How to Shift to a New In-House Legal Role

Five ways Jim Nikopoulos has met the demands of his new position at Element Financial

Jim Nikopoulos, general counsel at Element Financial Corporation, was attracted to the $10 billion equipment-leasing company for its staggering growth trajectory. In the year since he started there, he has overseen dozens of deals that have solidified Element’s presence in four key verticals.
Jim Nikopoulos, general counsel at Element Financial Corporation, was attracted to the $10 billion equipment-leasing company for its staggering growth trajectory. In the year since he started there, he has overseen dozens of deals that have solidified Element’s presence in four key verticals.

1. Get the necessary experience

Jim Nikopoulos’s first job at corporate law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP was intense. “I gained experience in a variety of areas because, in Canada, you’re not a specialist—you’re a generalist,” he says.

Variety was the goal, however, because it prepared Nikopoulos for more types of in-house work. “To get into the kind of role I wanted, I needed to understand corporate governance and deal negotiations, and the best school for that is a corporate law firm, so I went there to hone my skills, hoping I’d one day transfer them to a corporate role,” he says.

Nikopoulos later applied his experience at TeraGo Networks Inc. in dual roles as its chief legal officer and its vice president of corporate development. “We expanded from 20 to 50 Canadian markets and went from $15 million to $50 million in revenue in just a few years,” he says.

2. Choose the right company

Ultimately, TeraGo Networks matured and business slowed, so Nikopoulos began looking for another company on a growth trajectory. When the opportunity at Element arose in early 2013, he was intrigued, but he did some research to make sure it would be a good fit. “I know a lot of people who have made a job change based on wanting a position, but they didn’t take the time to understand the industry in which the company operated, and that’s a mistake,” he says. “You’re involved in the business, helping with the strategy, so you have to enjoy it. Otherwise it’s going to be boring.”

Element was also attractive because its management team had a great history of success. Several members, for example, had started Newport Credit Group, one of the world’s largest equipment-leasing companies. “CEO Steve Hudson was confident that there was a void in the equipment-leasing space, and we were here to fill it quickly,” Nikopoulos says. “That was music to my ears. It was clear that Element was not only growing but growing rapidly, and I got excited when I realized I could put my skills to good use.”

3. Look at processes

Nikopoulos’s role seemed daunting at first, for he had a lot of moving parts to keep track of. With total assets in excess of $4.2 billion, Element is one of North America’s leading equipment-leasing companies, operating across the continent in four verticals, including commercial and vendor leasing (everything from medical equipment to items for restaurant franchises), aviation leasing, railcar leasing, and fleet management.

So, to get started, Nikopoulos looked at processes in order to ensure that each business division was operating within acceptable risk parameters, and he also double-checked that the company’s documentation was standardized and retained appropriately. “I call it the defensive side,” Nikopoulos says, adding that, fortunately, he found the company to be in good shape upon inspection. “I didn’t have to make a lot of changes there.”

How Are You Growing?

Originations
689.3 million to 2.1 billion

Revenue
$53 million to $163.1 million

Market capitalization
$589.6 million to $2.645 billion

Book value
4.13 to 7.05

4. Support deal flow

“The volume of deal flow has been staggeringly high,” Nikopoulos says. The multitude of transactions he has overseen since joining has included equity raises, acquisitions, a joint venture with Trinity Industries, Inc., and a $1.4 billion equity financing to support the acquisition of PHH Arval, one of North America’s largest fleet companies.

The work has been tough with Element’s small legal team. “We have almost $10 billion in assets, but we’re not a big company from the standpoint of people, so keeping all balls up in the air was a challenge,” Nikopoulos says. “That was the biggest eye-opener for me.”

5. Reorganize

In the past year, Element has increased its focus on the four aforementioned verticals, and it is actively communicating its move to the market. For his part, Nikopoulos has sought to ensure that there’s the knowledge on staff to deal with the four accompanying unique customer sets. To this end, he has created a base for each vertical, and each has its own legal officer and is located in a specific geographic location—aviation in Montréal, for example, and commercial in Horsham, Pennsylvania.

The greatest challenge has been the railcar vertical, which resulted from a joint venture with Dallas, Texas-based Trinity Industries, Inc., the leading railcar manufacturer and lessor in North America. The vertical will provide lease financing for up to $2 billion worth of railcars over the next two years, and Nikopoulos wants to make sure his staff is prepared.