As the role of the in-house counsel evolves, practitioners are increasingly expected to look beyond their skill set to demonstrate an ability to think strategically for the benefit of the broader organisation.
For 2014, in-house lawyers are looking to work with increased business savvy and strategic-thinking skills that the position requires.
In a chat with THEODORA KIO-LAWSON, Head of Legal and Company Secretary of the Silverbird Group, ADEFUNKE ADEYEYE, speaks of the skills that brought her to her current position, the developing role of the corporate lawyer, and how she thrives in an ever-changing legal environment.
Adefunke’s chronicle, progress and daily achievements as head of one of Africa’s leading media and entertainment companies, is directly linked to the daily challenges of the business itself. Today this young and dynamic professional has built a legal team, focused on expanding the business across and beyond the borders of West Africa “with the help of a supportive board,” she never fails to add.
The success story of the Silverbird group began over thirty-four years ago when Ben Murray Bruce founded the Silverbird group with the support of his brothers, Roy Murray Bruce (as Group President) and Guy Murray Bruce (as Group Vice President).
Among its early successes were its highly renowned pageants such as ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria’ pageant. Today the Group’s interests encompass digital and broadcast media, event and concert promotions, film distribution and real estate. The Group pioneered the Cineplex concept in Nigeria and now operates a number of retail malls around the country, making it one of the country’s retail real estate operators.
Moving from an event production company to become one to Africa’s leading Media and Entertainment Company today. In 2009, the group established a full-fledged in-house legal department with Adefunke Adeyeye as the Group’s first in-house lawyer. At this time, the company’s legal needs had become more sophisticated and a new approach was necessary to facilitate the growth required.
When asked about her appointment at the Silverbird Group, Ms. Adeyeye, who has worked and gathered private practice experience from top commercial and litigation firms, Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor and Segun (ACAS) and George Etomi and Partners (GEP), and a stint as Administrator of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Section on Business Law (SBL) gave some insight as to her in-house move.
“Although I started my career in private practice,” she explains, “I was intrigued by the opportunities an in-house role presented. I was always interested in learning more about the commercial drivers behind transactions.”
Prior to Adefunke’s arrival, the group had relied entirely on external counsel for all its legal needs.
She speaks of this development, “My appointment was intended to help instil a refreshing new approach, and I was charged with building an in-house legal team and functions to ensure the external advice we were getting was cost effective.”
To build a competent in-house legal team, the young and dynamic Chief legal officer had to first explore and put in place legal mechanisms and provisions that simply didn’t exist before.
She explains, “When I first arrived, the business was defined by its creative thinking and a good number of the staff had never had any formal dealings with commercial lawyers and probably didn’t see the need to. I found myself as the only lawyer in a company of over a thousand people, so it was imperative that they understood my role. This was my first task.”
This first assignment took Adefunke on a discovery voyage, learning the nuances of the business and the dynamics of key people in each business division. She tells of an interesting journey that has led her to where she stands today, in the business and in the legal industry.
“I was fortunate to have strong support from the Board” she admits, “which proved significant in helping to move things forward and to begin to push through change. Almost five years on, and we have a strong team of highly competent lawyers to taking the business to the next level.”
Silverbird today, is however a different business to that which Adefunke first joined. With the focus on the retail and cinema sector now a defining aspect of the company brand. The Galleria in Lagos which was Nigeria’s first-ever high-end retail mall, has in recent years acted as the springboard for further expansion across Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.
Alongside the Galleria, Silverbird now operates major mixed retail/cinema malls in the Nigerian capital Abuja, Port-Harcourt, and have a management agreement with the Government of Akwa-Ibom State. The Ibom Tropicana in Uyo will incorporate a retail mall, six-screen cineplex, five star Hyatt hotel, conference centre and Nigeria’s first water theme park.
The Group’s expansion into Port-Harcourt, Bayelsa and Uyo has involved considerable involvement with the regional governments and the utilisation of management structures akin to public-private partnerships, while international expansion has meant having to transpose local legal and business concepts.
Shedding more light on this growth, Funke explains, “a key aspect of what we now do is manage and develop retail malls, but which also act as platforms for our other business lines such as convention and exhibition centres and multi-screen cinemas – Silverbird currently operates around 60 screens which makes us the biggest cinema operator in West Africa.”
“Silverbird Cinemas remain the only cinema exhibitor in Accra. We started operations at the Accra mall in 2009 and will open two more sites at Weija and Westhills in 2013 and 2015 respectively,” she adds.
According to the Head of Legal, this expansion has been driven by rising consumer spending and demand across West Africa but also the arrival of new international real estate development funds, which meant greater competition for top-end sites particularly in Lagos.
“We are looking to expand our footprint and to outmanoeuvre any current or potential competitors. The strategy being followed is expansive but it is also very considered and reflects Africa’s changing demand and demographics,” she explains.
This expansion strategy of the Silverbird Group has indeed provided challenges and of course opportunities for Funke and her legal team, as she admits in this chat. She notes the Significance of the Group’s forays outside Nigeria to the development of the in-house legal team and ultimately, the business.
On cross-border businesses and doing business outside the shores of Nigeria, Ms. Adeyeye notes, “Ghana has proved to be our most successful international market which reflects the relative proximity and similarities with Nigeria. From a commercial perspective the two countries are similar in scope and demand while for us lawyers the respective legal systems have shared roots in the English common law system.”
“Like other major African companies, we are looking for new growth across the continent and we continue to look at markets similar to ours.”
Even so, she notes the dangers of imposing a country’s legal system on another. In Ghana Silverbird operates its Cinema and Lifestyle store brands but where it has chosen to partner with local company Global Media Alliance.
Highlighting the benefits local teams, she explains that the option is a tremendous help for greater understanding of local norms and demands. “Nuances always exist and this structure is now typical of our approach to new territories,”
The Silverbird legal team continues to ensure that the company’s risks in these cross-border businesses are brought to the barest minimum. “As a lawyer you do not want to be perceived as one who says ‘no’ to every venture and everything. We would rather be perceived as facilitators albeit with a focus on helping to drive the business forward sustainably.”
Thankfully, we have a Board that understands and relies on the counsel of its legal team – which is usually reached after proper scrutiny and due diligence has been carried out.”
On the evolving legal environment and the diversification of the Silverbird Group, Ms. Adeyeye has had to reassess how the legal team manages changing needs and the relevance of its own expertise, with the continuous expansion of international footprint. They continue to respond to a constant flow of regulatory, licensing and day-to-day commercial needs.
She notes however that the in-house team still relies on external expertise for domestic IP and litigation work.
“Even in a legal market as sophisticated as Nigeria’s, there have been relatively few entertainment experts until recently. So we have focused on developing core skills; we have developed our own standard agreements and learned to pool our expertise, and when we do retain external counsel we always try to understand the process as much as we can.”
One of our better victories, is the fact that with time, we have discovered that our prospective business partners prefer to work with our in-house lawyers rather than an external legal team, as they that we are intimately connected to the business and that we would focus on the key objectives of company before anything else (with less focus on legal fees and the likes). That notwithstanding, the approach has been cost-effective in terms of potential external legal fees.”
On a final note, Adefunke points out, “It is not entirely easy to build a legal team from nothing, but the value of an in-house lawyer is directly connected to how well you understand your business and its goals. The role of a legal team is not to make decisions concerning the business, but to offer the company very informed choices.”