This month, we sit down with Nadine Maurellet, general counsel, The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, best known for its Peninsula hotel brand, as she talks about the importance of communication, the ability to work with a diverse range of people as an in-house counsel and the challenges facing the hospitality industry.
After obtaining her law degree from Cambridge University in the UK, she trained at Linklaters in London, Shanghai and Hong Kong before joining its Hong Kong and China offices, as a member of the firm’s China practice group. At the time, China had just joined the WTO and she worked mainly on in-bound foreign investments into China . After gaining Hong Kong corporate finance exposure at Morrison & Foerster, she took a career break and joined Hutchison Whampoa as Group Legal Counsel working on M&A. But it was at The HongKong and Shanghai Hotels that she found she could combine her passions for the law and the hospitality industry. She has been with the company for 11 years. What drew her to the hospitality industry is the process of creating beautiful trophy assets around the world and being part of the team to make it happen from start to finish. “I made a conscious decision not to work in the financial industry but to work for a local corporate with an international footprint,” says Maurellet. “I love seeing meticulous craftsmanship and hotels are very special places for local communities. People always tell me about their special moments at the Peninsula when they know I work for the Peninsula Group.”
Working at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels
Since she joined the company in 2006, she has been promoted from legal counsel to senior legal counsel to general counsel. She manages a legal team of four lawyers and also acts as the secretary of the group’s management board, where she is given the opportunity to provide input on the company’s business and project needs, compliance, and risk management issues. “It gives me a view of the business as a whole and also acts as a window for me to understand how top level executives operate,” says Maurellet.
Navigating through foreign territory
As a project owner for one of Peninsula’s hotel developments, a restoration project in Yangon, Myanmar, on the site of the former headquarters of the Burma Railway Company, she finds that she acts as the “glue of the project”. Her involvement has tested her skills at building the relationships needed to secure land, overseeing the construction of the project and navigating the developing legal landscape in Myanmar.
“With the regime change, the Myanmar government is still young and in a process of learning how to govern and improve the livelihoods of its people, building needed infrastructure for its people and new investment projects, and enacting laws and regulations to achieve these objectives,” says Maurellet. “In the implementation of the project, it means working with different government authorities, establishing training opportunities in the face of a shortage of skilled labour, identifying local craftsmen and expertise while sourcing materials and salvaging as much heritage materials as possible for our hotel project.”
While the Yangon project takes her to Myanmar once a month, Maurellet also oversees the group’s legal matters around the world. A large part of her time is spent on meeting ever-changing compliance requirements in different countries so that one set of policies can apply to the group’s global operations and can be taught to staff members in different parts of the world through bespoke e-learning programmes. Data privacy and cybersecurity has been on the company’s radar for the past few years as the group’s ownership of hotels, properties and clubs means it collects a lot of personal data. More competition issues have also arisen in light of active competition authorities around the world.
Essentials for in-house counsel: teamwork and communication
For Maurellet, a large part of her role involves working with representatives from different business units to craft solutions that will address business needs, and easy for operations to understand and implement. “People with different backgrounds require different communication styles to get their attention, so a communication piece addressed to a marketing executive will be quite different from one addressed to the CFO” says Maurellet. Issues crop up from different departments within the various arms of the business, from hotels, commercial property, clubs to merchandising. Maurellet has immersed herself into the business by cross-exposing across departments such as housekeeping, front office, guest relations, food and beverage, security, and engineering in order to understand the business, company culture, and daily pressures of her colleagues.
Sometimes, it means educating herself first on legal systems which are completely foreign to common law legal systems, such as civil law systems in France, China and Turkey, different state and federal rules in the US and in emerging economies such as Vietnam and Myanmar. It means building rapport with local partners and anticipating what new laws are coming out. “It gives me the opportunity to always learn and grow as a lawyer. On the other hand, having the project management experience of working with people from different disciplines is immensely rewarding,” explains Maurellet. “It means working with architects and structural engineers to come up with solutions that may have implications on the project budget and project completion.”
The company’s projects at times involve joint ventures and it is important to know what the parties’ aspirations are and how they translate to matters involving building and service standards. “It’s a marriage between organisations with different DNAs and having to find common ground and manage expectations,” explains Maurellet. “Working as an in-house counsel doesn’t mean better work life balance, it means that matters stay with you unless they are fully resolved and you have to exercise good judgment at all times.”
Looking ahead, Maurellet believes the hospitality industry is faced with new and possibly disruptive challenges such as online accommodation aggregators and online travel agents. “It means keeping up with business trends and its disruptors,” says Maurellet. “The evolution is on-going in the industry and there are legal implications with big data, digitisation, mobile payments, and the challenge of the millennial demographic from both the demand and supply side.”
The role of an in-house counsel has evolved from one that is purely legal to one that is seen and resourced as a business partner. Increasingly, in-house counsels are expected to review the business case in addition to legal and compliance solutions. “Project management skills, the ability to think ahead of the game and evolve with the business and problem-solving: these are the skills for aspiring in-house counsels,” says Maurellet.