• Innovation & Transformation
    • The Future of Work

Gilson Gray: Diversifying for growth

  • 4 mins
  • Article

Gilson Gray is one of the largest multi-service law firm to open in Scotland in more than a century.

Glen Gilson was frustrated. It was 2013 and after more than a decade working in the legal sector, he had identified a problem that seemed to be intractable. The conventional business model, as he saw it, was broken. To bolster balance sheets, law firms were charging clients increasingly high prices, and working their people ever harder, causing a disconnect between management teams and their staff. That produced an unhealthy culture, which in turn dented the firm’s level of service. The result? Unhappy clients, unhappy teams and unrealised commercial potential. Problem was, firms didn’t seem to want to follow alternative ways of working. “I felt that the profession could be managed differently,” says Gilson. “That there could be greater scale, more quickly delivered, with a different dynamic: a more entrepreneurial, younger approach.”

Enter: Gilson Gray. Founded by Gilson in 2014, it was the largest multi-service law firm to open in Scotland in more than a century. “Gilson Gray is a disruptor,” says Gilson, CEO and Group Executive Chair. He explains that the firm has embraced the unconventional to derive a competitive advantage.

Gilson Gray and Matthew Gray

Unlike a typical law firm, the Group has three revenue streams. In addition to legal services, it also has a market-leading investment arm, plus a property services company offering estate agency and property management. The property arm is overseen by Gilson’s business partner Matthew Gray, Managing Director of Property Services. This diversified approach was designed to capture client opportunity and improve upon traditional profitability levels, so that the company was able to reduce the price of its legal work where appropriate and undercut the competition. The plan has been vindicated by a steep growth curve. By year two, the firm had achieved the commercial objectives that it had set for year seven. Today, a decade since launch, it has 400 staff based across seven offices, with around 30 partners, and dozens of awards to its name. “We've been the fastest growing law firm in this space,” says Gilson. “We’ve been financially successful while offering clients a more competitive and attractive option.”

The business sees growth not merely as an end in itself but as a flywheel. “Growth is hugely important for culture,” says Gilson. “Setting an ambition and then demonstrating the delivery of it to your people, gives them confidence that when you're asking them to think outside their own comfort zone they are capable of success also.”

Culture underpins much of what Gilson Gray believes makes it successful. From the outset, the firm has viewed workplace ethos as a differentiator for attracting and retaining talent. Gilson and Gray had worked with people who they didn’t see as conducive to promoting a desirable culture, and they created an unwritten rule not to hire people like that. To them, a productive culture is one that not only creates job satisfaction but also encourages entrepreneurialism. “We've always been seen as an aggressive, ambitious business,” says Gilson. “And we make no apologies for that.”

The company is highly acquisitive. The multi regional business has acquired over 20 businesses, giving them a heavy presence across a range of cities including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Lincoln and with additional offices in Forfar and East Lothian. This too is unorthodox—firms of that scale typically don’t have regional branches, but Gilson Gray sees a strategic opportunity in tapping into local growth stories. “We've been sleek of foot, which I think has been quite unique to the legal services,” says Gray. “And we've been prepared to go after opportunities when we see fit.”

Straddling three industries with complex financial needs. Pursuing growth through fast-decision acquisitions. It’s a strategy that doesn’t work without a bank that’s fit for purpose. “It's very important that you're working with a banking partner who has the wherewithal, the internal expertise, the product range, to help you realise those aggressive ambitious goals,” says Gilson. “Working with HSBC UK has helped us materially.”

Previously, Gilson Gray worked with a different bank, but the firm was frustrated with its IT infrastructure and lack of professional services expertise. “When HSBC came into the business, they genuinely took the time to understand what we were doing, how we were doing it, and what the commercial, financial rationale was behind that all,” says Gilson. “As a result of that, they were able to propose financial solutions that were tailored for our business.”

The ability to access finance without curtailing momentum has been crucial. “HSBC has the available facilities that allow us to look beyond the constraints of everyday working capital and realise opportunities fast in the market. They understand that we don't want to go through a credit committee every time we see an opportunity,” says Gilson. “Grant is our relationship manager. He's championed us within HSBC, and truly understands what this business is capable of doing.”

Gilson Gray also values the market intelligence that the bank produces. “It is relevant. It's not cookie-cutter,” says Gilson. “I have been doing this a long time—I know what information is worthy of a board's consideration—and they're truly putting in front of us reports from the sector that help us to make better-informed decisions.”

Over the next five to ten years, Gilson Gray wants to become the leading consolidator within the legal sector nationwide. “We are very much focused on growth throughout the whole of the UK,” says Gray. “The market in England is seven to ten fold Scotland, and by creating a UK footprint, it gives us the opportunity of bringing on board large corporate clients and institutions that we can feed into all the various parts of the business.”

After just a decade, to be in a position where that goal reads not as a pipe dream but a serious prospect is no mean feat. So, what can others learn from Gilson Gray’s experience? “I would counsel you to make sure that you have the working capital commensurate with your ambitions,” says Gilson. The second piece of advice, he continues, is to look beyond your immediate geographic market. Finally, surround yourself with the right people.

Pull it off, and your growth journey can be personal as much as corporate. “It’s all about achievement in life,” says Gray. “If you don't take the bull by the horns and actually look at the delivery of your own dreams, then you'll just end up working away perfectly happy with the type of environment you're in. But maybe not realising your aspirations—and your goals.”

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