As vice president of legal affairs and corporate secretary at Boralex, Sylvain Aird helps guide the strategic decisions of one of Canada’s fastest-growing power-generation companies. Formerly legal counsel at Hydro-Québec and AbitibiBowater, Aird is no stranger to the regulatory and legal complexities of the energy market. Below, Advantage speaks with Sylvain Aird about his role at Boralex.
Advantage: Unlike many corporate counsels, you’ve never worked in private practice. Why?
Sylvain Aird: Right out of the University of Montréal, where I was studying in taxation after having completed the Québec Bar, I joined Abitibi-Price (now AbitibiBowater), a pulp-and-paper manufacturer with various energy assets, on a three-month contract. I ended up spending almost eight years at Abitibi doing a lot of forestry and energy law. I had always been more attracted to business law than litigation, family, or criminal law, so I enjoyed the work.
Why did you join Boralex?
Boralex offered me the chance to run the entire legal department—to put my stamp on it. Also, it was a management position, which was appealing. My background made it a good fit. Boralex is partly owned by Cascades, which is also a pulp-and-paper company. I already knew the business and had experience with energy law.
In-house counsel need to function as business advisors, guiding the business. Legal training should help assess risks and prevent problems, but it must also add value. Boralex is not risk averse, because the energy business is a risk-taking business. So if you want to help the business grow, you have to be risk tolerant. That’s what I try to get my people to do.
How do you add value at Boralex?
I report directly to the CEO, so most of my daily work is guiding strategic transactions, managing the legal department, and serving as top negotiator on significant matters. Also, I make sure that the board of directors is properly informed and satisfied. I am always engaged in discussions with top management, advising them on various issues and concerns. They come to me because I know the company well, and I understand the big picture.
Boralex’s energy development spans wind, thermal, and hydroelectric. How does that variation affect your role?
It provides a constant challenge, but we manage it well. For instance, we have one solar asset, but we want to acquire more. So the legal department has to map out the regulatory and legal structure of the solar market. We are very experienced with wind-power contracts. Now we have to become knowledgeable about solar power.
Boralex operates in Canada, the United States, and Europe. How does your team juggle these differing regulatory environments?
Operating in so many jurisdictions, it’s impossible for a legal team our size to know everything. You need to find a local legal team that you trust. We refer work outside in these areas. Different countries also call for different solutions. In the United States, the energy market is very influenced by politics, so we hired government affairs and policy advisors in various state capitals and Washington, DC, to keep us aware of legislation and government policy before it is finalized, and to allow us to be involved in the political process relating to it. This was very good for the company. When we had a biomass business in the United States, we joined a biomass trade association and played a prominent role in it. We have since disposed of that business, but while we were in it, participating in the trade association was crucial.
What has been your most demanding project at Boralex?
In 2010, we acquired a power income trust, a group of assets that Boralex had spun off in 2002. The time was right to buy it back. We still had a minority interest in the fund, but taking over the fund was a long process, and there was considerable litigation. We closed the deal successfully, though not as quickly as we thought. For almost a year, it was my biggest project. It was a $300 million deal, and we learned a lot.