Andrew Leaitherland has resigned as chief executive officer of DWF with immediate effect, the global and listed legal business announced today. Mr Leaitherland will also step down as managing partner of DWF Law LLP and DWF LLP.
Chairman Sir Nigel Knowles is assuming the CEO role, while Chris Sullivan, senior independent non-executive director, has been appointed as interim chairman. A committee of independent directors has been formed to run a selection process for a permanent chair over the coming weeks.
Mr Leaitherland, who has spent over 20 years at DWF, has been CEO and managing partner of the group since May 2006, during which time the group has expanded from two offices in the UK to 33 offices across four continents, and floated on the stock market in March 2019.
However the business has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a trading update DWF said that due to greater than expected disruption in April, particularly in its offices in Spain, Italy and France, and with areas such as the Middle East having "materially underperformed", full year revenue growth was 11% rather than the revised 15-20% forecast in late March. Profit expectations have been reduced to "FY20 EBITDA of c £34m under IFRS16, with underlying adjusted EBITDA of c £21m, excluding the application of IFRS16".
However activity levels have strengthened in May "with a number of new client wins, including panel appointments, and with a good pipeline of bid activity". Cash collection has remained strong and period end net debt was better than expected.
A statement from DWF read: "In responding to the challenges created by COVID-19, the board believes that strong and experienced leadership is essential. The board believes that Sir Nigel Knowles, chairman, will provide this leadership and as a consequence, the board has asked Sir Nigel Knowles to assume the role of group chief executive officer with immediate effect. Sir Nigel has over 40 years of experience in the legal sector, including extensive experience in building a global law firm as CEO and chairman for more than 20 years."
Mr Sullivan commented: "On behalf of the board and all our colleagues I would like to thank Andrew for his hard work and commitment over many years; we owe him a great deal and wish him every success in his future endeavours.
"In these unprecedented times the board believes that Sir Nigel’s extensive experience in building and leading a global legal business will be invaluable as group chief executive officer in ensuring that our strategy delivers sustainable growth and attractive returns for all our stakeholders."
Mr Leaitherland responded: "It has been a privilege to be group CEO of DWF for nearly 14 years and I am incredibly proud of the progress we have made in that time. It is a fantastic business with great people committed to delivering the best possible service to our clients. I wish Sir Nigel every success in taking the business forward."
DWF further reported that while the majority of the group’s businesses delivered "a creditable performance for the financial year, given the challenging Q4 environment", the Q4 weakness meant that new hire productivity levels had not increased as originally expected.
Its insurance services business delivered some revenue growth, and prospects for this division remained resilient given the annuity type nature of these services; commercial underperformed with a 6% decline in revenues with the main impact seen in corporate and transactional work.
It added: "While disappointed with this performance, the group has a substantial number of opportunities in order to improve cash backed margins". These include a previously announced cost reduction plan, now implemented; further incremental cost savings; greater focus on integration of recent acquisitions; and a renewed focus on billing, credit control and cash collection.