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“Keeping abreast of changing regulations is critical to developing a business in a low-risk manner”
Bárbara Leighton, Legal Manager Chile & Home Care North America Unilever, tells us about the company's strategy for risk prevention and the main challenges facing companies in Latin America with respect to compliance issues
Tell us briefly about your role at Unilever
Unilever is one of the world’s leading consumer-goods companies and more than half of its growth is in emerging and developing markets.
I have the role of legal manager for the Chile operation and for the Home Care business in North America. I assumed the latter position a few months ago and it has been a great opportunity and challenge to get to know and practice in a different market with a very different legislation from that of Latin America.
Specifically, on a daily basis I am in charge of reviewing and implementing solutions to legal problems or situations that may arise and develop in the various areas and business units of the company. In addition, I provide legal advice on the company’s business strategies, in order to ensure that they are developed in accordance with the regulatory framework in each of the countries where we are present.
What have been your most important achievements in your time at the company?
Throughout my career at Unilever, I have been presented with various challenges, and several of these later became achievements for the whole legal team. We faced one of the most important challenges of recent years: the complete transformation of our business in Chile during the pandemic. Although this operation was focused on Chile, it also had an international scope, involving other countries such as Peru and England.
This complex operation encompassed three business areas, and more than 800 employees, and required the outsourcing of our production. During this process, we faced legal issues related to labor, free competition, imports and exports, mergers and acquisitions, and supply contracts, among others.
Throughout this transformation, we always remained aligned with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, ensuring full compliance with international legal and ethical standards in addition to our own local legislation.
Leading the transformation of the business from a legal perspective during the pandemic was a great challenge, yet one we were able to meet successfully and the experience taught us a great deal too. I would like to highlight the high level of teamwork and collaboration between legal and various other departments, such as human resources, communications, factories and sales, which was key to ensuring the success of the project in this complex period.
As regards compliance, what changes have most affected the company in recent years?
At Unilever, we have a strong global business integrity division that has a local reach to all operations. In this sense, at Unilever we have not had major changes in the compliance division in recent years, especially because the aforementioned area has developed the compliance issue beyond what is required by local legislation, making trends in good business practices and anticipating future regulations.
Where we have had to assume some difficulties in recent years has been in getting both suppliers and customers to follow Unilever's compliance guidelines, since most of them are usually governed by local laws and in many cases Unilever’s responsible partner policies are far above the standards required by local laws. Since Unilever works with both large local companies that have their own policies, as well as small companies that follow the guidelines provided by local law, this has been rewarding work especially with those smaller companies, since we helped to raise their compliance standards, thus improving the business ecosystem as a whole.
At Unilever, we believe it is our responsibility to help improve the compliance situation in each region, and given that we have made great progress in this area, we are committed to continuing on this path.
How would you sum up the company's risk-prevention strategy
In the world of compliance, monitoring and preventing risks is fundamental and, in my opinion, a central axis for the business. At Unilever, this is a constant task and we keep our risk matrix permanently updated in order to have visibility on areas of potential danger, either by the nature of their function or by the processes they manage.
In parallel, and in accordance with our policy in all regions, we constantly organize training and coaching for all our employees. These not only explain and inform about the risks associated with certain positions or functions, but also provide training on the appropriate way to mitigate them. These training sessions are given to all personnel, including factory staff, because we believe it is essential that all our workers are trained both in preventing risks and identifying when they are likely to occur.
Something very important for Unilever is always keeping our employees, suppliers and customers informed of the existence of our reporting channels, reinforcing the message that they are 100% anonymous and which anyone can use to report a violation of our compliance standards. Furthermore, we ensure that all reports made through our channels are treated and investigated in a strictly confidential manner, which has led us to obtain, in a sustained manner, confidence in the tool by our employees.
What are the biggest compliance challenges faced by companies in Latin America?
In Latin America, companies face complex compliance challenges arising from the region's intricate regulatory landscape. Having a diversity of regulations, which do not necessarily have a common standard, constitute substantial obstacles to business development.
Navigating the various requirements in each country demands high levels of attention and control. In addition to being complex, this entails signifivant costs for companies seeking to expand within the region.
Currency exchange controls in some countries and the impact of political and economic instability in others add uncertainty for companies, and vigilance against bribery and corruption is paramount in all cases.
To address these challenges, companies must implement robust compliance programs tailored, at a minimum, to each country's unique legal framework. Keeping abreast of changing regulations, both in the country where a company is headquartered and in the countries to which it intends to expand its operations or have business partners, is critical to developing business in an expeditious and low-risk manner.
In this dynamic business environment, finding expert local legal counsel is paramount to ensure sustained adherence to compliance standards.
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