rate for a commercial partner is normally £190.”
The law firm he and his father served for so many years has dramatically grown since 1973 when Gavin Southall returned to Wolverhampton. Back then he recalls there were five partners and say 25 members of staff – now the roll call is 39 partners and over 300 staff.
Much of Southall’s life has echoed that of his father not only through the fact they both became solicitors and senior partners heading the same Wolverhampton practice.
Tony Southall served as chairman of the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton and was a key figure in the Save The Grand Action Group that successfully campaigned getting the theatre re-opened in 1982 two years after its closure.
“There was talk about knocking it down and building a multi-storey car park,” recalls Southall. “My father thought that would be absolute sacrilege.”
Like his father, he believes it is important successful people in a community give something back. In his own case, this has meant regeneration.
He is a trustee with the Wolverhampton Buildings Regeneration Trust that saved the Molineux Hotel, one of the town’s notable 18th century historic buildings, from demolition.
And two years ago, he joined the board of the Wolverhampton Development Company with major projects ranging from the i54, a 222-acre business park by the M54, to the ambitious interchange redevelopment of Wolverhampton’s bus and train stations
“I think Wolverhampton is starting to think about its identity again,” says Southall. “The Black Country is raising its profile. I was at the Birmingham Rep the other night – in the summer you can sit outside and see the people go by. Wolverhampton hasn’t got that sort of feel.
“Wolverhampton lost a lot of its identity in the 60s, 70s and to a degree the 80s. Birmingham is a wonderful city but the resources went into Birmingham and Wolverhampton, Coventry and Walsall all got passed by.”
“It’s much more attractive but there are limits to what a local authority can do. That is why the development company is important.”
The fact his firm’s office include Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth and Telford happily ties in with his affection for Shropshire.
“If I want to relax,” he says, “I head for Shropshire. Go over towards Church Stretton and beyond to Clun and Bishops Castle, it is God’s chosen country.”
Southall talks enthusiastically about his life outside the legal profession.
He enjoys sailing and has a dinghy at Himley Hall Sailing Club and describes himself as an “unpretentious” golfer.
He has an affection for Wales not only because it has two of his favourite sailing resorts, Barmouth and Aberdovey.
“The great thing about the Welsh countryside is it hasn’t yet been subsumed by consumerism,” says Southall, who can happily quote you Dylan Thomas lines verbatim.
His entertaining recollections include an extraordinary violin anecdote about his father during the Second World War.Captured by the Germans during the evacuation of Greece on May 5, 1940, he was liberated five years to the day later on May 5, 1945, at Eichstadt prisoner-of-war camp by the Russians who “shot everyone wearing a German uniform”.
Southall senior had joined the camp orchestra after a German guard, bribed with 1,200 Red Cross cigarettes, found him a violin while on leave in Paris.
After liberation, the prisoners unwisely marched from camp unwisely keeping warm by wearing German greatcoats.
“My father had put his name and address in England on the violin case and strapped it to his back,” he relates.
Some five miles down the road, an American Typhoon fighter tragically strafed the row of POWs thinking they were Germans. Southall and the other survivors decided their safest option was to head back to the camp and the violin remained under the bramble bush where he had hidden it.
“After the war two years later, the postman knocked on the door of our Worcester home and gave my mother a big brown parcel,” recalls Southall.
“Somebody had packaged the violin up and sent it to England. It’s the violin I am learning to play at the moment. I can’t leave something like that gathering dust.”