'We have a tendency to talk ourselves down in Northern Ireland, but in England they do the opposite'
Lynsey Mallon, a corporate and commercial partner at law firm Arthur Cox, talks to Margaret Canning about the thrill of the deal, her legal career and coming from NI footballing royalty
If you look back on some of the most interesting corporate deals in Northern Ireland over the last few years, chances are Lynsey Mallon has been right in the middle of them. The corporate and commercial partner at law firm Arthur Cox in Belfast advised Jim and Jack Dobson of Dunbia on the £18m sale of their pork business to Cranswick plc last year.
She also advised surfboard manufacturer Skunkworks Surf Company on the north coast as they secured a £500,000 funding boost from Co-Fund NI and private investors. Lynsey also acts for long-standing client, the catering and outsourcing giant Mount Charles, on matters including their recent move to new headquarters on Ormeau Road at Annon House.
“I think we are probably the leading firm in the agri-food sector,” Lynsey said. “Acting for Dunbia in the Cranswick deal was significant. The industry said at the time it was a great deal for the economy and for farmers and will create a number of new jobs.
“The lawyers are the people who are making sure it gets over the line and making sure it works.
“But when you have clients like that it’s not a one-off. You are representing them for a number of years and you get to know them so well. You really are in the trenches with them. And it’s fundamental that you understand them, what drives them, and their motivation.”
Skunkworks came to public attention when competing for investment from entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson in Virgin Media’s Business Pitch to Rich competition — and they were picky when it came to their legal team. “They interviewed their lawyers and I was the last one. They gave me a call and said they were happy to go with us,” said Lynsey.
Clarkson Shipping Group is another major client, and Arthur Cox also acted in the sale of tech firm Sophia Search to Mixaroo. Musgrave — owner of Mace and Centra stores — is another household name client, with Arthur Cox advising on acquisitions, rebrands and fit-outs.
“It’s really exciting and something that you can see is creating jobs on the ground,” added Lynsey.
And it has worked with cosmetics and skincare giant Clarins on its distribution network.
Arthur Cox has operated in Belfast since 1996 and now employs around 90 people, including 11 partners. The firm was founded in Dublin in 1920 by Arthur Cox and John McAreavey, and now has offices in Dublin, London, New York and Silicon Valley, as well as Belfast. Co-founder Arthur Cox is probably the only founding partner to lend his name to a firm and later go and train as a priest, as Mr Cox did following the death of his wife in 1961.
Lynsey projects that a steady flow of merger and acquisitions in 2016 will continue into 2017. But she predicts fewer outright takeovers. “What we are seeing now is more along the lines of mergers but trying to retain the sellers for a while so that you take away a level of risk and guarantee customer relationships going forward,” she said.
Lynsey’s day job is combined with a dizzying range of extra-curricular interests, including playing hockey for Ards — she’s also a former Ireland and Ulster player, a member of the board of governors at her old school Strathearn in east Belfast, where she was also head girl, sitting on the board of Young Enterprise and a former chairman of Generation Innovation, an organisation which encourages schoochildren to study subjects like science, technology engineering and pursue careers in them.
As well as being a sports star in her own right, she belongs to the nearest thing Northern Ireland has to a sporting royal family, the Feeneys. Grandfather James, dad Warren and brother Warren all played for Northern Ireland. Warren jnr is now a coach in England.
But she jokes that Warren Snr raised his eyebrows at her husband’s sporting interests — rugby. She is married to Seamus Mallon, a former Ulster and Ireland A rugby player, who also played for the Northampton Saints. He now teaches technology in Cambridge House Grammar School. The couple have two daughters, six-year-old Nyla and eight-month-old Aerin — so life is busy. “It depends on what transactions you are working on and whether they are getting close to closing. I do maintain a balance and it works so far,” said Lynsey.
Lynsey studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, spent a year working in tax at PwC before joining the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen’s University, and qualifying as a solicitor with Belfast firm L’Estrange and Brett, now part of Pinsent Masons.
And from the age of 14 up to her legal training, she had the same part-time job with McKay Pharmacy Group.
“My mum worked as a bookkeeper/PA in their head office for the owners John and Ina McKay. I started out when I was 14 in the store unloading deliveries and packing orders for the shops and progressed through the ranks to the shop floor, then the dispensary and eventually to the head office,” she said. “I think that work gave me a very good grounding — I was dealing with people from all walks of life and I would hope to set the same positive example for my daughters as my mum set for me — ie that as a woman it is important to have your own ambitions, independence and a strong work ethic.”
Trinity was a pragmatic choice. “I was playing for Ireland under-21s in hockey at the time so I thought I would be able to combine my studies down there with playing for Ireland so I won a sports bursary,” said Lynsey.
When it came to choosing a career, she decided accountancy wasn’t for her following her year at PwC, but added: “It was a great training and I’m always being asked to have a look at accounts so it does help to understand the mechanics,” she said.
During her year at the institute, she met Seamus, then an architecture student at Queen’s, in Clements Coffee Shop in Stranmillis. Later, he was offered a deal to play professionally for Northampton Saints. Lynsey left with him and secured a post as a lawyer at national law firm Shoosmiths.
“What really struck me is that in Northern Ireland we are quite self-deprecating. But in England, I was thinking to myself, people really know what they are talking about and are really impressive. But after about six months I quickly realised that I knew as much if not more than they did. It was a very good life lesson as I think we do have a tendency to talk ourselves down — but in England, they do the opposite of that.”
After two years in Northampton, they were ready to come home. “I had a few offers on the table and Alan Taylor (now chairman) had just taken over Arthur Cox as managing partner. I could see the opportunities there and he was very impressive, so I followed my gut instinct and luckily, that was the right decision,” said Lynsey. An interest in corporate law which she developed as a trainee hasn’t left her. “In some cases you are working with families who have had the company for generations.
“That can be quite emotional, helping them get the right deal and getting them through that process. And just looking at the quality of our clients, and seeing the contribution they are making to the local economy makes the job hugely rewarding.”
Despite the Feeney footballing credentials — they’re the only family in which three generations have played for Northern Ireland — she wasn’t pushed towards the sport. “My parents’ view was never to push us towards anything but hockey was something that I came to naturally. But sport gives you such good self-discipline. When you need to be out training at a certain time, you know you have to get your work done before that point.
“But I remember friends at university thinking, I have a whole six hours to do this in, so they wouldn’t get it done.”