Interview with Maria Varsellona, general counsel and company secretary of ABB

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Earlier this year, ACC Europe changed its 2020 Annual Conference from an in-person event to a virtual experience. Maria Varsellona, general counsel and company secretary at ABB, sat down with Craig Budner (K&L Gates) to kick off the program, sharing her journey from a law student in Italy to CLO of a Swiss-Swedish multinational. Watch the full interview here.

Business Law Magazine: Can you share some highlights of your career up to now?

Maria Varsellona: I have had an interesting career, starting out in a law firm in Italy. If you had asked me in the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t have been quite sure what an in-house lawyer did – much less that I would’ve ended up being an in-house lawyer. I moved to the UK when I was still young, requalified as an English solicitor, and worked for a British-Italian law firm. That’s where I started to have interactions with in-house teams.
Around 2001, I decided to go back to Italy. At the same time, I started to look for a role that would be truly global and international. That was when I understood that in those times in Italy there were not many international law firms yet and I joined General Electric (GE). I believe that, as an in-house lawyer, I was formed and learned everything I know there.
It was a fantastic company that had a wonderful legal department. They had specialists and generalists, and I joined as a generalist in the oil and gas business. Thanks to that opportunity, I started to travel all around the world negotiating with oil companies everywhere. The personal aspect is fantastic because, when you have to negotiate a contract, you have to understand the personality of the negotiator that you have in front of you. This is the part of my job that I still enjoy the most today, although I don’t do many negotiations at this point and it is now being replaced by the human aspect in leading teams.
I spent several years at GE. After a stint at the Tetra Laval group, I eventually joined Nokia Siemens Networks, a 50/50 joint venture between the two companies. They were considering an IPO, so I was hired to do exactly that. By the time I finished my notice period, Nokia had actually decided to buy out Siemens and going public was off the table. I didn’t even know if I would have had the job a few months after being there because in the meantime Nokia sold their device and service business to Microsoft.
I was very happy and humbled that I was eventually selected to become general counsel of Nokia. That was a wonderful opportunity because of the active role I could play in the transformation of the company. Sometimes I felt that every year I worked the same amount that I would have worked in three years at GE. I learned a lot.

Business Law Magazine: Tell us a bit more about your current role at ABB?

Maria Varsellona: ABB is a fantastic company that is also going through both a cultural and a profound business transformation. We have had a new CEO since early 2020 who is driving the company’s further decentralization with more responsibility shifted to our four business areas. We have now successfully discontinued our long-standing matrix organization and moved operating activities closer to the customer. At the same time, our new operating model called “ABB Way” provides a governance framework of processes and policies, connecting the business areas and divisions to the corporate center.

Business Law Magazine: What differentiates the role of an in-house lawyer?

Maria Varsellona: I think that the most important differentiator for an in-house lawyer versus an outside counsel is to be a strategic business partner. When I talk to my team, I always try to visualize our role like a triangle. I say we need to be professionals; therefore, we need to know the laws and the regulations that are applicable to our business. If we don’t know, we must find the time to study them because we need to be able to give the answers that the business expects from us.
Second, I say we need to be gatekeepers. Sometimes the business gets excited about things and we always have to help find solutions, but there are times where we have to be able to say no. The good thing is that if you always find solutions, when you say no, the business takes you very seriously. They know it’s a real no and they follow what you’re saying.
I’m not the kind of lawyer who says, on one hand, you can do this; on the other hand, you can do that. You need to choose what you want to do. I like to choose together with the business and to be accepted at the table, you need to understand the business. You need to be a business partner. You need to understand what the drivers and the strategic objectives are. It’s dynamic. So, you need to have a clear risk map of the company.
Personally, I wish I had known these things in the very beginning of my career – it’s very important to have that understanding. So, when you get the video from the CEO who talks about strategy, don’t think that it’s a waste of time. Watch that video!

Business Law Magazine: How are things changing?

Maria Varsellona: The way we do our job will be very much influenced by the possibility to anticipate issues. Now, our customers in the field do diagnostics with data. We have to look at red flags with data, rather than just trying to resolve issues when it’s too late. That’s definitely an area where I see huge opportunities.
Due diligence is also something that will be much more digitally and data driven. I am convinced that we will be using artificial intelligence more and more as part of due diligence processes.
But it goes farther than that. At Nokia we were already reviewing current customers’ terms and conditions with machine learning tools. There are already tools in the market that highlight the deviations from your standard. So, when you are going to review the contract of your customer to align to your standards, you already find some highlighted parts where the major issues are.
Then there’s compliance. In these last couple of months, regulations have changed once or twice per week everywhere in the world. That has taken it to the next level really and, therefore, I think that regulatory as part of the integrity compliance function is going to be more and more important. The compliance function has been very, very relevant in the past years, but I think it’s going to become more and more so.

Business Law Magazine: Can you share a bit on how you reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Maria Varsellona: The last time the world saw a pandemic like COVID-19 was 100 years ago.
At ABB, we could learn a lot from the early experiences we had in China. We were monitoring the outbreak from the very start with the health and safety of our people as our most important priority. Since ABB is a provider of critical infrastructure, we could reopen our factories relatively swiftly taking into account all the necessary measures to protect our people and others. That helped us to develop a very good model that we could replicate elsewhere.
I was a member of the global taskforce that we had installed right away. We also had country taskforces that would adopt the global standards we developed. In many places our requirements were actually much more stringent than the local laws.
Our guiding principles were, first of all, we wanted to keep our employees safe. Second, we wanted to ensure business continuity. We had to continue to provide our technologies not only for our customers, but also for the communities in which we live, because people need critical infrastructures such as electricity.
It was a major challenge for my team, but it has had some surprising rewards for the legal department– greater visibility in the company, a stronger sense of mission, and a more visible seat at the executive table. ß

Editor`s note: Below are a few avenues to help you develop your leadership skills:
Check out the ACC Leadership Skills Collection, a curated selection of resources, including 10 Skills Today’s In-house Counsel Need, and Leveraging Trust in Times of Crisis: Practical Tips for Chief Legal Officers
To connect and share with other law department leaders on these key topics, exchange with your peers through the ACC Law Department Management Network. The Network is open to all ACC members.
Explore ACC’s online educational programs on leadership.

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