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Top of the food chain: Woolworths' Peter Horton

Top of the food chain: Woolworths' Peter Horton

Woolworths general counsel Peter Horton led the grocery retail giant through one of the largest, most high-profile investigations of 2008 - the ACCC's grocery price inquiry.It involved the…

Woolworths general counsel Peter Horton led the grocery retail giant through one of the largest, most high-profile investigations of 2008 - the ACCC's grocery price inquiry.

It involved the co-ordination of the Woolworths legal team, two large law firms, a range of expert consultants and a number of Woolworths other internal staff. It required, Horton says, the compilation of "billions of line items of data" for the ACCC, but at the end of the day, Woolworths emerged with its reputation intact.

It might be difficult to believe, but at one stage Horton was on track to become a farmer. He was born and raised on a farm in rural NSW, but after boarding at a Scots College, he decided to go to university as a way of staying in Sydney for longer. "I didn't want to be a doctor so I put down law, with every intention of going back to be a famer," he explains.

But after five years of study he decided to give law a shot and went into private practice, working primarily in litigation. Three years later Horton went back for a stint on his parents' farm but quickly realised that farming wasn't his forte. "I think I was the joke of the guys that worked for my Mum and Dad - 'Here's that fellow who has this fabulous education and he's useless'," Horton laughs.

When an in-house role came up in BHP's petroleum section in Melbourne, Horton applied, got the job, and was quickly thrown in the deep end. He spent many of his waking hours on a large, high-profile piece of litigation, learning the industry jargon and being heavily involved in developing BHP's oil fields in the Timor Sea. After seven years with BHP, Horton moved across to another resources company, WMC Resources, where he stayed for 12 years before it was taken over by BHP.

Then, with nearly 20 years' experience in resources on his resume, Horton decided it was time for a change and made the leap to retail, and he's now been Woolworths' general counsel and company secretary for three years.

He says the transition wasn't to retail wasn't particularly difficult. However, he believes the biggest difference between the resources and retail industries is the level of regulatory interaction, and Woolworths has a section of its legal department entirely committed to compliance work.

"In the resources industry, by and large, most of what you produce you are selling, in one form or another, offshore. You have relatively little interaction with the regulators," he says. "The enormous difference here - having the number of stores and the number of transactions we have each day - is level of interaction the regulators can have with a business like Woolworths."

He says compliance issues are becoming of increasing concern as the economy slows and regulators are getting even more hands-on. "We're fortunate that we're one of the businesses that will probably survive better than most ... but a big concern is to make sure the regulators don't step in, and in trying to help, actually stop us from investing in and growing our business and creating jobs," he says.

Another frustrating aspect of working for a national company, Horton says, is dealing with inconsistent and sometimes conflicting state and territory legislation over issues such as signage, licensing and charities.

In addition to compliance issues, Horton's legal team, which comprises 21 lawyers, is involved in property, M&A and contract work. But while his role involves being "a jack of all trades", Horton says that this variety and breadth of work is one of the aspects of working in-house that he likes the most.

He also enjoys being an instrumental part of the commercial decision-making process. "You can be a brilliant black letter lawyer - but it's a given that you know that law. You actually need to have the commercial know-how. You have to be able to get in there and justify your decisions and it makes your job a lot more fulfilling," he says.

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