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Corporate Counsel Q&A: Franchise

Who’s Who Legal interviews Stathis Mihos, recently appointed legal director for Greece and Cyprus at Carrefour, the world’s second largest retailer about the challenges of taking on a new position as corporate counsel and the challenges of working through the Eurozone crisis.

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Name: Stathis Mihos

Position: Legal Director

Company: Carrefour, Greece

Sector: Retail

Number of employees: 13 300

Established in France in 1959 and a pioneer of the hypermarket, Carrefour is now one of the world’s leading retailers with operations in 32 countries spanning Europe, Asia and Latin America. Despite the company’s expansion, its core market and main priority remains France, which accounted for over 40 per cent of the company’s net sales in 2011.

Stathis Mihos recently made the move to Carrefour from Hellenic Fuels (formerly BP Hellas) where he was legal manager for over five years. His past in-house experience includes a five-year stint as the legal manager for the Greek affiliate of Lafarge, the building materials company. On making the switch to the retail industry from the oil sector, Stathis says the first decision he had to make was whether to leave what he describes as his “comfort zone”. Taking on the role of legal director for Greece of Europe’s largest retailer, Stathis has embarked on an exciting new challenge.

The retail sector has taken a blow during the economic crisis as consumers have curbed their spending and altered their shopping habits. Operating in Greece, at the heart of the Eurozone crisis, Stathis is well aware of the impact of the financial crisis on the company, commenting that the company has been “very much” affected by the Greek debt situation and as such has had to tighten its spending. However, Carrefour has taken a pragmatic approach: altering its expansion plans to reflect consumer trends, switching to smaller stores and working on lowering prices.

The crisis has also impacted the legal department of the company, resulting in a tighter budget, a heightened anticipation of potential contentious issues in contracts and an increased number of disputes.

Who’s Who Legal caught up with Stathis Mihos to find out more.

Having recently started in your new position, what challenges has this brought? What considerations did you have to make?

The first challenge I faced was to decide if it was the right time to embrace a change and make the move from what had become my comfort zone. Starting in my new position, I had to (and am still trying to, since barely four months have passed) understand the new business, its culture, the reporting lines, management, colleagues, and policies. But above all else, I have to concentrate on fulfilling my role – responding to different and demanding business needs for legal support.

Moving from the oil to the retail sector, what’s remained the same in your legal role and what has changed? What does you new role entail and what do you consider to be the most important role as in-house counsel?

My new role is not entirely different, as I was in the retail side of the oil business, but I can say that here business moves faster and the legal department, as a result, has to keep up a fast pace.

The legal department supports the business in all of its legal matters, which include, as one can imagine, a broad spectrum of issues from personnel to consumer claims to commercial leases to regulatory compliance – and any other legal issue imaginable. Territorially we support our business in Greece and Cyprus. As in-house counsel, one must provide legal services of quality, but quickly and cost-efficiently – and this is a delicate balance to achieve.

How big is the legal department?

There are four lawyers, one paralegal – and we intend to hire a trainee soon.

Tell us about any recent projects keeping your team busy.

Recent projects have included a lot of litigation matters and some corporate projects.

A major challenge we have been encountering is how to improve the relationship between the company and its external lawyers, and to improve team spirit in our in-house team.

When moving to a new company, do you maintain the relationships you have established with private practitioners or do you rely on the existing network of the new company? How much freedom is there to select new external counsel?

Our group's policy is to work on a regular basis with preferred law firms. We have, however, the freedom to work with others if we feel that this would be beneficial to the local company. Although Greece has few law firms of considerable size, there is no lack of experienced, quality lawyers.

My personal preference is to honour existing professional partnerships and relationships and draw from their experience. Although I might keep my list of tried and tested practitioners from previous positions as an ace up my sleeve.

When dealing outside your home jurisdiction, how do you find counsel?

We mainly rely upon references from local lawyers we have come to trust. We cross-check these references with information provided by specialist sites.

What is the worst habit you encounter among external advisors?

Delays in communication and unavailability, lack of feedback, and high costs that are not justified.

What challenges has working in Greece presented? Has the Eurozone crisis affected the company and the retail sector, and how has the company responded?

Very much so. The Company – as any business in Greece – tries to control costs and this affects the legal department internally and externally. We are striving for innovative, fair risk-sharing and cost-efficient fee arrangements and we have significantly moved away from the “billable hour” concept by requesting discounted rates, caps and – where possible – combined proposals with success fees.

The crisis also means increased litigation and a heightened need for well-drafted agreements that take into account worst-case scenarios.

In the "good old days" Greece was a relatively detached part of the legal landscape of Europe, but generally rewarding for the in-house practitioner. Since the crisis begun this has changed as businesses are shutting down, downsizing or otherwise facing difficult challenges. One thing is certain: we are getting richer every day in experiences!

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