Ilze Slakota is the General Counsel of UralChem – a leading producer of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers in Russia/CIS – in Latvia, a position that she has held for over 5 years. Prior to joining UralChem, she worked as a Legal Counsel for Alta Capital Partners for over 2 years and as a Senior Lawyer with SEB Banka Latvia for 4 years.
Please describe your career leading up to your current role with UralChem.
I.S.: After the end of my first year at the university where I chose to study International Law, I joined a law office that was led by the former Minister of Justice of Latvia, attorney Gaidis Berzins. I joined the firm as a trainee. I was successfully able to attend most of my classes at the university and juggle between both work and studies, but I have to admit, unfortunately, there was not so much time left for parties.
The next step was joining the team at SEB Banka (the former Unibanka), where I primarily dealt with corporate crediting and legal support for corporate client deals. After spending 4 years at the bank I accepted the biggest challenge to date for me at the time and joined the private equity investment company Alta Capital Partners, holding the position of sole Legal Counsel in Latvia. Then I was offered a position of General Counsel in UralChem Trading and I have been here since 2009.
Your previous experiences tended to revolve around banking. Why did you opt to change sectors?
I.S.: I must admit that my father, who was a banker for many years and was a great source of professional inspiration for me, was the one who got me interested in the banking field. As time passed, however, I came to realize that I was too young for such a peaceful life, where all is set, structured, and stable, and I needed some fresh air and cold water to take me out of my comfort zone. Therefore, I turned my professional life around 180 degrees and have never regretted it.
This decision led me to the next opportunity that, once offered to me, I gladly accepted. Starting to work for such an impressive company as UralChem was one of my life’s turning points. Since I left the banking sphere my working life has been fast-paced – and that’s putting it mildly. But one should never say never, and I would not be surprised if, at some point, I would get back into the banking sector again, but now with more extensive knowledge to share and diverse views on relevant processes.
What types of legal work keep you the busiest as a GC of a producer of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers?
I.S.: Everyday routine is very well organized so I do not have to participate in these processes that much – the traders and their assistants are great professionals and do their jobs more than well. I am involved in different kinds of new projects led by our holding company that involve opening new markets and implementing management’s new business ideas. For instance, our group recently acquired a controlling share in Ventamonjaks – the largest liquid ammonia transshipment terminal in the Baltic Sea. Before that, we, with our partners, built the Riga Fertilizer Terminal: the most advanced and safest terminal in Northern Europe for transshipment and temporary storage of bulk fertilizers. Such projects, among others, keep me busy.
Since you mentioned this, your company has invested EUR 60 million in developing its own transshipment terminal. Setting it up, undoubtedly required a great deal of legal work as well. What were the main challenges for your legal team in the project?
I.S.: That is true, developing our transshipment terminal did require a huge amount of legal work, but I must say that the legal team was run from our headquarters. We all had our part of the job to be responsible for. The challenging part was the diverse nature of this impressive and complicated project that required the ability to learn fast and react proactively.
Can you give us some specific examples of the range of legal work this project included?
I.S.: For instance, different legal research had to be carried out since specific permits had to be acquired on several stages of the project. Legal research had to be done very carefully and in-depth as one incorrect opinion could result in the refusal to obtain one or another permit. Thanks to our headquarters, all steps were taken with the utmost responsibility.
You mentioned needing the ability to learn. What were the main areas you feel you developed during this project?
I.S.: I understood that you learn much more in such intense and difficult conditions than when calmly spending the days in everyday routine work at the office and not challenging yourself. I developed the ability to work together with a very big team both here and overseas, planning every step, and making sure that nothing was overlooked. I gained insight into the port’s life, how such projects are led, and structured.
Operating its own port terminal undoubtedly provides for improved efficiency of the company’s logistics group, but it must also generate recurring legal work for your team. What kinds of work has it generated for you, and have you opted to assign a person to be in charge of these aspects?
I.S.: Until the start of full operation of the terminal we supported it both from the legal and logistics side. Currently, as the terminal is fully operational and functions as intended, the terminal has its own team of professionals.
And does this team of legal professionals for the terminal report to you directly or someone else? Why did it make sense to structure it this way?
I.S.: They report to our holding company and their management. I think it makes lots of sense to have a legal team on the spot for such a terminal because the business is quite specific and requires continuous presence to understand the processes and necessities of the terminal better.
As a Russian company in Latvia, have recent sanctions impacted your work in any manner?
I.S.: Looking back to the last year’s good results of ours – no, sanctions have not impacted our work in a bad way. Yes, we had some minor issues with re-planning at some points, but that was not significant.
What type of legal work do you tend to outsource to law firms and which do you prefer keeping in-house?
I.S.: We usually outsource projects that involve foreign jurisdictions, specific knowledge in narrow fields, obtaining objective views from outsiders, and big projects to law firms.
On a personal side, you are a board member of the UralChem Charity Foundation. What is its objective and why did you become involved?
I.S.: Considering that UralChem is a socially responsible company and we take care of those who are in need, particularly children, and their health, education, and sports, not to mention cultural events, establishing our own charity foundation was just logical. Our main focus is still on children. My involvement into this unexplored field happened naturally and for me imperceptibly, step by step.
This Article was originally published in Issue 2.3. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.
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