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GC Magazine




South Africa-based Fiona Gumede is company secretary and general manager for corporate legal at petroleum company Engen. She talks to GC about the importance of corporate counsel broadening their skillset and staying on top in a rapidly evolving legislative and business environment.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?

photo of fiona gumede

Fiona Gumede (FG): I think I’ve always known that I wanted to be a lawyer. In high school I participated in a programme called ‘Street Law’, which educates school children and communities about their legal rights. It was run by the University of Natal (now called the University of KwaZulu-Natal), and they used to reach out to schools, and our school participated in the programme. I was also a huge fan of LA Law, and I used to think I’d love to do that one day. Although when you get to practice, the reality kicks in - and it is actually hard work. You don’t just get here without a lot of hard work.

GC: How did you end up in the energy sector?

FG: I went to university and was admitted as an attorney in 1998. I did a bit of criminal law when I served my articles and really enjoyed it. To be given the platform to stand before magistrates did a lot for my confidence – to be able to stand in public and talk. It was challenging because I had no training and the articles involved going in there and just do it, which was also great.

From there I went to work for a firm called Dickinson and Theunissen, which is where I started getting involved in broader work beyond criminal work and divorce law. I then developed an interest in commercial work.

I left the firm and joined the State Attorney’s office which provided more responsibility and accountability in terms of the type of cases that I used to deal with. The State Attorney’s office represents the State, and it offered a lot more work than I had been exposed to.

From there I decided to join the corporate environment because I wanted to get more into commercial work. I started at a company called the National Ports Authority based in Durban, which is part of Transnet in South Africa. It was all very different - transitioning from a corporate environment to in-house counsel was tough. Your clients are right there, so there’s the urgency, it’s immediate and you don’t have that benefit of an appointment so that you can pace yourself: the ‘I’ll see you at the end of the week’ kind of thing. You’ve got to make the time. But beyond that, I enjoyed what the corporate environment offered. There’s a lot more interface with multidisciplinary teams in-house, you get a lot more involved with broader issues beyond legal, and I developed that interest. I made up my mind that this was what I wanted to do - I would stay in the corporate environment. One of the nice things about the Port of Durban was that you dealt with a whole lot of clients in the business.

What prompted my interest in energy particularly was when I went to study further. I did a course in maritime economics which was made up of transport economics and law. I was given an assignment on tanker vessels with a focus on oil tankers and I gained insight into the energy sector while I was conducting my research at the time. I had never done economics before so I had a lot of catch-up study and it gave me an opportunity to focus on it. From there, I went on to work for an energy company in Durban.

GC: What are the high points of working for Engen?

FG: It’s global. Engen is part of the Petronas Group, and Petronas is one of the Fortune 100 companies. It offers a much wider platform for exposure. From a legal perspective, operating in multiple jurisdictions is quite fun but also quite challenging at the same time, given the growing pace of legislation and the complexities and the risks which it presents for the business.

I’ve enjoyed being proactive in how we identify legislation and more importantly, the dialogue between business and ourselves in influencing strategy. The evolving nature of the in-house counsel role, which now focuses on a lot more diverse work than just legal, is providing me with an opportunity to broaden my skills in other areas, including strategy and reputation management. I thoroughly enjoy reviewing the strategy of the business, particularly given the changes not just in legislation, but all the challenges that companies are facing recently – for example the drop in oil prices. And of course, closer to my role as corporate counsel are the sensitivities inherent in each jurisdiction from a legal perspective.

GC: What sorts of challenges are you facing working for a company like Engen?

FG: It’s the growing pace of legislation that presents so many complexities and risks to the business, so: how do we influence the dialogue and get business to comply? The business wants to focus on growing the business without so much time being spent on compliance. As a company, we are, however, committed to complying with local laws and legislation in all areas where we operate. It is really about driving those compliance programmes, making the business part of the journey, getting that buy-in and continuing to influence that dialogue both internally and externally to our stakeholders, including governments. It’s quite challenging.

In addition, in-house counsel are under pressure to become generalists, whereas outside counsel have got that opportunity to focus and become specialists. We’re inundated with a whole lot of work, largely driven by the many changes in legislation.

I lead a team, and talent management tends to be quite a challenge in terms of how we continue to have adequate upskilled resources to respond to these rapid changes in legislation and the demands that they place on the business, and always making sure people are empowered to do the job. It’s about continuing to look for those opportunities to upskill my team, not only in legal areas but to be able to develop business acumen, and have working knowledge of IT as well. The environment has to respond to changes in technology so I’m finding that is one of the things that I have to be quite innovative about – how do I keep them relevant in the business, and keep them upskilled?

GC: How would you describe your management style?

FG: I like to think of myself as quite humble and also open to giving my team a platform for exposure and to be heard and become visible as well. So as much as I lead, I am open to be led. I am also a visionary and I’m very delivery-oriented at the same time. It’s a very interactive management style.

GC: What do you think is the secret to being a good legal manager?

FG: You need to be able to create dialogue and trust with your business clients; they need to be able to respect you. We are the custodians of corporate governance as well, so we need to walk the talk. We need to upskill ourselves to speak the language that’s spoken by our clients - we need to develop a strong commercial and business-oriented language so we can be part of the business, a strategic business partner, and be solution-oriented and practical.

GC: How big is your team?

FG: My team at group level comprises 16 staff members, made up of six legal advisers, one compliance manager, two assistant company secretaries and five support staff. Our organisational design is partly decentralised, so there are six other legal advisers in the business. We’re responsible at a group level for developing the legal compliance, governance and legal policy frameworks.

I joined in 2011 and I established an integrated legal and company secretary division at an executive level and at group level, so I’ve had to position the legal and company secretary division to be a very strategic and value-adding partner.

GC: What were the challenges of establishing that function from the outset?

FG: It was quite a task – just to get the buy-in from business. It was as detailed as having to develop an organisational legal structure and legal operating framework and roll that out. But strategically it involved influencing and positioning the legal department into being a strategic partner at an executive level and influencing that dialogue in the boardroom. That was the main challenge, because the various legal resources were embedded in the business and there was no line of sight across the business at a group or a strategic level, given the growing influence of law in the context of legislation. Legislation has become more than just a regulatory tool of compliance – it has become a license to operate.

GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

FG: I worked for Coca-Cola and I had the privilege of being nominated to the 2010 World Cup project team. That was fantastic because South Africa was hosting the World Cup and I got to be part of the team that was looking at various agreements to support the project. Being part of a multidisciplinary team provided me with that opportunity to get involved in a lot more than just legal work.

GC: What was your role on the World Cup team?

FG: Looking at legal issues – for example drafting sponsorship and other commercial agreements - and also supporting various programmes such as ambush marketing and competition law campaigns, and just being able to be ambassadors of Coca-Cola’s products at large. So, for example, recognising when trademarks were being ambushed. I was seconded to the project team, and it lasted for about 11 months. I was nominated and selected to receive two prizes when I was on the team for outstanding performance on various milestones met which impacted on the overall performance of the project.

Another highlight would be the company secretary role I am in now. This was my first job as a company secretary, which also includes a compliance role. It has been quite a highlight in my career - being involved in governance issues, and being involved in advising the board. Our board is international, composed of directors from Malaysia as well as directors from South Africa, so it’s a very diverse board with broad skills. That’s been fantastic. The role has been strategic; I’ve had to advise them on governance matters in the context of the changes in the South African regulatory environment and in Africa at large. This forms part of the dialogue in the boardroom. The reporting requirements have also changed and there’s a lot more than just reporting on finance - it’s influenced by, and now based on, sustainability reporting, with the increase in stakeholder and shareholder activism.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would you say?

FG: I’d teach myself to be a lot more exposed, and not just in the legal field - I would probably go back and structure my LLB differently. Instead of just focusing on law, I would probably now have done accounting and economics. I think one just has to have that broad understanding of those areas to be able to give solid advice; to appreciate the broader environment and the context in which companies generally operate. I’ve had to break ground and study and really work hard and take an interest in reading not just developments in the law but in other areas too.

GC: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

FG: I love reading. I love mainly reading biographies – I find them inspiring. I’ve never been much of a fan of fiction, although now and again I read fiction for relaxation. I like something that I can learn from, someone’s experience that will inspire and motivate me. I love travelling all over the world. I went to India in December. That was quite fun from a spiritual perspective. I absolutely love movies, from chick flicks to good dramas, especially those inspired by true events - those I absolutely love.

GC: If for some reason you weren’t going to be a lawyer anymore, what would you do instead?

FG:I would love to go into strategy. I’m working at the moment to enhance my numerical skills, just to have a broader understanding and to translate numbers into strategy. If left the corporate environment, I would seriously consider pursuing international relations. I am passionate about international politics and the changes in the dynamics of geopolitics as the emerging economies come centre stage - although I would go into a diplomatic assignment. Women are also taking centre stage in all areas including politics and that inspires me.