INTERVIEW: LYNELLE BAGWANDEEN
GROUP COMPANY SECRETARY AND
GENERAL COUNSEL, NETCARE
Lynelle Bagwandeen is group company secretary and general counsel for Netcare, a large network of private hospitals in South Africa. She chats to GC about her varied career path, which has seen her develop from medical student to cellular biology graduate, to lawyer.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Lynelle Bagwandeen (LB): You’re taking me back a long time now! I graduated high school in 1992. I was a science major at high school and had every intention to be a doctor - in fact, I started at medical school and then rerouted after two years into the science faculty. I majored in cellular biology and graduated with a BSC degree. I commenced the honours programme in cellular biology, and decided I actually wanted to do law. It was while I was studying medicine and science that I felt I’d actually prefer to be studying law. That’s largely because I was exposed to the legal faculty and I just thought it was more of a calling to me. So I decided to do a law degree with the intention to go into intellectual property and patents, because scientists and engineers generally do that. That whole area of law was fascinating to me while I was studying those subjects. I returned to Durban, my home town, to the University of Natal [now the University of KwaZulu-Natal] which had a very well-known and well-developed law faculty and commenced my law degree. I absolutely loved it. I was far more passionate about studying law than I had been in my undergraduate degree. I graduated as one of the top students in my class, summa cum laude, and I won a few awards including the moot competition. Generally you do well at something if you are passionate about studying it, and so it was a natural fit.
When I was at law school I did vacation work at a large intellectual property law firm, but I didn’t really enjoy intellectual property as much as I thought I would - it was very dry. The subject that I really enjoyed studying was corporate law. I decided to do articles at a law firm that wasn’t a niche law firm, which would give me a broad-based offering. I obtained articles at one of Durban’s largest law firms, Garlicke & Bousfield at that point in time, and it was just a great experience - I loved my articles, I loved the law firm, I loved the people I worked with, it was a really great time of my life. They asked me to stay on and while I was an associate, I was offered an opportunity to join a large corporate as an in-house legal adviser. It was really early on in my career and it was a very difficult decision to make, because you want to stay in a law firm and learn as much as possible. But he also made a financial offer I couldn’t refuse at that age, and so I decided to try it out because I think you can always come back to practice.
I grabbed the opportunity - it was a mining house with interests in Zimbabwe and hotel interests in the North Coast, and it was just so exciting. I spent five years working all around the world and living out of a suitcase, which was great fun. I spent a lot of time trying to list the mining interests on the Alternative Investment Market. It was very ‘learn as you went along’.
And then an opportunity arose in the banking environment, which was very interesting. I was tired of living out of a suitcase, and I didn’t plan to settle in the UK, so I joined Absa Structured Finance. That was also great exposure. And then, of course, the 2008 financial crisis hit, so we went from being inordinately busy and working ridiculous hours, to suddenly being not that busy. It was a bit of an eye-opener, because you suddenly realise that a career in banking is quite erratic. It is very closely related to market fluctuations.
I had by then finished my masters in corporate law and my dissertation in corporate governance. It was a question of ‘use it or lose it’. The group company secretary at Standard Bank was rolling out King III and the New Companies Act compliance and wanted that type of experience – a lawyer with governance expertise and a corporate law background who had a desire to get more practical exposure, and she made me a really great offer. I ended up working for her and advising the board of Standard Bank on governance issues, which was quite exciting.
And then, once again, my meandering heart led me to Netcare because they were looking for a company secretary who could lead their corporate governance King III compliance initiative (which was really the buzzword in 2011). They offered me the position of group company secretary at a large JSE-listed entity, and it was also an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was then extended the offer to run the legal department as well. They joined the two portfolios and it became an executive board position. I’ve been here for almost five years and I’ve never been happier with the job.
I never thought when I started off that I wanted to be a company secretary of a JSE-listed company. I probably didn’t even know what that was when I was at high school, but I always wanted to do something in a corporate environment. When I was sitting in my lab, in my science degree, I was thinking, ‘is this going to be my life? Because if it’s going to be in a lab, I don’t think I’ll be very happy. I want to engage with people and I want to find solutions to problems on a collective basis.’
GC: What do you like most about working for Netcare?
LB: The values that Netcare espouses are about care, dignity and helping your fellow human beings. In fact, that is the strategy of the company – to provide care for all humankind. So that is a value and a strategy that resonates with everybody here and through everything we do – whether you’re a junior nurse, reception staff, all the way up to the CEO - is geared to one thing, and that is the optimum care of the patient. That is a great focus for any employee within the group.
We have a huge CSR investment arm, where we do so many fantastic things for people; those who are in desperate need of medical care - or life-saving and life-altering procedures such as cranio-facial operations, a breast milk reserve, a sexual assault clinic - projects that really make a palpable difference in people’s lives. Knowing you are part of it, without sounding clichéd, is a really heart-warming experience. I love coming to work every day, because I know that, yes, there will be lots of legal drama and emergencies and crises, but at the end of it we will have helped a whole bunch of people in a whole sphere of areas.
GC: Do you have a lot of day-to-day involvement with the CSR side of things?
LB: I assist the Netcare Foundation with their governance and legal requirements so I’m acutely aware of we do, what we donate and what we receive for key projects, which is also tabled at the social and ethics committee.
GC: What are the challenges of working for Netcare as head of legal?
LB: Constant variety! No day is the same, though it is always exciting. It’s a really challenging portfolio, but thoroughly enjoyable. I work on issues pertaining to contractual law, to intellectual property, to health professional issues, along with ethical considerations, on a day-to-day basis. So it tests the breath of your expertise constantly but I have a very competent and able team that assists.
GC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
LB: I think joining Netcare has been the highlight. I didn’t think it would get better until, again at Netcare, I was offered a promotion a year after being here, which was just so fantastic. And then, really improving processes since being here – we’ve won quite a few governance awards, we’ve been included as a ‘best performer’ on the JSE SRI [Socially Responsible Investment Index], we’ve been included on the Dow Jones index, and received sustainability accolades. In addition I was nominated as one of the top 100 general counsel in Africa, which is a testament to the team than me personally.
GC: Looking to the next few months, what are the legal challenges or issues that you predict you and your team will be facing?
LB: Like all general counsel, ensuring effective legal costs control remains a key focus, and managing the ever changing regulatory landscape.
GC: How would you describe your management style?
LB: Very hands-on. It’s difficult to be hands-on and not be a micro-manager, so I like to know what my team are working on, I like to be kept updated and kept fully appraised. I have an open door policy and I also hold dedicated one-on-one sessions and regular team meetings coupled with compliance committee initiatives.
GC: What’s the secret to being a good legal manager?
LB: Being accessible and a good listener. . I think acknowledgement of someone’s efforts is key. If you have an expectation, make sure it’s clearly outlined in terms of timelines, expectations and deliverables. You can’t criticise someone afterwards if you haven’t given them clear instructions. Criticism must be constructive, not punitive and personality-destroying. It’s important to be supportive of your staff members. If they’ve done a great job, acknowledge it. I oversee this department, but you’ve got to share the credit and praise. And just be nice. How difficult is that? A pleasant ‘good morning’, an occasional compliment. You can be familiar without being overly familiar – and aim to have a nice, collegial, respectful attitude.
GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would it be?
LB: I would have more fun in my ’20s. I was so serious! I was such a worrywart – thinking, ‘where will I be when I turn 35?’ To stop putting a timeline on achievements, to work consistently, work hard, focus less on what’s going to happen in five years’ time, and more what’s going to happen today - because time flies by so quickly, and I think it’s nice to be a little bit more relaxed. And stop being hard on myself. I’m my own worst critic.
GC: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
LB: I do a fair amount of reading - my Kindle is my best friend. I’m re-reading some JD Salinger books. I love Eckhart Tolle and Gary Zukav. Gillian Flynn for a good thriller. But If I didn’t go to the gym, I would be a lot less calm – it’s a great stress reliever. I go for a morning workout a couple of times a week. I travel to the North Coast of Durban at least once a month. I have no children yet, but I spend lots of time with my niece and nephews, and of course my very patient husband.
GC: Do you have a favourite film?
LB: Zoolander. Also The Proposal – it’s romantic and hysterical. I like Sandra Bullock.
GC: If you weren’t a lawyer any longer for some reason, what would you do instead?
LB: I would be a consultant. I’m passionate about governance. I would definitely be working for an institutional shareholder service, or be an adviser to a board on governance issues. A non-executive board member. That’s appealing.