As chief counsel for Rio Tinto Alcan, Vincent Kou oversees the company’s legal affairs across Asia, from China to India. He’s come a long way since he fled Cambodia at the age of nine with his mother to escape the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime — a regime in which social engineering and mass genocide wiped out one-third of the country’s population during the 1970s.
Mother and son arrived in Canada as refugees in the early 1980s and built a new life for themselves in Témiscaming in northern Quebec. “All I knew was I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Kou. “What type of lawyer I wasn’t sure of yet.” With a keen interest in history, politics, and literature, Kou attended law school at the University of Sherbrooke and was called to the Quebec bar in 1997. He articled at the Quebec Securities Commission with a focus on securities law, then landed a job with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP where he worked for two years.
After moving to Canada, he never left the country, yet in the late ’90s he recognized China was becoming a more important player on the global stage. “I realized that we had a lot of good securities lawyers in the firm and in the country, but something was missing as China became more important,” says Kou. “We didn’t have a lot of Canadian lawyers with the knowledge of the Asian business world.” So he decided to go to China to bring that expertise back to Canada.
Kou had a unique advantage — born to Chinese parents in Cambodia, he grew up speaking several languages. At home he learned Mandarin, Cantonese, and a local Chinese dialect, in addition to Khmer (the language of Cambodia). In Quebec, he grew up in a French-speaking environment and later honed his English in the business world. His wife is from Taiwan — he met her in Montreal — so at home the language of choice is Mandarin. “I grew up in a six-language environment, which eventually opened doors for me.” It’s facilitated working in Asia, where he has been for more than eight years.
Last year, for example, “I was in Africa in a French-speaking country where they didn’t speak English, and the Chinese didn’t speak English or French and other colleagues only spoke English, so after three days I was completely exhausted,” he says. “But it’s opened the door to a very interesting international career — in one hour I can switch to three languages. . . . That’s what drives me every day doing exciting work with different cultures and languages and types of challenges as a result of these differences.”
When he decided to move to China, Kou arranged to spend two years working in Shanghai for Bull Housser & Tupper LLP, a Vancouver-based law firm, on joint ventures, acquisitions, and divestitures. During that time, he developed an understanding of his Chinese partners and was able to act as an interface between the western and Chinese businesses.
After two years in Shanghai, he returned to Montreal and joined Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP. Then a group of partners decided to found the Montreal office of Donahue Ernst & Young LLP. Kou was an obvious fit for its global mandate, but the firm didn’t survive. That led him to Alcan Inc. in Montreal in 2003. “We were working on a major investment from a major Canadian company in China,” he says. His role involved negotiating and structuring joint ventures in China, close to the Mongolian border, where the company had invested in an aluminum smelting company. After 12 months of working on the transaction with the minister of commerce in Beijing, the deal closed and Kou was relocated to Beijing to head several different initiatives for Alcan in China.
It was a time of great change at Alcan. That year the company bought a major French aluminum company called Pechiney, following on the heels of a previous purchase, the Alusuisse Lonza Group Ltd. Alcan inherited its downstream businesses in China, including 10 manufacturing plants with more than 4,000 employees. “Suddenly the world became quite interesting for me.” Not only did he act as the director of legal services, he was also the corporate representative of Alcan in China with a mandate to set up its corporate platform in Beijing. As part of this mandate, he grouped different corporate functions under the same office to support the growing business in China.
But the Beijing office was not sufficiently equipped to serve the growing needs of the business, so Kou was mandated to structure Alcan’s regional headquarters in Asia out of Shanghai, where he worked until Alcan was acquired by Rio Tinto in late 2007. Following the integration of Alcan and Rio Tinto, Kou was assigned to Singapore, which has the advantage of being close to two major markets — China and India.
His current role as chief counsel for Asia includes covering Rio Tinto Alcan and all other Rio Tinto businesses based in Singapore. Currently, he is the company’s only lawyer in Singapore (he works with outside counsel, typically local law firms), though the company is looking to build a legal team there.
But covering emerging markets comes with risk. “I’ve learned over the years to live with uncertainty and be able to identify the real risk — otherwise you become a constraint to the business,” says Kou. “If you look at risk from a traditional way in the western business world, it’s very difficult doing business in Asia. It’s not about eliminating risk but understanding the risk and mitigating it, and that’s probably the best way to survive and compete in the Asian market.” It also takes patience, since the business environment in countries like China can be ambiguous and contradictory. But Kou is up for the task and it’s part of the job he enjoys — since his colleagues see him not only as legal counsel, but also as a business partner.
“To be able to support the business and help them achieve their objectives, that drives me the most in my day-to-day work,” says Kou. “They trust you not just as legal counsel — they trust you because you know China, you know India, you know Indonesia and Thailand. It makes the work much more interesting to be able to contribute more than just the legal aspects.”