Every week at Crafty Counsel we focus on getting to know more about one of the members of our in-house legal community. This week we speak to former Olympic fencer Alex O’Connell, from Fever-Tree, a company that specialises in premium tonic waters and mixers. Alex is part of Crafty Counsel’s Lean Legal group, which meets once a month online and at events to swap best practice and to discuss the particular experiences and challenges of smaller in-house legal teams.
Alex O’Connell, former Olympic fencer, on moving in-house to a major drinks company from a Magic Circle firm and learning to embrace the art of failing forward.
Alex started his career at magic circle firm Freshfields, after completing a degree in Classics at the University of Cambridge. His first in-house job was as Senior Legal Counsel at Budweiser Brewing Group, the UK&I business of AB InBev, before moving to Fever-Tree in October 2021 to take up the role as Head of Legal and Company Secretary.
Alex was working on M&A and Capital Markets at Freshfields. Early in his career he started working on the takeover of SABMiller by AB InBev, which was a Freshfields client. Alex says it is the kind of high-profile deal that people dream of when they become M&A lawyers. The takeover “was on the front page of the FT every day. It was in the mainstream press, leading up to the announcement of it and then after closing as well.”
This was Alex’s introduction into working in the drinks industry. He says he enjoyed the transaction world and the “cut and thrust” of it. Although he loved working at Freshfields, he realised working in private practice wasn’t the path he wanted to follow long term. Alex was on the look-out for opportunities and after going on secondment to AB InBev, he joined the company’s in-house legal department. He says that the business was “dynamic and intense” with a “much broader” scope of work when compared to his more specialised role in private practice. Last year, Alex was approached by Fever-Tree and says he liked the team and was ready for a more senior role and hasn’t looked back since joining as the Head of Legal and Company Secretary.
A unique talent or hobby
Before becoming a lawyer, Alex competed as part of Great Britain’s fencing team in the 2008 Olympic Games. He was on the national fencing team for over 10 years, and was a professional fencer for a few years. Alex describes the nostalgia he feels when he thinks back on that time “I was 19 years old when I was at the Olympics, which is too young really to fully appreciate the kind of gravity of it.” He says the discipline it took to do the sport professionally taught him many valuable lessons, “I think that my athletic career taught me a lot about hard work, accountability, about learning, taking wins, but also taking losses” Alex explains.
Favourite part of your current role
“I love the breadth of it,” says Alex. He heads up a lean legal team at Fever-Tree, with one other lawyer, and together they “manage the whole business”. The company distributes products to around 80 markets worldwide. Alex says he loves being part of a company that prides itself on “being quite lean” and “giving people responsibility when they’re capable”.
He says that culture suits him and it means that his days are “within reason, very full and very varied” and he rarely does “the same thing twice”. Alex says that he likes the wide scope of his job.
“I’m not an in-house M&A lawyer or a regulatory specialist or something like that, I’m both of those things and I’m a company secretary. I give advice on advertising and data privacy and all these kinds of things on a daily basis. And that I think is my favourite thing about the job.”Alex O’Connell
Something you are proud of in your career
For Alex the experience of working on the acquisition of SABMiller stands out as a highlight. He says it was “very demanding” and required almost “around the clock work”. Alex says it “amazing” to get the project over the finish line and “to be part of a very tight knit, very competent team”. Alex recalls the surreal feeling when the deal finally went through. He was on a train with his team, they were on their way back to London from SAB’s offices in Woking when the “clock struck 5 pm” and that was it. He says it was the culmination of 15 months of work and a real “labour of love” that took so much “time, effort and blood, sweat, and tears”. Alex says it will always be a highlight because it was such a big project that was amazing to be part of.
One of the biggest challenges of your in-house career journey
Alex says getting through the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic was a major challenge. He was relatively new at AB InBev and a few months into his in-house career when he says “the music kind of stopped. There was a hiring freeze, the same as a lot of people.”He says the company was in the process of finding someone for his team, because they were short staffed but that “never happened”.
“We were wading into the darkness the same as everyone else,” he explains.
He says supporting more junior colleagues when he was still relatively new himself and with the staff shortages was tough, but he feels very proud of the team for coming through that.
Another challenge for Alex was working on a project involving NFTs, when they were first coming into the mainstream. When he was at AB InBev he worked on a licensing agreement with a partner in Australia who were launching NFTs in partnership with Stella Artois, with one of AB InBev’s global brands. Alex says the agreement took around 10 days to put together. He says it “was a lot of fun”, but it was “was one of those things when the law doesn’t exist, no one knows exactly what’s going on and we’re trying to kind of wargame worst case scenarios and protections.” He says it required “blank whiteboard thinking” and the team did “well with the outcome”.
A cool thing in legal
For Alex there has been a cultural shift in legal in people trying to collaborate more and reach a “shared outcome”. Alex says he thinks there is a “groundswell of moving towards a slightly kinder legal market, especially in-house”. Alex also believes there are “many great things going on” when it comes to technology and innovation. He says it is exciting that people are finding “better ways to work, better ways for people to interact with each other”.
Alex cites two examples he is particularly excited about:
- OneNDA – an initiative which he says he has watched with interest from afar, from the great team at TLB
- Definely – a word plug-in to make reading, drafting, and understanding legal documents simpler which is run by a former Freshfields colleague, Nnamdi Emelifeonwu.
Advice to your younger self
His advice would be not to be afraid of failing. He says the idea of “falling forward” is an “anathema to private practice”. But says that there is an acknowledgement in-house that “you can’t get everything right all the time”, but “you try to get the best outcome you can.” He says “if things don’t work, they don’t work. And as long as you learn from it, you move forward. I think that is key”. Alex says he wishes he’d embraced that philosophy earlier on.
The other thing Alex would advise is to “not be afraid of following the parts of your career that you enjoy”. He says he would encourage people to work out “what you actually enjoy about your career and what you don’t enjoy and try and find a way to do more of the former and less of the latter”.