SARAH Thornton (pictured) may not have set out to be an aviation lawyer, but, during her time as general counsel and secretary of the Brisbane Airport Corporation, she has quickly become one of the practice area's biggest influencers.
Thornton made the career switch from marketing to law at the age of 30, where she discovered her flair for corporate matters as a solicitor for Clayton Utz in 2000.
In 2002, Thornton answered her calling when she was offered a senior legal counsel position in-house with Virgin Australia (Virgin Blue, at the time).
During the early post-privatisation era for Australian airports, Thornton ended up playing an instrumental role in restructuring how airports and airlines did business with each other.
Sir Richard Branson personally thanked her for creating a more holistic approach to transactions between airlines and airports, which helped spur Virgin through its Uber-esque growth in the wake of the Ansett collapse.
More recently, Thornton was named the 2016 Corporate Lawyer of the Year at the Australian In-house Lawyer of the Year Awards hosted by the Association of Corporate Counsel.
The award cited her immense contribution to the legal framework for Brisbane Airport's new $1.4 billion parallel runway project, the largest privately-funded aviation infrastructure project in Australia.
Thornton says her hand in the parallel runway project took on numerous roles, including negotiating with airlines and identifying strategic and commercial opportunities - then translating them into a legal structure which worked.
"We had to get the airlines on board [with the project] first, because without the airlines we couldn't get the debt markets on board, and without the debt markets we couldn't get the shareholders on board," says Thornton.
One by one, Thornton and her team attracted the supporters they needed before construction commenced in 2012.
She also created legal structures to manage the operations of different airlines during the parallel runway's construction phase and beyond, covering almost all aspects from terminal retail outlets, to tarmac procedures and hangar sales.
"The deals we did in 2013 and 2014 with Qantas and Virgin were another step forward in commercial sophistication for an infrastructure business like an airport which, even though it had been privatised since '97, had to step up and find another commercial solution," says Thornton.
"They are quite complex structures that are different for each airline, but they cover just about everything in the airport - for example retail cash flows, and maintenance assets."
"These are just a few of the elements which formed the deal."
Thornton says she is proud to have won the Corporate Lawyer of the Year Award, which has invigorated her pride in running a relatively small legal team.
"Winning the award has shown me that what we have done here is in fact best practice," she says.
"I think it sends a message that you don't need to have the scale of an ASX100-sized company to do very innovative and pragmatic things to legal practice management, even with a small team like ours."
In the year ahead, Thornton plans to oversee the roll out of a new online solution for legal contracting processes, one which her team developed in tandem with Brisbane Airport's in-house IT department.
She is also looking forward to resolving several business-critical legal matters in 2017.
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