Julian Benefield

In the spotlight: Julian Benefield

Earlier this year, Julian Benefield stepped up to the role of General Counsel at Foodstuffs North Island. We chatted with him about career pathways, taking on new responsibilities and upskilling, and what's ahead for in-house legal.

What does leading the legal function at Foodstuffs North Island involve and what does a standard day look like for you?

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The Foodies North Island Legal Team handles all legal, company secretarial and compliance functions of the Co-op, and we have a key role in ensuring good governance and management of risk. This could mean our team working on all sorts of things daily, including marketing and alcohol law, tech and privacy, helping our owners through change in supermarket ownership transactions, media queries, property deals, and guiding the business through crisis management. We also work on M&A, disputes, employment, IP and brand, a huge range of key contracts with our suppliers and partners and helping the businesses we have invested in including Eat My Lunch, Leigh Fish, and Fresh Connection. We have also done significant work in relation to the Grocery Market Study and new regulation.

For me individually, my daily focus is on ensuring our team is empowered to effectively partner with the Co-op, leadership teams and Owner-Operators and deliver great legal services. There is no ‘standard’ day – each day is different, and it is the variety of work at Foodies that I love! In saying that, my days and week will often be anchored by key Executive, Board, team or 1:1 meetings, and project or team milestones that we need to deliver.

What has your career path been to get to the role of General Counsel, and in what ways, if any, has it been different from expectations?

In terms of my career path, after doing an LLB/BCom at UC and some marketing roles during Uni, the first 5 years of my career were at law firms Bell Gully and King & Wood Mallesons in Australia with some secondments during this time (e.g., Telstra). From Mallesons I moved in-house to ASX online business REA Group in Melbourne. During my time at REA, I realised that I loved working in-house in an industry/company I’m passionate about and that in-house suited my strengths. After REA I travelled to London to sharpen up my legal skills at the international firm CMS and to travel, before returning to Australia to join another international online business (iSelect) as a Senior Legal Counsel. In 2015 I returned to NZ to re-join Foodstuffs (I originally worked at PAK’nSAVE Taupō as a teenager) and to be closer to whānau. At Foodies I have worked in Legal on a range of awesome projects and was a Founding Trustee of the Foodies Foundation. In April 2022 I was promoted to General Counsel & Company Secretary of Foodies North Island and joined the Exec, after Mike Brooker (the founding Foodstuffs GC who thankfully gave me a job in the first place) decided to step down.

In relation to how the role has compared with expectations, it has certainly been a big step up. But many things have been broadly as expected given I was already working at Foodies and had a good understanding of our Co-op, the legal issues and risk we face and the strong relationships we need to have. A transition plan was key to ensuring I was set up to succeed. One aspect of the GC role that I did try and specifically prepare for was the independence you suddenly have in leading the function. I love this aspect of the role as you have the autonomy to shape your role, function, and culture. But this ‘independent’ or ‘on your own’ feeling can be slightly lonely at times for some leaders especially if you aren’t anticipating it – and so it’s important to prepare for it and stay connected with others in your company/industry.

In your view, what are the biggest challenges when stepping into a new position and how have you approached these?

There are some big challenges to navigate when taking on new responsibilities! The key areas I have focussed on in transitioning to a new role have been:

  • Team – ensuring there is a great supportive team in place who you can empower so that the function succeeds is one of the most critical things.
  • Stakeholders – identify the key stakeholders who you need trusted and effective working relationships with to succeed in the role.
  • Have a plan – having a strategy, plan and aspirations for your role and function are important - so that you can target your effort to be as impactful as possible.
  • Power of routine and re-setting your routine – for me it is key to have a sense of what you need to achieve each day and week (based on the overall plan for the new role and function) and re-setting my diary and routine so that I am focussing on the right things
  • Build in buffer time/thinking time – you get a huge number of emails and calendar/event invites. I am having to get better at focusing on what’s most important and cutting through the volume. Linked to the routine comment above, a great tool to help with this is to build ‘buffer time’ into my diary each day when there are no meetings. You always need spare time to deal with emails, unexpected urgent queries, crises and importantly some time to think!
  • Dealing with unexpected issues – unexpected difficult issues will come across your desk all the time. I have found that utilising my previous experience and trusting my instincts based on experience to solve problems has been extremely useful.

Why is it important for legal professionals to be learners for life and continue to upskill throughout their careers?

Education, growth, and development is an individual thing, but it is incredibly important in my view. Here are some reasons why:

  • Legal knowledge - regulation is constantly evolving and so it’s important to keep across changing law and regulation that will affect your industry so that you can deal with them effectively for your business.
  • Industry knowledge – having up-to-date knowledge of the industry your organisation operates in will help enable you to be an effective contributor.
  • Goals & leadership/soft skills – individual development plans can help you define your personal and professional goals and articulate the areas/strengths (e.g., leadership and soft skills) you need to improve/upskill to achieve your goals. For me, having a targeted development plan with specific education/skills to focus on over the last few years has been key for my growth.
  • Talent - it is hard to attract and retain the best talent so I try to learn as much as I can about what’s important to attract team members to an organisation and how to help them continue to feel engaged, growing and enjoying their roles. 

What changes do you see in how legal services are delivered in the future?

I continue to see legal innovation, tech and process improvement being extremely important. In-house legal teams will be forced to do even more with the same or fewer resources, so we need to find ways to automate, innovate, cut through volume efficiently and/or up-skill business stakeholders on legal issues to enable legal team members to focus more time on the most important/impactful work. I also expect to see an increasing need for external law firms to actively help in-house teams innovate and cut through our legal work and volume more efficiently and so that costs are mitigated as much as possible. Newer style legal providers such as Juno will likely be increasingly successful – as they suit the one-off project needs that clients often have.