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Moscow-based Maksim Arefiev is director of the legal service centre at X5 Retail Group and has worked in-house since qualifying as a lawyer. He chats to GC about his career in the Russian retail sector.

Working in-house: Russian Retail

Boris Dechev

Research analyst,
The Legal 500

Email Boris

GC: Was law your first career?

Maksim Arefiev (MA): My first profession was as a military translator and I served as an officer in the Russian military forces. I participated in several peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia. While on these missions I not only worked as a translator, but also performed the function of civil observer. I worked on a wide variety of challenging tasks, such as resolving conflicts between the Serbian police and Kosovo Albanians, participating in humanitarian missions, and participating in the investigation of various military crimes. Upon my return from Kosovo, I decided to go to law school and become a lawyer.

GC: What motivated you to make such a significant career change?

MA: For quite some time I had started to feel that a translator is merely a transmitter of other people’s thoughts. I realised that I had to find a profession in which I would be able to speak on my own behalf and be able to express my own ideas. This realisation made my decision to go to law school very easy.

GC: What was your first job after completing your law degree in 2001?

MA: After graduating I spent two years at a state organisation, The Ministry of Property, in control of public real estate. My first commercial role was in a company called Pyaterochka, at a time when it still was not part of the X5 Retail Group. At Pyaterochka I received my ‘baptism of fire’, and I was introduced to the corporate world – I started my career in the retail sector by accepting an offer practically in the dark, without knowing much about my future role or the industry.

After working in retail for almost two years, I realised that it is a sector in which a lawyer can work on a wide variety of areas of the law. These can be as diverse as commercial relations, logistics, trademark, intellectual property, consumer rights, relationships with authorities and administrative law. The scope of my responsibilities has been increasing with every year.

GC: How did your career develop after Pyaterochka?

MA: After spending a year and a half at Pyaterochka, I worked on a private real estate project for about a year preparing properties for sale to a real estate investor. Upon completing the project, I simultaneously received two job offers; one as head of real estate legal at Sportmaster, a major operator of sportswear stores in Russia. The other one was to work at Real, a company that I did not know much about, as in 2005 it did not have a single store in Russia. It is part of the Metro group [a German retail group]. Given that my first higher educational qualification was that of a translator, I decided that an international company such as Real would be a more preferable option for me, as it would allow me to not only work as a lawyer, but also effectively utilise my foreign language skills.

In 2007 I became head of legal at Real and, in 2013, upon the acquisition of Real by Auchan, I took the helm of the newly-created legal department of the larger company.

GC: Did working as an in-house lawyer differ significantly between the public sector and retail?

MA: When I joined the retail sector, I immediately felt the speed and dynamic of the work that I was doing, as well as the opportunity to apply my skills across different sections of the law. Retail differs from many other sectors, as any major retail chain opens tens of retail centres every year (in some cases even more), which introduces an element of unpredictability given the challenges that might arise.

This was not so obvious when I worked at Pyaterochka as the company operates supermarkets across Russia, and supermarkets tend to be ordinary lease properties of a relatively low level of complexity. Upon joining Real, I quickly realised that hypermarkets are an entirely different universe, however. In many ways, the process of opening a hypermarket resembles establishing an operational factory with its own production lines (meat, culinary, fish, etc) and a high quantity of workers and visitors. In addition, issues related to managing a local property are always challenging. In short, applying my personal skills and professional expertise to resolve complex challenges every day is what has always made working in retail appealing to me.

GC: What was your most memorable moment during your time at Auchan?

MA: My most memorable moment was the period that followed my appointment as head of the legal department at Auchan, immediately after I joined the company. The managerial methods that I used at Real were no longer applicable, given that the scale of the company was entirely different. I also joined Auchan in a period when the company had a de facto non-existent legal department.

I had to undertake a significant amount of work aimed at the restructuring of the new department and facilitating the process of combining the forces of two legal functions (the lawyers that previously worked at Auchan and the ones that joined along with me from Real). This process involved proactively building relationships with my new colleagues, the redistribution of tasks among the newly-created team and trying to teach employees within the department my understanding of the role of a corporate lawyer in the company’s life.

‘I would say that I am a demanding, but also very democratic, legal manager. To me, people are the most important resource.’

GC: You’ve now begun a new role as director of the legal service centre at X5 Retail Group. What does your new position entail?

MA: While at Auchan, I received a very interesting offer – an opportunity to work at X5 Retail Group, the second largest retailer in Russia. I have more responsibility and more people reporting into me. In addition, the scale of my work is much bigger. I accepted this offer because it is a significant step forward and I feel that I am ready for it.

I will be head of a legal service centre that will be serving the operational business. There will be a legal director who is a member of the management board, and I will be the second person in the legal department.

GC: What has been the highlight of your in-house career?

MA: I think that Auchan was a very interesting place to work due to the fact that it is creative, and senior management constantly comes up with new and innovative projects. Working at Auchan was never boring. Over the course of the two years I spent at the company, I encountered a variety of projects unprecedented in my previous work experience. For example, I recently worked on a franchising project allowing partners in Russia and CIS to operate under the sign of Auchan.

As a lawyer, I constantly deal with issues that are non-standard or of a higher level of difficulty, and find it both challenging and rewarding to solve these issues in my day-to-day role.

Another aspect that I like about my role is to participate in the regulation of the retail market. During my time at Real, I actively participated in lobbying state regulation of trade. In addition, I am a member of the [Russian] Retail Companies Association, which is trying to protect the interests of retailers in the current legislative environment.

GC: How could you describe your management style?

MA: I would say that I am a demanding, but also very democratic legal manager. To me, as to any other legal manager, people are the most important resource, rather than computers, books and databases. It should be a priority for every business to keep people for as long as possible, as they are the ones who make history and define the company. The legal department is the point through which all of the information about the company flows, and with a big staff turnover, the company risks losing its history. A business with no history has no future. Therefore, I make it my top priority to make sure that the people within my division are comfortable, proactively encouraging them to improve their expertise and acquire new qualifications. I try to listen with attention to what my colleagues need and what kind of work they would like to do.

Human relations should always come first. In any situation, or in any difficult circumstances, we should try to remain human. You have to treat other people the same way that you want them to treat you. This involves not only giving respect to people on a professional level, but also respect on a human level. I feel that this is the only way to build healthy professional relationships with your subordinates.

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