The legal challenge of creative thinking – 3M

3M is a business that has innovation as a core strategy so keeping up with its legal demands is a significant challenge, believes Jorge Fernández González, Head of Legal in Iberia

3M es una empresa donde la innovación está en el núcleo de su estrategia, y responder a las necesidades legales cambiantes es todo un reto, explica Jorge Fernández González, Director de Asesoría Jurídica para España y Portugal. Las tecnologías en la empresa ya desempeñan un papel fundamental y con la necesidad de nuevas ideas cada vez más se presentan como herramienta clave, con los retos jurídicos que esto implica.

3M is a company that most people will have heard of but few may know much about. Its technologies nonetheless play a role in many aspects of our lives and with a constant drive for innovation it is seeking to feature even more prominently.

“The company’s products are everywhere. We operate across the world and in many of the most innovative business sectors. It’s this forward-looking strategy that makes the legal role so exciting and at the same time so challenging,” says Jorge Fernández González, Head of Legal Affairs for 3M in Iberia.

While people may be aware of 3M products such as Scotch tape and Post-it notes, the company’s technology is also likely to be inside their smart phones, laptops and the turbines that generate the electricity to power them, as well as in cars, building design and even health care products.

“Fundamentally we are a science-led business and produce thousands of new products every year,” he says. “3M’s corporate strategy is that 30 to 40 percent of revenues must be generated by products less than five years old – that’s why there is a constant focus on innovation.”

Although based in Minnesota, almost 65 percent of 3M’s sales come from outside the US, says Fernández. Last year the company generated revenues of around $24bn and has over 80,000 employees in 65 countries.

It is not possible to understand the structure of the legal function without understanding how 3M itself is organised, he insists. “There is a direct correlation between the company at the global, regional and national level in the way legal, compliance and risk issues are managed.”

Specific territories, like Spain and Portugal, may have a dedicated local counsel, but compliance tends to be managed regionally, as do issues such as intellectual property – except in those territories with major research and development labs. Large corporate matters such as certain M&A projects tend to be led at a global level, from the US.

“The local counsel role is therefore as a generalist, to take the broader view and to match the needs of the business, and specific divisions, to the legal skills required. We need to be able to find a solution to whatever is presented to us.”

Alongside the demand to be flexible, 3M’s lawyers also need to take a very commercial approach, says Fernández. “Often we need to find a legal structure or protection for something that may never have been done before. The developers want to get their products to the market and 3M is not a company in which you can say ‘no, that’s not possible’.”

Compliance is a key challenge, he says. An increasingly complex world, more heavily regulated industries and an ever-growing focus on new technologies means that 3M has to stay on top of regulatory demands.

“At the moment, compliance matters are handled regionally and in this respect we tend to take a best practice approach – drawing on the strongest possible national regulation and rolling that out across all the markets.”

On a day-to-day level, Fernández therefore oversees the immediate needs of 3M’s distinct businesses in Spain and Portugal and is expected to co-ordinate whatever additional expertise is required. “Our role fundamentally is to apply the local veneer to any issue we cannot manage ourselves, and this includes working with external lawyers across Iberia to provide the specialist expertise that we do not have.”

He maintains an informal legal panel of preferred firms but is open to new input. “I look after the needs of over 40 businesses and cannot predict what may be required by every one of them. It is not important for me to know the minutiae of the law but instead to know where to find the answer.” 

Looking ahead, the only constant Fernández sees is change. “We have to be as creative as the product developers. The nature of 3M is to evolve, to develop new products and target new markets. And this means a lot of equally innovative legal work.”

Jorge Fernández González is the Head of Legal Affairs for 3M in Iberia. The company last year generated revenues of $24bn and operates in 65 countries.


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