In Conversation With Amit Bhasin, Chief Legal Officer And Group General Counsel, Marico Limited

Mr Bhasin began his career as a company secretary and was associated with well-governed companies like DCM Shriram Consolidated Limited, and Hindustan Unilever, before moving to Marico Limited. Coming from a compliance background and having worked as a company secretary, he has always believed that governance plays a critical role in a company’s ethos and his past experience has helped me follow this ideology.

Formative years

Mr. Bhasin, would you please take us down memory lane and share with our readers what motivated you to pursue law as a career?

My Journey as General Counsel followed an unconventional path, I began my career as a company secretary, and was associated with well-governed companies like DCM Shriram Consolidated Limited, Hindustan Unilever, before moving to Marico Limited. Coming from a compliance background and having worked as a company secretary, I have always believe that governance play a critical role  in a company’s ethos and my past experience has helped me follow this ideology.

While I started my career as a governance professional, I always aspired to have a more holistic career. Therefore, when I got an opportunity to work in the core legal areas, I took the challenge wholeheartedly. As I progressed in my career, I sought out assignments which are more challenging and had legal business partnering elements to them, which helped me mould a unique position as a full-time legal professional as well. While the transition from a governance specialist to a full-fledged legal professional occurred, the value system and principles I learned very early in my career remained constant throughout my journey.

Did you have any mentors in the profession? If so, who are the people that have helped you in the formative years of your journey?

Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the industry's leading minds. The two most notable individuals who have helped me shape my legal career are Mr. Ashok Gupta, who was then the General Counsel at Hindustan Unilever, and Dev Bajpai, who is currently the Vice President, Legal, at South Asia Unilever.

The evolving role of a General Counsel

Amid the generalist vs specialist debate, how would you define the evolving role of a General Counsel?

I believe that a general counsel's role includes working in tandem with the organisation’s larger goals to help the businesses grow. Therefore, the role that we play here is to bring legal expertise to the front, which can be considered while making strategic business decisions. 

In today’s complex business environment, there always are multiple challenges to deal with, and therefore the general counsel today plays a strategic role in an organisation. Therefore, in my opinion, the ultimate objective of any General Counsel also involves bringing in a combination of business understanding and legal inputs. 

Understanding the sector

You play an active role in the advocacy efforts for the FMCG industry and are part of several industry bodies. Tell us about the issues plaguing the sector that need urgent attention from the regulators.

We have always believed in working with government bodies and trade associations to develop regulations and identify solutions that are in the best interest of all our stakeholders. We have collaborated with the government on matters such as the decriminalization of legislations involving small offenses because we believe that having criminal processes for minor offenses clogs the country's court system. 

We are also currently working with regulators to provide inputs on the country's privacy regulations as per the new Digital Privacy Bill. Additionally, as counterfeiting of products is a significant problem in the FMCG segment, we are working with regulators and a number of other industry organisations to find a solution for this. Under the new Consumer Protection Law, CCPA has been set up as the newly established Consumer Protection Body, we are collaborating with the regulators on matters related to misleading advertising to build regulations that serve the interest of consumers while also ensuring ease of business operations for the sector. The consultative and collaborative approach adopted by the government and regulators with the industry organisations is helping a great deal in our country to come out with a regulatory regime which can be benchmarked in itself. 

Expert insights

You have worked on several M&A transactions during the course of your illustrious career. how has COVID-19 changed the deal-making ecosystem nationally and globally? What are the trends that you foresee going forward?

With any acquisition, our first priority is to look at companies that align with its values and would therefore be a mutually beneficial relationship. In line with this ideology, we have acquired companies like True Elements, Beardo, Just Herbs and recently also acquired Vietnamese brands Purité de Prôvence and Ôliv. Due to macroeconomic headwinds and pandemic-related restrictions, deal volumes and values had declined. However, now that the volatility is easing off, we can again see deal volumes rising. The pandemic disrupted the world and changed consumer behaviour globally giving a major push to digital-first brands. Recently we have seen big corporations acquiring stakes in digital-first brands and I am optimistic that this trend will continue for a few years. 

how are in-house legal departments handling compliances around the aspects of data privacy and data security?

In a bid to introduce a comprehensive data protection regime in India, the government recently introduced the new Digital Personal Data Protection bill which is a significantly shorter and simplified version of the law, which carefully articulates the key principles of privacy in a simple format. There are a few companies that have already embraced the global guidelines for data privacy and have the basic principles of privacy built into their system. I believe with the new law it is the time for other corporates  to start building a strong infrastructure for protecting the data of individuals. It is essential for every company to protect their consumer’s data and prevent it from getting misused. They must build a culture in their organisation wherein every individual working in the company and dealing with the information of individuals respects their data while catering to the basic guidelines of privacy

In-house departments of the future

You are a member of the Governance Committee at Marico; how do you see the governance and compliance function changing with the emergence of AI 

In recent times, digital and AI has taken over every aspect of business, including compliance. With the emergence of AI, predicting risks has become easier. Businesses these days are deploying AI tools and mechanisms to build a better compliance framework not only for their own businesses but also for the third parties whom they engage with. Going forward I anticipate that there will be a lot of burden on the companies to ensure that they have basic systems and processes in place to predict any kind of risk that the business may be dealing with and AI will play a significant role in providing a robust compliance system. 

Book recommendations and advice to new age lawyers

Would you please recommend any book that has left a lasting impression on your mind?

In my professional sphere, Before Memory Fades by Fali S. Nariman and in my recent reads Atomic Habits by James Clear.

What will be your piece of advice for aspiring and young lawyers looking to make a career as In-house Counsel?

For aspiring lawyers, my first piece of advice would be to learn about the business you are part of and comprehend the industry thoroughly. There is a common misconception that a counsel's sole responsibility is to provide legal advice. But in my opinion, being an in-house counsel comes with a lot more responsibility, thus one needs to start thinking like a business manager and apply their legal knowledge to the benefit of the company. This is something I have been cognizant of throughout my career, and it has enabled me not to limit myself. Another piece of advice is to get outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. This is the only way a person can grow as a professional. 

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