As the growth of global businesses continues, more general counsel are realizing the opportunities and challenges of running a global legal department.
Chief Legal Officer for Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, Sabine Chalmers leads a department that spans a staggering nine geographic zones and includes more than 300 legal professionals. She is well-versed in the people and protocols required to effectively manage a diverse legal organization. She talked with Forum’s Bernadette Bulacan about her professional background, how she develops talent and leadership in a global environment, and how she built a world-class legal department.
Forum: Tell me about AB InBev’s global legal department and how they work with the business.
Sabine Chalmers: We’ve just gone through a major business combination [a $100 billion-plus merger with SABMiller]. We now have over 400 brands in our portfolio and our products are sold all over the world. In terms of the way we’re structured as a business, the legal function very much mirrors the structure of the business.
We have 200,000 employees in nine geographical zones:
- North America, which is comprised of our US and Canada businesses, with zone headquarters in St. Louis
- Middle Americas, which includes Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, with zone headquarters in Mexico City
- COPEC, which includes Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, with zone headquarters in Bogota
- Latin America North, which includes Brazil and the Dominican Republic, with zone headquarters in Sao Paulo
- Latin America South, which includes Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay, with zone headquarters in Buenos Aires
- Our European zone, with headquarters in Leuven, Belgium
- Our Africa zone, with headquarters in Johannesburg
- Asia Pacific North, which includes China and Korea, with zone headquarters in Shanghai
- Asia Pacific South, which includes Australia, India and Vietnam, with zone headquarters in Melbourne
Forum: Within your legal department, there’s a mix of nationalities and lawyers represented.
Chalmers: Yes, the company is very diverse in terms of the brands, the geographies we operate in and the consumers we have; likewise, our employees are from all over the world. My own background is fairly international; I have a German father and an Indian mother. I grew up in the Philippines, was educated in England and then lived in the States, Belgium and many other places. From a personal values perspective, I have a deep belief in the importance of diverse teams – not just gender diversity, but diversity of thought and cultures. I also believe strongly in the power of education to change generations, within countries and particularly in emerging economies. In terms of our philosophy at the company, there’s a huge investment in local talent. For example, within the legal team, the approach is not to expatriate talent from a handful of countries to manage local lawyers, but rather to grow local talent from within the ranks.
Forum: When do you know a particular attorney will be a cultural fit for AB InBev?
Chalmers: When we’re hiring, resumes and experience speak for themselves in terms of technical skills. Eighty percent of our interview process focuses on questions around values and ways of working – these are the ones that really determine whether you’ll be a good cultural fit. I think that’s an important piece of in-house recruiting; a large part of the interview needs to be about what a person stands for, how they interact with people and their value set as opposed to just their skill set.
Forum: Are there particular competencies or softer skills that aren’t reflected in the resumes that you’re looking for?
Chalmers: We’re a very informal company, where there’s a great emphasis placed on real ownership of results. We’re not very hierarchical, we emphasize teamwork and we don’t have many of what I call the traditional trappings of companies – we don’t have offices; we all work in one open space because it ensures visibility and improves communication. Very often, lawyers in particular find it very hard to operate in that sort of environment. In addition, if we’re recruiting someone, it’s with the hopes that they’ll move to ever-increasing senior leadership positions. So one of the things we look at is, what is their ability over time to recruit people that are better than them and to not feel threatened by that.
Forum: You started off as a deal attorney. Why law and why specifically an M&A practice?
Chalmers: The law itself is a wonderful foundational degree for almost anything that you do in life. I found corporate M&A law attractive because it’s the one area where you see the broad spectrum of every aspect of law that impacts a business.
Forum: Was there a particular attraction to go in-house instead of staying in the traditional law firm track?
Chalmers: I absolutely loved consumer product businesses. At the same time, I had a sense of frustration that when you’re in private practice, you’re brought in after the beginning and you leave before the end and you never really feel part of the “family.” So I always thought, if I have the opportunity to go in-house, it would be amazing. It was sort of serendipity; a former professor of mine from law school was general counsel (GC) at what was, at that time, Guinness PLC, and they had an opening for a junior lawyer.
Forum: Any good pieces of advice when you made the transition from private practice to in-house that have really stuck with you?
Chalmers: Being in-house doesn’t mean you’re doing things cheaper than an external lawyer; you’re doing something completely different. The best in-house lawyers are the ones that understand that difference, and therefore partner very well with external lawyers rather than compete with them or get the two roles confused.
Forum: Any fail-quick, learn-quick lessons early on in your career that helped define some of your approach now?
Chalmers: The fact that you’re only as good as your team. It’s very important to take that time to recruit people that have the ability to be better than you. So often, people feel threatened by smart people that they might be recruiting in, and it’s a big mistake because you are judged by the quality of your team.
Forum: How do you keep your eye on these nine geographies and the GCs that report up through you?
Chalmers: What is most important is that the GC in each of the zones is a really good lawyer and person, and that there’s mutual respect and trust. I also have a close dialogue with their business bosses – the zone presidents that they have a dual-reporting line to.
In terms of protocols: communication, communication, communication. We get everybody together – my reports and their teams – once a year for a group gathering and educational event. I will also try to meet each of my reports once a quarter; sometimes we do it by telepresence if travel is a challenge. We have very good routines, particularly around our targets and objectives for the year. Those are the things that bind us.
Forum: Are there particular targets and objectives you’re thinking about as you look at 2017 and the combined legal departments in this post-acquisition world?
Chalmers: We do tend to have targets which are recurring, so we’ll always have one related to our compliance program and ensuring really effective training, and also targets that relate to the appropriate handling of significant files or issues that may arise. If we are doing acquisitions or divestitures, we’ll often have a target around completing or closing a file. Those are the types of targets we’ll probably share year-on-year across the group.
Forum: What type of edge does it give your business to have a legal department that’s global as well?
Chalmers: When you’ve got country-specific issues, because we’ve built a global department, we can attract some of the best local talent and that’s very valuable. I also believe – and data supports this – that the really big problems in life are best solved through diverse teams and different perspectives and skill sets. If you have a global, diverse team, you increase your chances that you’ll find solutions to the biggest problems.
Forum: You just closed a large transaction, and there’s a great deal of change that goes on post-transaction. What’s the best way to help lead your legal department through change?
Chalmers: Firstly, always reinforce change in a positive way – change brings opportunity. Second, remember that in times of change, there’s no such thing as over communication.
Forum: Are there three pieces of advice you would give someone looking at becoming a GC or going from being a regional to a global GC?
Chalmers: First, the one thing that stood me in good stead is always being committed to different types of experiences – to grow internationally, to be exposed to different cultures. I’ve learned the most in my career when I’ve not just moved jobs but moved geographies. If you want to have a global career, you have to be prepared to do that; it just makes you a better lawyer. Second – and I’ve been lucky on this front – is to choose a life partner who is supportive of a global career because it is demanding and it involves compromises. I married someone who is a lawyer as well and became a stay-at-home dad to support my career. I’m not sure this would’ve happened without that. Finally, stay humble and never stop learning. Always challenge yourself to find a better way of doing things.
To learn more about Anheuser-Busch InBev, visit: ab-inbev.com.
Sabine Chalmers is a passionate business leader, lawyer and global citizen with over 25 years’ experience managing international teams of lawyers, compliance, M&A and corporate affairs professionals. As chief legal officer and secretary to the Board of Directors of Anheuser-Busch InBev, Chalmers served as a member of the management team that successfully completed the integration of Interbrew and AmBev to create InBev; and the subsequent combinations with Anheuser-Busch, Grupo Modelo and SABMiller.
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