From Canada to the world

When Riccardo Trecroce went in-house for the first time, he didn’t expect to become chief executive officer — a role that prepared him for his current job at one of the world’s most diversified automotive suppliers.
Trecroce, now vice president and general counsel for North America with Magna International Inc. in Aurora, Ont., which designs, develops, and manufactures automotive systems, learned throughout his career how to negotiate conflict and work with teams from other parts of the world.

When he took on his previous job as general counsel at Patheon Inc. in 2000, the Canadian pharmaceutical manufacturer was acquiring plants at the rate of almost one per year in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. But when the company acquired a major competitor, it took on a lot of debt; then things didn’t go as planned. There were also some unexpected management changes, leaving the company without a CEO at a critical time, so the board of directors asked Trecroce to step in as interim CEO.

Over 18 months, Trecroce led a reorganization and refinancing of Patheon. But in 2008, he decided it made sense to move on when the company looked for a CEO, and for the first time in his life he found himself unemployed. He considered his options: move back into private practice or set up his own firm.

It wasn’t long, however, before another opportunity came his way to join Magna as vice president and general counsel for North America, with responsibility for South America and Asia. His interest was piqued: Magna is a global company with 275 manufacturing plants and 84 product development, engineering, and sales centres in 26 countries on five continents. Of its 104,000 employees, Magna has about 40 lawyers around the world; some work within corporate offices, and some work within operating groups aligned to specializations. “For a global company like Magna, you need to be both global and local,” says Trecroce. “You need to have global policies and procedures and cultural values that apply throughout the organization, but they need to be adapted to the local rules, laws, cultural practices, and norms.”

He believes the best way to do that is to work with highly experienced lawyers in other countries who not only speak the language, but be an ambassador between the corporate office and operating groups that are several thousand miles away.

An average day for Trecroce could involve developing policies and procedures, hiring lawyers in other parts of the world, managing a staff of about 20 at the corporate office, and providing advice to executives. He also acts as a sounding board for colleagues in Mexico, South America, and China. “Finding ways for all of us to communicate together effectively is a big challenge,” he says. If you have a conference call at 10 a.m. in Toronto, for example, it’s 10 p.m. in China.

Another challenge is that a policy or procedure that makes sense from a North American perspective often requires a fair amount of adaptation as it’s rolled out into Europe, South America, and Asia. “Rules are different — privacy laws or employment law matters or other laws you’re not necessarily aware of, or even cultural practices,” says Trecroce.

Sometimes, when the corporate office sends out a draft policy, they find out it’s not permitted by virtue of a particular privacy directive from the European Union or an employment law in China. The exercise then becomes about finding a balance and ensuring local autonomy and respect for cultural and legal differences.“

They’re 5,000 miles away and they need to do what they need to do on their own for the most part,” says Trecroce. “It’s impossible to micromanage by telephone and e-mail across thousands of miles, so the key is to find the right people, make sure they’re highly qualified, highly ethical, and independent minded — able to work very much independently but know when to come back for support.” A specific area of focus for Trecroce is business ethics. “In China or other parts of Asia they may have a different approach to gift-giving, and one of my colleagues is developing a guideline to help our business people understand what is appropriate from our code of conduct in the context of gift-giving in countries where the cultural norms are different,” says Trecroce. “How do we ensure that we’re being culturally sensitive but at the same time ensuring we’re not perceived to be manipulating the decision-makers of a customer, supplier, or government official.”

Trecroce earned his law degree from McGill University in Montreal, and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Concordia University. Originally, he thought he wanted to be a litigation lawyer. In 1981, he moved to Alberta to article with Edmonton-based Parlee McLaws LLP and practised there for three years. During that time, he made a discovery: as he was working on a file that had dragged on for 14 years, he wondered why someone hadn’t already resolved the dispute. “I realized I wasn’t well suited for litigation and litigation wasn’t well suited for me because I didn’t enjoy the adversarial process,” says Trecroce. “I learned  I was more of a dispute-resolution person.” He moved into the corporate department, where he found resolutions to standing issues.

At that point, he decided to move to Toronto and joined Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP for about 15 years, mostly doing corporate and M&A work. At FMC, he had the opportunity to interact with general counsel outside Canada, since many of his clients were international. In 2000, he moved in-house for the first time as general counsel with Patheon.

“I was their first lawyer,” says Trecroce. “I got to establish a law department — they didn’t even have a filing system when I arrived. It was very different from being in a big downtown law firm where people deliver coffee in nice china to working at a plant. Our corporate offices at the time were right beside the plant and it was roll-up-your-sleeves and start building a department.”

The experience at Patheon building a law department from scratch to nine lawyers in the Americas and Europe, and then moving on to become CEO — suited his personality far more than litigation.

At Magna, his job is focused on helping colleagues work through business issues, and that’s what he enjoys doing. “I’m talking to people around the world all the time,” says Trecroce. “It’s intellectually stimulating, and every day is different from the other.”

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