To Succeed in Business, Move to Sweden

Nancy Flagg Issue 07 - Sept/ Oct 2013, Legal Leave a Comment

When he moved to Stockholm, Brown-Forman General Counsel Matthew Hamel found the secret to his success: versatility.

matthew_hamel_2_195By Nancy Flagg

What a difference a year in Sweden makes. After graduating from Yale, Matthew Hamel visited the country for a year as a Fulbright Scholar. While there, he did research on the health care system, learned the Swedish language and culture, and met his now wife. When Hamel returned to the U.S., he attended the University of Chicago Law School and then joined White & Case, an international law firm.  Although Hamel said that his year in Sweden did not help him get the job, he credits it with helping him function well in his Junior Associate role.

The International Experience Edge

As the first non-Swedish law firm to have offices in Stockholm, it was not uncommon for White & Case’s Swedish clients to come into the New York office. Because Hamel had experience with the language and culture, he often was asked to work with such clients on their legal transactions. When he was a third-year associate, Hamel was transferred to the Stockholm office and later to Warsaw, Poland.

Unlike the New York office, which required junior lawyers to find a specialty or area of expertise early in their careers, the foreign offices were smaller and needed generalists who could handle a wider variety of tasks. As a mid-level associate overseas, Hamel said that his role was to “take on whatever came in the door.”

Hamel credits his overseas office experience with developing his generalist expertise and enabling him to make a transition to in-house division General Counsel at Colgate-Palmolive.

Seven years later, Hamel became General Counsel of Factiva, a multinational joint venture between Dow Jones and Reuters. The firm sold business information online at a time when widespread use of the Internet was still expanding and the laws governing behavior on the web—in areas such as intellectual property and privacy, for example—were in the early stages of development. Just as in his previous jobs, Hamel “had to figure it out.”

Joining a Longstanding Family Company

Not long after Dow Jones bought out the Reuters interest in Factiva, Hamel joined wine and spirits producer Brown-Forman. Established in 1870 in Louisville, Kentucky, the group produced the country’s first bottled bourbon. Some of its current brands include Jack Daniel’s, Southern Comfort, and Canadian Mist. Today, a fifth-generation descendant of the founder serves as Chairman of the Board for the worldwide company, comprised of 4,120 employees.

Hamel said that in terms of responsibility levels, Brown-Forman was a logical progression in his career. He serves as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary to the Board of Directors. He was attracted to the company because he thought that the alcoholic beverage industry would offer interesting legal and management challenges.

With the firm’s average employee tenure at 14 years and a deeply ingrained culture, Hamel introduced his new ideas cautiously, testing the waters to “see how the organization reacted.” To his delight, the company was very welcoming of him and others who did not “grow up” at the company or in the industry.

Equally, Brown-Forman’s culture has rubbed off on him. For example, at Factiva, there were no seniority awards because the company’s culture did not reward “mere” longevity, Hamel said. But at Brown-Forman, the mantra is to “build forever” and the company values longevity.

“Even whisky takes seven years [to mature],” he noted.

Hamel oversees a legal department of 15 lawyers and 16 non-lawyers. The team is full of “high-functioning, sophisticated people used to running their own practice,” Hamel said. When he joined the firm, he saw his role as one of learning about alcohol beverage regulations, securities law and trademark matters, listening to the advice of those around him and helping them make connections with other lawyers in similar areas.


Unique Legal Challenges

Hamel thought that working in the beverage alcohol industry would be challenging, and he was right. The industry is heavily regulated at federal and state levels. Each of the 50 states has its own “regulatory regimes” and “remnants of prohibition,” per Hamel.

As an example, in some jurisdictions it is unlawful to park a truck with a company logo outside of a restaurant, but in other jurisdictions it is perfectly lawful. He added that a company salesperson moving between jurisdictions would have to be well aware of the differences. In another example, in Poland, advertising alcohol is forbidden; in other countries, however, a company can advertise freely.

matthew_hamel_4In addition to these legal obligations, family-owned businesses have their own unique governance issues. When Hamel arrived at Brown-Forman, he wrote letters to lawyers at other family-controlled businesses to get their input on governance issues and received “an overwhelming response.” A group of these lawyers meets regularly to discuss questions surrounding family employment and board service at a controlled company and the role of independent directors in such an organization.

matthew_hamel_5Like What You Do & Other Advice

Hamel said that he is always disappointed in the Spring when a spate of speakers at commencement ceremonies advise graduates to “Follow your heart, and do what you love.” Hamel warned that “not every day at the office is going to be great.” Young associates, in particular, are going to have to “burn the midnight oil, pay their dues, learn the trade and work holiday weekends, and they’re just not going to love it,” Hamel said. The leader does, however, advise lawyers to at least work in an area that they like, otherwise “it will get tedious pretty quickly.”

Hamel also has advice for managing teams because “it’s not something you learn at law school.” The key is to listen carefully to the team’s needs and offer opportunities to grow, including changing areas of responsibility and shifting reporting lines.  Hamel said that Brown-Forman is growing and that its people need to continue to grow as well.

“Our CEO always reminds us,” Hamel said, “that you can’t be the same person in 2020 that you were in 2010.”

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

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