When it was all the rage to take a gap year and hitchhike around Europe, Pierre Chesnay—now vice president of legal affairs and secretary of Uni-Select—decided to ride his motorcycle across Europe and North Africa. During a six-month journey from London to Libya, he made many friends, turned 19, and gained “an open mind,” he recalls.
Two days after returning home, Chesnay started law school—his mother had enrolled him while he was away. Although bored initially, his saving grace was a spot on the varsity ski team. Over the next few years, his grades improved (along with his skiing), and he even began to enjoy his field of study.
After graduating in 1975, Chesnay went on to work at a large Montréal-based law firm, O’Brien, Home, Hall, Saunders, followed by a financial institution, Fédération des Caisses Populaires Desjardins. His own practice came next, then another firm, De Grandpré, Godin. In 1996, he joined Uni-Select as general counsel. Here, Chesnay discusses his role at the Boucherville, Québec-based company, which distributes $1.7 billion annually in auto parts and automotive coatings to wholesalers, installers, and fleet operators in Canada and the United States.
Advantage: You undeniably have an adventuresome spirit. What has kept you with Uni-Select for 16 years?
Pierre Chesnay: Every three years the business would take a leap and change so much that I wasn’t in the same business anymore. For instance, in 1998, Uni-Select made its first foray into the United States and acquired 50 percent of ANWI, a US Midwest-based business with $60 million in sales. Most of us were from French Canada, so entering the US market was quite a game changer. In 2002, Uni-Select purchased Acklands Grainger’s automotive-related business in Western Canada, which gave it a truly coast-to-coast footprint, with additional sales of $120 million; then, in 2004, we purchased MAWDI in the States, and added over $240 million in sales. Lately, in January 2011, we purchased FinishMaster, a business that provided over $415 million in sales. Today, over 70 percent of Uni-Select’s sales are in the United States.
Had the business remained the same as when I came here, I would not have stayed. But being here, I have had the opportunity to be an agent of that change, see it evolve, meet all these people I would not have met otherwise, and visit the States often. I was always given a new challenge and more responsibilities, so it has remained interesting.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I like problems. I like to deal with an issue when people are really stuck. That happens very often when you’re in an acquisition type of transaction. But I also have the real-estate portfolio, with something like 500 locations. There is always a problem with real estate—nothing bad, just interesting issues that come up. You’ve got brick-and-mortar issues, but those are, typically, easily solved: if a roof leaks, plug the hole. But the relationship with landlords is a lot more interesting. There’s a lot that goes into it. If you have a good personal relationship with a landlord, you’ll probably have fewer problems.
Are the requisites of general counsels shifting in general?
Yes, I think they’re changing. I do not want to discredit my peers or elders, but it used to be an elite club of gentlemen—there were no ladies—where you discussed philosophy. But now the technical background is more demanding, the work is more challenging, and you have to know what you’re talking about.
You also have to watch out for all the red lights that are very abundant in our landscape. It used to be a supplier would invite you on an expense-paid trip to Spain, for instance. Today, you have to report on lunches or even hockey tickets for that matter. And you have to be sensitive to gender issues.
How have gender issues changed the environment?
At one point in time, let’s say you were a woman and pregnant, you were not to be seen in the office, if you had been lucky enough to land a job as an in-house lawyer. Today, the environment has changed—and for the better. You’ve got to be more sensitive to those around you. I like working with women. It’s more challenging, more demanding. It encourages you to listen more.
What about your industry? What are the must-haves for someone entering it?
In this business, people remain a very important part, so you need to be able to work and communicate easily with others. Also, if you’re in distribution you should have some sort of financial or accounting background.
Distribution is not like manufacturing. The margins are small, so you can’t have too many losses in the system. The essence of this business is that you take a part, buy it, and have to move it to the right place at the right time, or else you’re at a loss. The margins are very slim because it’s very competitive.
You’ve got to be computer savvy. You have to be able to work your Excel spreadsheet because you are at times working on the road. And you have to be self-reliant.
How is your work similar to that of those in other industries?
I have friends, general counsels in other types of businesses, and their environment and perspective is completely different. Where we have common ground is at the level of regulatory filings, board matters, and maybe even contractual matters. Because a contract, in the end, is a contract—it’s just the subject that varies. But you’ve got to know the business you’re in, if only because the business people you work with do not have the time to educate you; they are looking for an answer, now. Business people will not read a contract in detail; they will rely on the lawyer. Not understanding the business environment or the law will result in failure, problems, or litigation—the part of my work I dislike.