Andrew Tam

General counsel and corporate secretary of Wajax Corporation

rom an early age, Andrew Tam was impressed by the solemn pageantry of law courts. “In Canada, we really embrace our English legal heritage; and as a result, the legal profession has this great sense of history and duty,” he says. A native of London, Ontario, Tam attended the University of Western Ontario, receiving an undergraduate degree in economics and his law degree.

After graduation, he went to work for WeirFoulds LLP, a midsized law firm located in downtown Toronto. He recalls his early days at the firm fondly, remembering long days and late nights spent among a team of young lawyers working without much in the way of support staff. “The training was very valuable,” Tam says. “If you didn’t roll up your sleeves and pitch in, you weren’t going to stay part of the team.”

At WeirFoulds, Tam handled commercial, franchising, and intellectual-property work. Eventually, he turned exclusively to securities and corporate finance, leading a number of junior mining IPOs and the purchase and financing of an operating nickel mine.

In 2008, Tam joined the Toronto office of Lang Michener LLP, a national firm. The move exposed him to a greater range of clients, including some of Canada’s largest companies, and complex cross-border financing transactions. “It still involved a lot of late nights,” Tam laughs. “But working closely with large, sophisticated clients really allowed me to sharpen my skills and broaden my perspective.”

In 2011, the firm merged with McMillan LLP. By that time, Tam felt the time had come for a change. “Securities law is often very transactional, and transactions can appear suddenly and require quick work to finalize,” he says. “A client might call you on a Friday and say, ‘We need to raise a billion dollars, and our market window will open and close within the next two to three weeks.’ That means three weeks at the office around the clock.

“You’re in very elite company when you do this sort of legal work,” he adds. “It can be very rewarding, but it’s also very grueling and exhausting.”

In the summer of 2011, Tam connected with Wajax Corporation, an industrial distributor whose general counsel planned to retire at the end of the year. “The more I learned about the business and the people I would be working with, it just seemed like a perfect fit,” he says.

Moving from private practice to in-house counsel was a seismic change. “In private practice, you’re a bit like a hired gun,” Tam explains. “You’re called on as a specialist to complete a transaction or to solve problems and put fires out. But there will always be some distance between you and your clients because you’re not immersed in their business.”

Corporate counsel, by contrast, are often right in the mix. Wajax’s corporate office is located next to one of the company’s equipment-distribution branches. A wheel loader, excavator, and a large orange telehandler sit on the complex’s front lawn. “That’s something you just don’t get in private practice,” Tam says.

Tam sees his primary role at Wajax as helping the company execute its strategic plan. He spends most of his time providing advice to senior management and ensuring the company is in compliance with its legal obligations. In addition to corporate, securities, and governance matters, Tam’s responsibilities round out with both environmental compliance and insurance and leasing agreements for the company’s 120 branch locations.

Each day for Tam brings something different. Back in private practice, clients would call with a problem and seek advice as to how to handle it. “But you miss the lead up to that,” Tam says. “You weren’t there when the problem first arose, and you miss the discussions with management and the internal efforts to address the issue. You often give the advice and then hang up the phone and it’s over for you.”

Corporate counsel is there from the beginning, helping to prevent problems before they start, and seeing the issue through to resolution. Tam finds the fit perfect, and foresees supporting Wajax as it expands its operations, keeping the company’s board of directors up to date on the impact of all regulatory changes along the way.