"Make sure you are always learning and find people who can teach you.” – David Flavell
David joined PepsiCo in 2011, serving in various senior legal roles before being appointed as the company’s Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary in March of this year.
Q: You began your articles at Corrs in 1995 and became a partner in 2003. What are some of your fondest memories of your time at Corrs?
DF: I remember my first day at Corrs was the Ides of March, possibly not the best day to start a career in law! However, it was a huge help to start with 14 other articled clerks or ‘ACs’, many of whom remain dear friends. We still catch up whenever I am in Melbourne. There were many wonderful and interesting characters at the firm, like Barry O’Callaghan, who was the elder statesman of the firm and imparted much wisdom on generations of lawyers over his 50 years at Corrs, and John Dahlsen, who had been involved in some of Australia’s biggest M&A deals/hostile takeovers back when he was on the Board of The Herald & Weekly Times, Woolworths and Myer Emporium.
In my first year, Vernon Corr still came to the office from time to time. I was lucky enough to work with great clients, including Foster’s Group, when it was independent and listed on the ASX. But one of the most unexpected experiences was when corporate partner John Wardle asked me as a junior lawyer to re-draft and harmonise the rules for the Greyhound Racing Control Board and greyhound racing. I never thought my career would have me weigh in on such lofty issues as to whether dogs should be muzzled or unmuzzled as they went to the starting gate and the particulars of dog breeding and stud-masters.
Q: You were appointed Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at PepsiCo at the beginning of this year and have been with the company for more than a decade. What are some of your most rewarding experiences at PepsiCo to date?
DF: Like Danone and Fonterra before, PepsiCo has given me the most amazing opportunity to live and work across the globe. I have had the chance to run transformational M&A deals on every continent apart from Antarctica and to deal with challenging and difficult matters across the globe for one of the world’s largest companies. PepsiCo has given me the chance to experience so many different cultures and meet and work with people from incredibly diverse backgrounds.
There are very few organisations in the world that could provide the same depth and variety of experiences and matters and the complexity and challenges. Importantly, PepsiCo has provided me with the chance to lead an incredible team of over 400 legal and compliance professionals spread across the world. Learning from my team and colleagues and playing a part in people’s career development and progression is one of my favourite parts of my role. I love it.
Q: Since leaving Melbourne, you have been based in New Zealand, China, the UAE and the US. How has your international experience influenced the way you operate in your role as the GC of a global company?
DF: My international experience is a key part of how I operate. Working globally exposes you to diverse issues and people, and working in developing markets takes it to an entirely different level. You become used to working in uncertain environments where laws can be open to wide interpretation or are just developing and where regulators may be unpredictable. Technical skills are important, but judgment is more important. Being comfortable with uncertainty and having the confidence to make a decision with less than perfect information is key, as is staying calm in a crisis. Being on the ground during a couple of coups/revolutions has given me the ability to remain very calm.
I think my experience helps me keep things in perspective, to distil and quantify real risk and be comfortable in plotting a course forward. It has also taught me the importance of ensuring you have the right people with broad perspectives involved in any critical decision. No one person has all the answers, and you need to listen and be open to different views and perspectives.
Q: How did you find the transition from private practice to in-house and what is your advice to others who are considering making that move?
DF: Looking back, I found the transition relatively easy. I never missed private practice, although I did miss being surrounded by colleagues who were focused on legal issues. At a law firm, you talk about knowing your client and being focused on commercial outcomes, but working in house takes you to a different place. You cannot be effective unless you understand your business, where and how you make a profit, and the true commercial dynamics. You need to be comfortable with imperfect legal solutions and outcomes in driving the best possible commercial results. Compromise in commercial negotiations is key, and you need to learn what is legally important and what you can give away to reach the overall objective.
You also have to influence people. Different stakeholders will have different priorities, and legal is just one piece of the puzzle, so communicating difficult concepts in very straightforward language becomes critical. I spend much of my time looking at issues from a much broader perspective as part of a management team and less time doing technical law. Importantly, you have to remember you are a lawyer and have ethical and professional obligations and that you owe certain duties to the corporation and not to individuals. It is important that you work for an organisation with strong values – thankfully, this is something I have always been lucky enough to do.
Q: What skills and qualities do you look for when you are hiring into your legal team?
DF: From a legal perspective, I look for people with good judgment, a sense of calm, exceptional technical skills, commercial acumen and a genuine desire to collaborate, who are open to different perspectives and lack ego while also having the confidence to provide tough advice. A sense of fun also helps. From a PepsiCo point of view, they must have a genuine interest in our business.
Ultimately, I look for people who are passionate about what they do. I have been lucky that I have loved my past and current role. It genuinely excites me, and I love working at a company where I can see our products on shelves across the globe and consumers interacting with our products daily. My wife and son pretty much disown me when I am in a store, as I always insist on walking down the snack and beverage aisles and straighten the displays or let our supply teams know if something is out of stock. I grew up eating more than my fair share of Twisties and Burger Rings, and now I have the pleasure of working for the company!
Q: What is the best career advice you have ever been given?
DF: Do what interests you and what you love, back yourself and do not be afraid to take a risk. Many people thought I was mad to give up a partnership at Corrs and move to New Zealand, but it put me on a pathway that has taken me to over 60 countries and now has me in my dream job at one of the world’s largest companies.
Also, make sure you are always learning and find people who can teach you. I was very lucky to work for Stephen Kroker when at Corrs – he taught me a lot about clarity of communication and brought me through to partner. I have been fortunate to have found other great role models and teachers as my career progressed. Don’t be afraid to ask people to be a mentor or to teach you something – one of my favourite parts of my job is mentoring and watching people grow.
This interview was conducted in July 2021.