Making life long learning a priority in-house

Becoming a lawyer wasn’t remotely on Fernando Garcia’s radar in high school. In fact, his story could be an inspiration to any young person who struggles in school and thinks a career in law is beyond their grasp.

“As a kid, I really didn’t have set goals or expectations. I had a lot of trouble in school. It started off initially when I entered elementary school having to learn English and French and because of where my school was situated, a little Italian too,” says Garcia, who is general counsel, privacy officer and corporate secretary with Navistar Canada Inc. based in Burlington, Ont. (formerly International Truck and Engine Corp. Canada).

Today, Garcia is a booster of continuing education at all ages, no matter how successful one is in their career. He’s in the second year of a three-year part-time Master of Business Administration program at Wilfrid Laurier University (Toronto location) and has his eye on learning another language. He believes it is part of staying current and in-demand.

In his role at Navistar, which he has been in for almost five years, Garcia reports to an associate general counsel with the company who is based in the U.S., but has full responsibility for all Canadian matters.

As the only in-house counsel in the Canadian legal department he is responsible for all areas of law that impact the company in Canada. That means dealing with everything from drafting and reviewing dealership agreements, commercial agreements, freedom of information requests, and procurement matters such as responding to requests for proposals, to commercial disputes and product litigation management.

The legal work he sends outside his department is limited to litigation files or specialized tax and customs matters. In those cases he tries to focus on the legal issues and then work with outside counsel. “For litigation, I take on a role of litigation manager and make sure everything is heading in a strategic way that meets the company’s needs and objectives,” says Garcia. “We want to be sure there are no adverse impacts on other areas of our business arising from the stance we are taking, and obtaining the necessary litigation support internally to assist our external counsel in handling the matter.”

Early years were challenging
Garcia came to Canada from Uruguay with his family when he was nine years old. “Being new to one language is hard enough but trying to learn three languages was an obstacle big enough to turn me off school. I was not the best student. Even through my high school years I did a lot of moving around to different schools.”

He grew up in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto and his high school average was in the low 60s but he loved the culture of his school. “My course grades weren’t that great but I got to interact with students from so many different cultures and that was key learning for me. I had my own interests that allowed me to learn even when I didn’t find the curriculum engaging.”

Garcia met his wife Griselda after graduation and she inspired him to pursue higher learning. She wanted to be an engineer and he saw her working hard to achieve that goal. He took a labour studies course at McMaster University and started looking at law as an option. He joined the McMaster pre-law society and applied to a few law schools in the U.S. “It’s certainly an eye opening experience when they send you documents in which your parents have to put a second mortgage on your house in order to apply. It wasn’t for me.”
He applied to the Master of Industrial Relations program at the University of Toronto and was accepted with an Ontario graduate scholarship. After obtaining the MIR he got a job working summers at Ontario Power Generation and worked with a range of lawyers and started thinking about law again.

Law school with business in mind
Garcia applied and was accepted to McGill University’s law school. He was a summer student and articled at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP in Toronto where he worked with “some top notch lawyers and mentors.”

He was debating whether to continue his law career in a firm or go in-house when an opportunity came up to work with a former client when the labour relations manager at the company became ill and they needed someone to take over. He took a six month contract as the labour relations manager for what was then International Truck and Engine Corp.

He later joined Dunsmore Law as an associate when one of his mentors, Ross Dunsmore, left Hicks Morley to start his own boutique practice.

In 2008, when the general counsel at International Truck and Engine Corp. retired, stepping into that role looked like the next logical step.
Navistar has a large legal team in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil, and Garcia has been able to work with them on certain issues. “They are very much hands off but they are also good at directing in terms of where we need to be going.”

The challenges of industry
Recently Navistar has struggled to contain the costs of developing a new type of diesel engine for heavy trucks. It has also been facing pressure from investors.
However, through challenges come opportunities, says Garcia. “This has happened before when we faced challenges in the U.S. in 2008 all of a sudden opportunities arose. The company started diversifying and got into the military market and a new segment of the company opened up. We’ve gone through challenges before and we’re starting to see some diversificiation again.”

Here in Canada Garcia is managing expectations of the company’s dealer network. “Obviously they have concerns — they read the newspapers too, so I’m reassuring them and lining up other opportunities such as becoming control goods registered so that if they get military contracts they can take part in that.”

When it comes to his MBA studies, Garcia says he already sees the benefits of the program.
“It makes you think differently. It gives you some new tools to work with as well. I think the more you can develop yourself and improve yourself the better off you are. I think there’s always an opportunity to develop yourself. I tell my children, ‘Look, I’m still in school’.”

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