In conversation: Nitin Mittal, market head of legal, compliance and company Secretary, Signify

An experienced hand in the lighting sector, Mittal explains how general counsel are supporting the industry through a time of transformation and growth.

GC: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be working in the law and working in-house?

Nitin Mittal (NM): I’m a qualified law graduate, a corporate secretary and also have a degree in finance. I believe in continuous education and, to that end, I recently also completed a Masters degree in business law from National Law School Bangalore, India’s premier university.

I started my career with a corporate, not a law firm, in corporate law, and the responsibilities on starting that job were multiple – not only law, but also finance, administration, real estate. But, gradually my passion and interest attracted me to the core area of law and I wanted to give my full attention to it because it clearly was my calling and passion.

For the last 13 years, I have been heading the legal function for companies that I have worked for. I am currently working with Phillips Lighting – for the last three years – which has now changed to Signify and, before that, I was with a German multinational called OSRAM for around ten years. Being an in-house lawyer and having worked at companies with global presence, getting exposure to different functions and people with different cultures within different business contexts has really shaped me as an in-house lawyer, and given me a holistic view of complex business issues, and how the external and internal environment changes. So that is how I have grown as a lawyer within the last 16 to 17 years of my career.

GC: What was it that made you want to work for a corporation as opposed to a law firm when you were starting out in your career?

NM: Apart from being a law graduate, my interests were also to leverage my degree as a corporate secretary – and if you want to leverage that degree then you need to work in a corporate. I was not so inclined to work on the litigation side in a law firm, as I come from a business family background. Hence, I wanted to work close to where the business is, and that is why I think I got attracted to the corporate field more than the law firm field.

GC: You’ve obviously worked in the lighting sector for quite a long time. What are the major trends that you’re navigating in that field in India?

NM: The lighting industry has witnessed a major transformation towards LED lighting over the past couple of years, across the globe, since 2014. The ratio of LEDification (as we call it) from traditional lights to LED continues to increase, enabled by several government initiatives, because the government in India is also promoting LED usage to enhance energy efficiency. But this ultimately led to revenue stagnation because the price point was going down drastically. As a result, the LED lighting industry saw the emergence of several low-cost competitors that offered low-cost LED products with no differentiation, which started bringing about even further price pressure – so even though the volume is increasing, the price is decreasing and, overall, the stress on margin is high. This trend peaked in 2018.

The challenge for the industry is to find new areas of growth beyond simple commercial lighting. For example, we have come up with a new innovation called LiFi – light fidelity – which gives you a stable and fast broadband data connection through light waves, as a powerful substitute for WiFi.

Then of course there is applying light to horticulture – how do you use light to drive productivity in horticulture, in plants, in vegetables, in chickens and livestock? How do you bring highly optimised, low-cost connected solutions to increase the penetration of lighting further?

The industry is looking at applying new trends that you see in business models, like lighting as a service, not as a product but as a service, and value-based pricing, with use of artificial intelligence and high automation.

From a general counsel perspective, these will lead to new legal scenarios – contracts becoming more complex, long term, PPP, and more digital and security laws, including specific regulations. You will find the need to have a deeper view of privacy because you need to use the data of customers for connected lighting, and you may need to monetise data. I think with this fast growth and transformation in the lighting industry, general counsels need to be up to date on new technologies, especially on the digital side – in different ways lighting is now more than illumination. We have to be fast thinkers; we have to come up with global solutions to problems that we never faced before. We always have new problems before us to solve. For this, we need to have out-of-the-box thinking, new solutions.

GC: As regards your role at Signify, what are the particular challenges that you’re dealing with at the moment?

NM: The main challenge in my role is to manage multiple issues in legal compliance and governance. We have a very lean team: including me, there are three people and we have to manage a business of more than €500 million. India is the fourth largest market for Signify worldwide. We tend to seek out the complex stuff but there are also minor things at any given point of time. I could be handling multiple regulators, whether there are labour laws, technology laws, competition law, or a complex negotiation, or litigation – civil or criminal – and, of course, compliance. With a small, lean team, I think you have to handle so many things at any point of time plus being updated with a lot of things that are happening in corporate laws, technology, in digital laws.

‘It is my firm belief that technology will provide efficiency and also effectiveness to the GC role and for business.’

I think this is the main challenge: how do you gear up to do things that add value? You have to, as a general counsel, recognise how you reduce things which are not productive, which are not adding value to the legal function, to the organisation, and do things which matter the most, which are necessary for the organisation because of the changing industry. What Marcus Aurelius wrote in his book, Meditations – one should prompt oneself ‘Is this, or is it now, something necessary?’ – is very apt for us.

I see numerous situations where law is very equivocal, or core judgments are ultimately in a state of flux. Business demands are dynamic and advice is required to consider all these aspects. The spirit and the intent of the law need to adhered be at all times. So I think managing time qualitatively and tactfully is imperative.

GC: How does your team sit within the wider Signify legal team globally?

NM: India is part of growth markets within Signify. I am the leader of the team, but I also do a lot of things which are direct. We need leaders who are actually very hands on, do direct negotiations with customers, do property and M&A deals directly as well. We have a strong focus on integrity and compliance. My other two team members work on contracts, on business advisory, on compliance, on governance, on various other aspects of business – I think everybody really lives life to the full as part of a global team.

We are fully integrated with the worldwide legal team because globally the legal team is very close knit. They interact often and you can share any problems with them and you can also share knowledge with them. Knowledge sharing is very much a part of the culture in the legal function, and leveraging each other’s advantages and sense is also another key attribute of the function. Last year, I did a complex project in Morocco from India, and led that contract from the legal side, so I think geography is not a limitation right now. A legal team can be situated anywhere, and they can do things for other countries as well.

GC: You have digitised many of your legal and business tasks. Can you talk about that process of digitisation and any key learnings that arose?

NM: It is my firm belief that technology will provide efficiency and also effectiveness to the GC role and for business. We have a contract management tool to ensure that we can have sales and purchasing contracts stored digitally. People can retrieve contracts and it can give alerts when contracts need to be reviewed. We are currently reviewing this to make it more all-encompassing.

Secondly, we have a very big initiative on managing compliance of various laws. India is a complex country with more than 25 states, and each of these states has their own laws. We as a company have two manufacturing locations, multiple offices, and around 200 laws under which we would be governed. How as a company do you ensure that you’re complying with all these laws? So through technology we mapped all these laws through different functions within the company, and all these individuals now get alerts: this is a law that you have to comply with, please upload evidence, please ensure that you are complying. This is monitored through that digital tool, which we give to an external party.

On governance, we also digitised our board meetings so we don’t do them through paper, everything is done digitally. That enables a lot of efficiency at the board meetings. This is also good for sustainability and the environment.

We are also looking at some other initiatives, especially when we do projects – how do we manage projects happening across the country, where we use contractors?

I think the mindset is that technology is there to stay, whether it’s analytics, whether it is blockchain, whether it is artificial intelligence. But the question is how do you use it successfully in a cost-effective manner? And these new technology initiatives also pose challenges, because they should be understood by all the participants and the rationale should be justified, otherwise it will not work. You have to have a buy-in from everybody – if you roll out and people don’t fully understand it, or fully understand the benefit and simplicity that it brings, it will not work in the long term. It is very important that everybody is on the same page when you are rolling out technology initiatives in the company.

GC: Are those technology initiatives used elsewhere in the global Signify legal team, or is that something that you’ve been spearheading from India?

NM: On governance, for example doing board meetings without paper, is very India-specific. Compliance with law, which was a big project that was only India-specific – nowhere in the world has a software which monitors compliance with all applicable laws.

GC: Looking to the future, can you tell me about what you see as the big events or the big challenges on the horizon over the next year that will impact on your team and how you’ll be supporting the business?

NM: I think the biggest challenge I see for Signify is managing the transformation that the lighting industry is facing, shifting from conventional lighting to LED, and now from LED to connected lighting. How will we gear up to offer an unmatched value proposition to the customer and diversify our product and service portfolio to differentiate us as a leader in the industry?

As a legal function in the future, over the next one-to-two years, I think we need to be more agile, more focused on where are we adding value for the organisation and where we need to concentrate more. I think these are the two or three things we really need to get up to speed to as a legal function if we want to support the company in its transformation going forward.

Another project we are doing is basically concentrating on things that we can stop doing, and focus on things that are adding value. I think those things are really important in the future because of limited resources, and focusing more on the changing portfolio of the company.