Charles Claeys – An in-house partnership with Autogrill Belgium

Charles Claeys – An in-house partnership with Autogrill Belgium

4 years ago, Charles Claeys of Monard Law was given the unique opportunity to become the legal point of contact for Autogrill. He has since developed a strong relationship with the company.

Charles gives you a behind the scenes look at his life as a lawyer at Monard Law and how he guides Autogrill Belgium through an in-house collaboration.

Hello Charles. First tell us what your customer Autogrill does.

Well, Autogrill Belgium is a subsidiary of the Italian listed company Autogrill. Autogrill is a global player in catering activities for passengers on the move.

Passengers on the move is a trendy name for people in metro stations, highways, airports, etc. who stop to buy a quick bite or drink.

Many food & beverage concepts that you see at these locations are operated by Autogrill. This is sometimes done through own brands, but even more often through franchises.

This actually makes Autogrill an invisible giant: the company is represented throughout society, but you rarely realize that you are in one of their stores.

“By working weekly in-house at Autogrill, I can really unburden them”

How big is Autogrill Belgium approximately?

Before the Covid19 crisis, Autogrill Belgium had a consolidated annual turnover of 150 million euros and about 700 employees. So you can say that it is quite a large organization.

Describe what your main tasks are for Autogrill.

In the first place I help Autogrill with their corporate housekeeping. I assist them in everything that has to do with corporate law and administrative-legal obligations.

Organizing the annual meeting (convocation letters, minutes, reports, explaining legal issues to the shareholder…) and board meetings are just a few examples.

The listed nature of the parent company also entails special compliance obligations.

In addition, I give advice to Autogrill about

  • Negotiations;
  • Entering into and executing commercial partnership agreements with suppliers, grantors, governments and franchisors;
  • Their compliance with the economic judicial rules in our country

Finally, I also act as a point of contact for questions that other lawyers at Monard Law have to deal with within another branch of law.

When did you start working in-house for Autogrill?

Since 1997, Autogrill has been working with Tom Messiaen (partner Monard Law) for all possible employment law challenges.

However, Autogrill needed legal guidance almost weekly in many other cases and so I got the opportunity to assist them in their legal workload. And because their questions are so diverse, Monard Law (and our many expertises on board) was an ideal match.

Do you often work at Autogrill?

Every week I can be found at their head office in Antwerp or at Brussels airport (where the main activities take place). I’ve been doing that for 4 years now.

I try to be present at Autogrill on fixed days so that everyone can ask their questions without losing a lot of time.

And while I spend a lot of time at Autogrill, at the end of the day I’m still a lawyer at Monard Law.

“An in-house collaboration is a completely different experience than a typical collaboration between client and lawyer, but that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Are you the only lawyer at Autogrill or are there other colleagues?

At Autogrill Belgium I am the only lawyer. But at the head office in Milan there are of course other lawyers with whom I have a lot of contact.

We speak English among ourselves as my Italian grammar is limited to ciao and va bene (laughs).

What makes a collaboration interesting for you?

You have a typical collaboration between client and lawyer, and you work in-house. Those are 2 completely different worlds.

In a typical collaboration, lawyers are often consulted after some escalation has occurred (just think of dispute files). And then there is the threshold that some companies experience before calling a lawyer.

This is different with our customer Autogrill. Since I am in their office every week, I am more involved at Autogrill in the commercial aspect of business operations.

I am asked to proactively think along and contribute from a legal point of view to the realization of a project. That immediately makes it more personal and interesting for me.

“Every week I can be found at the various offices of Autogrill so that everyone knows me and can talk to me”

How do you still work with other colleagues at Monard Law?

If the client has questions outside of my specialization, I communicate directly with my colleagues at Monard Law. If an issue arises in the area of eg. GDPR, I can immediately call on our specialized team within Monard Law.

Is it advantageous for Autogrill to work together with the other specializations within Monard Law?

Absolutely, as a corporate lawyer you cannot do everything yourself. That is not necessary. In any case, you will have to work with lawyers to ask for certain advice. And I do that on a frequent basis with my colleagues at Monard Law.

“I always like to fit something in for Autogrill.”

Suppose Autogrill has an urgent question, are you available?

If you work somewhere weekly for 4 years, you also build a relationship with the people at that workplace.

The directors of the company have my personal contact details and they know they can call me at any time.

I have already gained a lot of experience in the F&B sector in which Autogrill is active. So I know what is needed and then I switch faster.

Are you actually a full-fledged colleague at Autogrill?

There is a difference. I will always remain a lawyer and everyone at Autogrill knows that as well as the third parties with whom business is done.

I am not a salaried company lawyer and that should be very clear. Personally, I find it very important because I have to be able to give advice independently of the company.

Are there any challenges to working together in such a way?

In my opinion, the client mainly benefits from entering into such a partnership with Monard Law.

The challenge for me personally is to combine the work of Autogrill with the work for my other customers and to get it done within 7 days.

“Time management? I have become a real crack at that (wink).”

Are there regularly last-minute issues at Autogrill that you need to solve right away?

Sometimes there is quite a bit of pressure. For example, when preparing the annual accounts and organizing the annual meeting. That is always a lot of conversation between the stakeholders involved.

Covid-19 has also had a huge impact on the F&B sector. For example, as a catering company, Autogrill has had to contend with Covid19-related files.

But in the end, this pressure is periodic, for example, there are busy periods in the summer because more passengers are traveling around.

Is there anything else you learned while working with Autogrill?

As a lawyer you tend to go in a certain direction very quickly and to specialize in it. For example, Monard Law receives various cases that you can outsource to the team or that you handle yourself if the case is within your domain.

A good in-house lawyer, on the other hand, must be present in the company and in constant contact with senior management.

This makes an in-house lawyer very valuable: he knows the sector and the objectives of the company and at the same time he can monitor compliance with the law (and call on a specialized lawyer where necessary).

I quickly came to the conclusion that the job of a corporate lawyer is very different from that of a traditional lawyer. Both are, in my opinion, necessary for an entrepreneur.

“Autogrill’s legal questions are extremely diverse. And yet they can always come to me: as a lawyer or as a referral to a fellow lawyer.”

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