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Bangkok-based Peter De Neef is senior legal counsel at the Asia-Pac headquarters of GDF SUEZ Energy International, a multinational electricity generation company. While at GDF he has played a key role in structuring the CHP5 project in Mongolia. Catherine McGregor catches up with him.

B U S I N E S S     T H I N K I N G

GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Peter De Neef (PDF): It is not something that I dreamt about since being a child! But a close friend of my parents was GC for a leading Belgium bank and he often spoke about his role and what he was doing. I liked what he told me about negotiations; that and the idea of talking to people were what attracted me. I was not attracted by the formal litigation part of being a lawyer.  

Eventually I went to a law firm, as it is an interesting learning experience and a good way to get a wide range of technical experiences, rather than immediately going in-house. But now I don’t see myself doing anything else.

While I was still studying I thought about becoming a law professor or an assistant professor, but that would really have been too academic for me, in the long term.

GC: What made you first want to go in-house?

PDF: I wanted to be part of the business and have greater ownership of the projects. We don’t involve outside lawyers at the beginning of the project, which is the most fascinating part - there is just an idea that needs to be nurtured and developed. Those initial structuring meetings are fantastic, everyone can contribute and it can go in any direction, but obviously it’s too expensive to have outside lawyers involved at that stage.

Also, a lot of the work that we do involves explaining to someone with no legal background what is happening on the legal front. I find that really rewarding - to pass that message on, especially to someone who is from a different cultural background.

The satisfaction when the project actually completes is so much bigger than when you are the outside counsel. The feeling is related to playing soccer in a team, and I think it’s deeply human to want to be part of something bigger, a team.  

GC: What’s the best thing about working at GDF SUEZ?

PDF: When I left the law firm I had a few months on sabbatical, during which I didn’t know which company to join. My mother told me to make a list of what I wanted from my new job. Number one was that the product had to be something tangible, something that would interest me. I was attracted to big infrastructure projects or shipping, and what we do at GDF SUEZ is big infrastructure projects - so it’s very real and tangible!

Secondly, it was important for me to work for a company that is careful with its ethical policies and tries to be a good “corporate citizen”.

Finally, I like working with colleagues who are very qualified and also team players - we’re all in it together and support each other. There are over 200,000 employees and the company culture is very good.

GC: How does the company maintain such a strong sense of culture?

PDF: I’m not sure - maybe our HR Department know!

Leading by example, our group CEO is quite an impressive figure and shows integrity and leadership. When he speaks it’s really motivating and really makes you feel like you belong to the GDF SUEZ family. Most of our managers are like that as well.

There’s also the way our remuneration works – it is quite flat and there are not the huge bonuses that may be offered by some other developers. I think if there are huge bonuses it can create too much competition and doesn’t lead to the most harmonious behaviour.

It’s not an easy company to get into but there is a lot of job security and I think that makes people feel that the company cares about them and they want to give back to it. I believe that, in the long term it, pays off in terms of employees being more motivated and having (and implementing) a long-term vision.

GC: What’s your favourite part of your day at the office?

PDF: It’s the moment when the team is facing a particularly difficult obstacle, and each department gives its input so that you can find a solution that works from all angles. That moment or feeling of success is great.

The other thing is: I always try to leave the office with an empty inbox, so when I manage to do that, it brings a sense of satisfaction as well.

GC: What’s your least favourite part of your day at the office?

PDF: When I have to go through piles of invoices from our law firms!

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

PDF: The first project I worked on when I joined was in Abu Dhabi. The idea was that I would take over that project and take it to completion, which was considered an easy or straightforward task. But then the financial crisis happened, that deal exploded - and no one had time to explain anything to me! It was very high pressure but eventually we saved the deal and brought it to completion. It was a big successes for the company at the time.

GC: What legal issues or challenges have you got coming up on the horizon over the next few

PDF: The need to impose human rights obligations on the multinationals - ranging from respectful labour conditions to no child labour and so forth – which is gaining momentum. Personally, I’m an advocate for that! But it does mean we have to be completely compliant across our whole spread of business partners and contractors. There is a lot of work involved in trying to manage that compliance across the board.

There is also the global movement to be stricter on tax havens, double tax treaties and tax shopping. 
In Asia, for us, the biggest topic is corruption, because our competitors from some other countries are less inclined to follow the rules - so it’s not a level playing field.

GC: How much do you outsource as a team and how much do you keep in-house?

PDF: We usually keep all our disclosure agreements, joint development / consortium agreements, and shareholder agreements in-house. Most companies would do that. Our construction contracts – so-called EPC [engineering, procurement and construction] contracts - are kept in-house, which is probably less typical. We have a lot of experience in drafting and negotiating such contracts and building actual power plants, so it make sense to do it ourselves. But when we move to financing / loan agreements we typically outsource that, as well as, often, the power purchase agreements with governments.

We try as much as possible to come up with template documents. Personally, I believe in templates as they reduce workload, increase speed of delivery, ensure compliance with our many internal policies and show consistency to our business people and third parties. It may be time-consuming in the beginning to draft the template, but it saves time and money further down the line.

GC: What do you expect from an external lawyer?

PDF: Obviously being a good lawyer, but also being service-orientated. I am still sometimes surprised by how much some external lawyers believe that we absolutely need them and no one else. Consequently, they do not treat us like clients - whether it is in terms of responsiveness or following our instructions. There are quite a lot of good law firms out there, but at the end of the day if I have a bad experience with a firm then I won’t select them again. Some of them just do not get that and are losing our business - it’s really bizarre.

GC: In your free time, what are you reading at the moment?

PDF: Mostly emails! I had to organise a working session for our legal team and one of the questions we asked was: do you still read books? It was quite a provocative question!

I read The Economist regularly.

A friend gave me The Dog by Joseph O’Neill, about a private practice lawyer who moves in-house in Dubai working for a local conglomerate. It was interesting for me as I started out at GDF in Dubai. But other than that similarity, my time in Dubai was quite different.

GC: What’s your favourite film?

It has it be The Big Lebowski. It’s completely absurd and has some of the best jokes ever. The whole weird atmosphere of it is fantastic.

GC: If you weren’t practising law anymore, what would you be doing?

Within the corporate world I would join a strategy department, helping to guide the company.