Vishal Puri – legal director (United Kingdom) at CEMEX – on the challenges of working in-house, driving team progression and having the support of a Board

Vishal, can you summarise your career to date?
I qualified in 2001 in the corporate and commercial department of a medium sized law firm in Reading. I then joined DHL in 2004 as commercial counsel where I stayed for three years before arriving at CEMEX. I started here as a commercial solicitor, then I became head of corporate and commercial law and was promoted to legal director in August 2015. I am now also company secretary of all the main CEMEX operating companies in the UK.

What does CEMEX do?
Headquartered in Mexico, CEMEX was founded in 1906 and has grown from a small local player into one of the top global companies in the world. Following a number of successful acquisitions, CEMEX now has more than 40,000 employees worldwide and has a turnover of around US $15 billion. In the UK, CEMEX generates around £775 million in annual sales. In addition to ready-mixed concrete, cement and aggregates we also supply and install asphalt materials, manufacture concrete block pavings, rail products, bespoke pre-cast and concrete blocks. We operate a comprehensive national supply network to ensure that quality materials and services are available to customers locally.

How is the legal department set up?
I lead the corporate and commercial function (which is a very broad remit as any in-house lawyer will tell you!), undertake some compliance responsibilities and run the department alongside my co-director who looks after all litigious and property matters. An assistant solicitor and an assistant company secretary both report to me and we also have a real estate lawyer. We also have one full time and two part-time secretaries and a paralegal. We’re a tight – but busy – team!

What sort of work do you get involved with?
My team’s work centres around high value commercial contracts, asset divestments and acquisitions, outsourcing, financing, corporate restructuring and company secretarial advice. As we are a global company my work frequently has an international angle because the transactions that we carry out here will impact on other jurisdictions and vice versa. We have some very capable lawyers working in our global offices and I deal with them on a frequent basis in order to move deals forward. I also deal with compliance matters such as leading CEMEX´s application to the Financial Conduct Authority (something which I spoke about at the 2015 Global Legal Confex) and preparing the business for the Modern Slavery Act. I share responsibility with my co-Director on other equally important regulatory matters such as competition and anti-bribery compliance.

In your view, how does an industry lawyer add value?
Good instincts and common sense are critical as well as being able to distil sometimes lengthy and complicated legal analysis into tailored and relevant advice and communicate this using a suitable medium. Also, knowing the typical life-cycle of a transaction is important so one can anticipate quite early on as to what is coming down the line along with potential pitfalls; this insight is invaluable to my commercial colleagues; finally, garnering sufficient confidence so that the business sees you as a genuine strategic partner as opposed to someone who just reviews contracts.

How does/ is it evolving?
I speak to my colleagues in other in-house teams and one thing we all agree on is that we are constantly being required to push the boundaries of our comfort zone. The legal and regulatory environment is constantly changing and it is a challenge staying on top of this with increasingly limited resources. Added to this, I am now finding it necessary to get to grips with non-legal areas particularly accounting and taxation because more often than not there is a key financial metric behind the structure of every transaction and it is imperative we understand this.- I actually keep an Idiots Guide to Accounting by my desk!

How do you keep the profile of the legal team up?
As lawyers we need to be versatile not only in the range of work that we do but our ability to communicate this across the whole spectrum of our diverse workforce for some of whom English is not their first language. This means that I am constantly looking for new and innovative ways of maintaining a prominent profile within the business to ensure that everyone is aware of what we do and how we can help them.

With that in mind, I have undertaken a pet project to establish a prominent position on our Intranet; CEMEX Shift. Through the use of Wiki's, blogs and other tools we now frequently communicate with the business by providing case and legislation updates as well as flagging changes that are on the horizon. In time, we will also put some legal precedents on there so that our commercial colleagues can work on a first draft before sending to us for refinement.

Has anything helped you during your career to progress & grow as a lawyer?
I have had some superb mentors throughout my career and I value the benefit that their guidance and support has given me over the years. Accordingly, I try to support those working for me in the same way through regular one-to-one sessions where we assess an individual’s goals and then work out how they can be achieved. I also encourage the team to get out to site as often as possible to ensure that we always have a good understanding of our operations. This is invaluable when negotiating deals and means that lawyers have a more rounded experience which keeps them engaged-which is a key priority for CEMEX.

What makes your job easier?
I frequently report at board meetings and thankfully we have a very supportive senior management. Having a Board that is "on-side" cannot be under-estimated!