Leaders League talks to Jacobo Cohen-Imach, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at MercadoLibre, Latin America’s largest e-commerce platform
Leaders League: What does your role as Senior Vice President and General Counsel at MercadoLibre involve?
I head the legal and public affairs department at MercadoLibre. This means managing 80 people across different countries including Argentina, Brazil, México, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela.
The legal department has: a general practice team which takes care of the business, acting as business partners to colleagues in day-to-day work; a dispute resolution team geared towards handling litigation and mediation - as most of our disputes involve our users we try to avoid heavy-handed tactics and will favour mediation where possible; an intellectual property group which protects the IP of the group and helps third-parties protect their rights on our platforms; and a separate data protection group.
The public affairs team has different responsibilities, but it mainly deals with building cooperation and working relationships with governments and government bodies as well as policy makers, and also is in charge of our participation in industrial associations across Latin America.
What challenges does it present?
A key challenge is to stay up to speed with industry trends and keep pace with this very fast-moving business. In Latin America, this is a huge challenge for lawyers as over the last 18 to 24 months e-commerce as well as fintech have become increasingly regulated and in the crosshairs of governments.
A key challenge for us as lawyers is to ensure we can provide great legal advice to the business in a timely manner with common and business sense while ensuring that legal risks are identified, raised and assessed.
One of the other challenges for us as lawyers over the last 3-4 years is how we can take advantage of technology to increase our efficiency in the management of legal matters. It involves assessing those functions that can be commoditised our outsourced and those activities that lawyers do that truly add value, allowing for a rebalancing. Our role as lawyers is shifting towards being business enablers, I want the lawyers in my team to be sat at the strategic table and help the business from the legal standpoint on its growth strategy while also handling work that can be commoditised more efficiently.
How we act more as business enablers is key. One of the things I say to my team is that we cannot see ourselves as obstacles in the face of risks, we must have a mindset of enabling business despite risks and not be scared. Companies in this industry must take risks to survive. Of course, there are risks you are not going to run, but there are others where uncertainty can be accepted. We need to learn how to walk that tightrope.
Do you see yourself as a fintech company, an e-commerce company, a bit of both or something else?
We are an e-commerce ecosystem with MercadoLibre as the leading e-commerce platform in Latin America. But there is also a core fintech component to our business, called Mercado Pago, and a logistics business, run as Mercado Envios. The legal and public affairs team work across all three businesses.
Fewer than 50% of people in Latin America have access to a bank account so our fintech business is key and we are using it to promote financial inclusion in Latin America and democratize money. Mercado Pago was initially launched as a payments system for the MercadoLibre platform only, but we expanded it after seeing the demand for it and its potential to help more people handle their finances. We allow merchants who don’t sell on Mercado Libre to use it too and now it is the fintech leader in the region. From this payment system has grown merchant and consumer credit services and a prepaid cards system, both of which allow lower income consumers access to otherwise unavailable credit and payment methods or asset management services. It is incredible for me as a lawyer to see how this is changing people’s lives and be part of that change.
We have 6 principles that guide MercadoLibre:
2. Compete to win as a team. We collaborate internally and compete externally. We build the best teams and we trust their decisions. We support meritocracy and reward achievements
3. We are in Beta, always looking to improve. It means we see every change as an opportunity, must be open to trying new things, test and fix until we achieve our goals. We develop a learner's attitude.
4. Be a risk-taking entrepreneur, that also applies to us as lawyers. You can take risks as a lawyer; it is not suicidal to do so but it is challenging. To take a risk as a lawyer means you need to understand to perfection the business, its strategy and where it wants to go.
5. Execute with excellence. We focus on quality and simplicity. We are seeking perfection but we are committed to doing things better every day, improving continuously.
6. Play hard and have fun. We work hard, giving the maximum while leaving room for having fun.
What are the key trends and developments impacting e-commerce now?
In general, issues around user experience. Consumers want a smooth way of buying. E-commerce in Latin America captures between 3 to 5% of overall retail spending, which is a much smaller share of total consumer spending than in other regions across the world. It means there is huge room for growth in a region of 650 million people, half of which are connected to the internet. Consumers want to buy and receive as soon as possible, which is not as easy to execute as it looks.
The fintech sector has huge potential in Latin America. We can be as financially inclusive as never before, which could forever change the way the people of this region live. We don’t compete with banks on this, we are a perfect complement. We reach people they don’t reach nor target. It is important that regulators understand what is needed to help foster this industry instead of curtailing its evolution. They are used to dealing with traditional financial services institutions and if they treat fintech like they treat these institutions the sector will never take off, which would be a real shame and it would mean losing out on all the benefits it can offer.
Logistics in most of the countries we operate in are not as good as they could be, at times slow and expensive. This is a problem to which there is no single solution. It involves working with governments on improvements to infrastructure, approaching local carriers and helping them think differently by, for example, separating shipping of parcels from shipping of letters, and improving ourselves too by, for example, opening new warehouses in strategic locations.
How do you explain MercadoLibre’s success in expanding internationally?
I think its success is based on great service, great people and a focus on excellence in execution. Our six guiding principles truly help guide the company to success; for example, by focusing on user value and ensuring a smooth process. Our financial inclusion focus helps add to that user value and shows that we see ourselves as more than just an e-commerce company. This has all helped us become a market leading company. Just a few weeks ago in March, we raised $1.15 billion in a follow-on offering on NASDAQ and $750 million in a private offering of common stock made to PayPal.