Heriot Brown

This week’s In-House Scoop chat is the most mouth-watering by far!

We chatted to Valeo’s Legal Director, Kathy Atkinson about potatoes, Kettle Chips, 3 day weeks, hybrid working Liquorice Allsorts, the perks of being sole counsel and Poppets Salted Caramel Ice Cream Bites.

How did you land your first role in-house?

I started out in-house right from the beginning of my career. My first ever legal role was as a paralegal in the legal department of an electricity company. After graduating I had been working as a temp in their billing department for a few months while I looked for a legal role. It occurred to me that I might as well make use of the internal mail system to see if the legal department could offer me anything. It turned out they needed cover for a maternity leave so my enquiry landed at just the right time. We got on well and when my maternity cover contract came to an end they offered me a training contract.

How did you get to Legal Director at Valeo Snackfoods – was it a leap or climb?

Some leaping was involved at certain points – both from a larger legal department into a sole counsel role and then a few years later from electricity to the food industry. The latter was a no-brainer given my situation at the time – when I heard about a part-time sole counsel role at Kettle Foods I was in the process of negotiating a redundancy package following a corporate restructure and I was pregnant with my son. A 3-day-a-week gig for a brand I loved (and free crisps!) was a very attractive prospect. From there it was more of a climb over a number of years as the role grew organically due to acquisitions and mergers. It ultimately led to where I am now which is running a small in-house team servicing the legal needs of a number of companies manufacturing sweet and savoury snacks in the Valeo Group. As well as KETTLE Chips I now get to deal with Metcalfe’s popcorn, Manomasa tortillas, FOX’S mints, Barratt Fruit Salad, Poppets and many more delightful food products. 

What is the most interesting piece of information you have realised you didn’t know you didn’t know about Valeo Snackfoods?

I’m always fascinated by any part of our manufacturing process and since we integrated with our confectionery sister company I’ve enjoyed learning about how confectionery is made. When I first visited one of our confectionery factories it was mesmerising to see liquorice allsorts moving along the conveyor belt in a massive long sheet and being sliced. As the sheet progresses along the belt the rough edges are cut off in a long strip in order to square-off the sheet ready for it to be sliced into perfect squares. Despite the sheets being various colours (you know, like the pink or yellow sandwich ones) it’s possible to take a good proportion of the offcuts in any colour and re-work them back in upstream to avoid waste without it having any effect at all on the colour of the new batch. I thought that was pretty interesting. I love seeing the products being made, it’s a proper reminder of why everyone in the business is here – to make and sell great-tasting sweets and snacks that our consumers will love.

As Legal Director of Valeo Snackfoods, is there anything wish you didn’t have so much knowledge about?

Potatoes! We buy an awful lot of them and we’re very specific about variety and specification due to the frying qualities we need in order to make the perfect KETTLE Chip. I set up a subsidiary a few years ago which is funded by our potato growers especially to provide quality assurance for the potatoes. We check the fields as the crops are growing, dig up samples for fry-tests and use the resultant data to schedule the best potatoes into the factory in the right sequence. I sit on the committee that runs it, alongside other people from our business and some of our growers. It’s probably a bit weird that I know so much about the humble spud.

What piece of advice has stuck with you since your TC days?

I had a seat in the property team where I was mentored by a great guy who taught me to end my written communications by setting out clearly what I wanted next from the recipient. His point was that effective communication would save time and effort, even if the message was as simple as “I look forward to hearing from you with a copy of [x] asap”. Back then it was all letters and internal memos but the same principle holds even more strongly now when we are all inundated with emails and other forms of communication. A sentence at the end of a message that sets out what needs to happen next is a great short-cut to getting what you want from the busy recipient.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make the jump now?

If you’re going to a small in-house team or even to be a sole counsel then don’t be too concerned about losing the comfort blanket of a wider network of legal specialists. Replacing legal colleagues with non-legal ones is a really rewarding way to be truly embedded in the business and to feel like you can bring something unique to the team. It may mean you have to be something of a generalist but that gives you great exposure to a wide variety of areas and there are always resources to help you with specialist knowledge, including your external law firms and in-house lawyers from other companies who are very willing to share experiences and tips.

What do you miss about private practice?

I’ve hardly had any time in private practice so there isn’t anything to miss! I spent a few months on secondment to Eversheds as part of my training contract in order to get better contentious experience than the in-house team could supply, but that’s the sum total of my experience of private practice.

Do you have a work-life balance?

Ah, that holy grail! Actually I would say I have a pretty good balance. I’m a fan of hybrid-working and have been doing it for years pretty successfully. By the time I had both my children my role had grown to the extent that my part-time hours were no longer cutting it. I agreed to go full-time if the additional two days could be worked from home and I’ve carried that on as my children have grown older. As well as flexible working being what works for my situation, I think it’s really important to role-model it for others in the business. I’m conscious that if other working parents see that a board member can fit work around family life then it may provide some encouragement to them in considering what is possible in their own career paths.

And finally, what is your favourite ice cream?

What an ideal opportunity to promote one of our products! We’ve got some great ice creams that are made in partnership with Iceland using our confectionery brands. l think the best one has to be the Poppets Salted Caramel Ice Cream Bites. By far my favourite flavour of Poppets and in an ice cream version – what could be better?! Check them out in an Iceland near you.