Life after UniNE

“Be brave, self-confident, hard working, and don’t lose faith”

Laurent Sigismondi, General Counsel with DKSH

Qualified in Law in 1998, Laurent Sigismondi defended his thesis in Competition Law at the University of Neuchâtel in 2006, having obtained two Master’s degrees, one in European Law and the other in International Law, in Bruges and New York. For the last ten years, he has lived in Zurich, where he has worked for different international companies. Today, he is running the legal services department of DKSH, the leader in Market Expansion Services in Asia.

Homburger, Holcim, Novartis and then DKSH… In ten years, you’ve held positions of high responsibility in companies as diverse as they are prestigious. What motivates you?

I love taking on challenges and discovering new concepts. I’ve never had a career plan per se, but I think that every position should ideally contribute towards “filling in the CV”, like a puzzle you put together without having seen the original picture. For instance, at the cement manufacturer Holcim in St. Gallen, I was in charge of compliance issues; at Novartis, one of my main jobs was to provide counsel on the Minder initiative (fighting excessive pay, ed.). Each of these tasks presented a fantastic challenge. Each time, I had the opportunity to meet people who helped me to progress. I learnt how to look at problems from very different angles. To my mind, motivation and flexibility are vital qualities in today’s world.

At the beginning of the year, you decided to leave Novartis, one of the most important businesses in the country, for DKSH. Why?

I think it’s important to leave a job when you’ve accomplished your main mission. This was the case with Novartis. So I was ready for a new challenge. DKSH is a dynamic company, working in a highly competitive environment. Besides, most of our activity is based in Asia, a fascinating region, and one experiencing rapid growth.

What exactly are your main tasks at DKSH?

DKSH is the leader of Market Expansion Services in Asia. It offers a full range of services, including everything related to product commercialization and distribution in Asia, such as sourcing, market analysis, marketing, distribution, logistics and so on. Although it’s less well known in French-speaking Switzerland, with a turnover of around 10 billion in 2014 and some 27,000 workers, DKSH is a major economic player in Asia. The company also has a fascinating story. Its origins go back more than 150 years, when three Swiss pioneers went to Asia to found trading companies. As the company’s activity relies to a large extent on contractual relationships, the legal aspects are very important. As General Counsel, I’m in charge of the company’s legal advice. In this position, I’m lucky enough to count on the support of over twenty specialist colleagues.

Over the years, you’ve worked in predominantly economic sectors. Why did you choose Law at University?

Initially, I wanted to study Economics, as I’ve always been good with numbers, and economic organization has always fascinated me. However, in the end I found the law more appealing, for different reasons. I wanted to understand the origin of the norms which apply in our society: while we try to make laws as objective as possible, our behavioural rules are often governed by more human concerns. I also like to talk out societal problems in detail. So as I started my law studies, I still had an interest in the economic dimension. It’s that which motivated me, at the end of my studies, to work for private companies, and to go on to study for an Executive MBA at St. Gallen.

Not forgetting the thesis you wrote on Competition Law…

Yes, absolutely. Competition Law is right at the crossroads where Law and Economic Theory meet. Besides, I have fond memories of the years I spent writing my thesis at Neuchâtel. It gave me the opportunity to build on my knowledge of various fields, not just those relating to my thesis. Before that, my time studying abroad gave me the chance to discover different approaches; these experiences were very formative. In Belgium (at the Collège d’Europe), I discovered Europe in all its diversity, with 300 students coming from across the continent, each imbued with a different culture. In New York (at Columbia University), it was the love of science and academic freedom, so deeply ingrained in the academic culture, which struck me the most. In that country, there is a competitive spirit among researchers and teaching staff, which contributes to the prestige of the universities.

Compared to the other universities you’ve attended, what are the strengths of Neuchâtel?

I think that, in Neuchâtel, society is noticeably influenced by Christian values — Protestant, in particular. I could see this influence in the way that Law was taught at the University. The concepts were presented very clearly, with structure and rigour. This clarity has stayed with me. Another undeniable advantage of Neuchâtel is the size of the University, which helps to build good relations between students and professors. There is a real closeness, which doesn’t just allow students to study in the best way possible, but also lets them discuss ideas directly with the professors. Because of this, they can better understand their professors’ thinking, and share their passion for the subject. This is particularly true if you get the chance to work as a professor’s assistant. In my case, the supervisor of my thesis, Petros Mavroidis, had a huge impact on me, as did Jean-François Aubert, Professor of Constitutional Law. The two are deeply inspired by their fields of expertise, and enhance their analyses with concepts borrowed from other areas of study. In general, students leaving the Faculty of Law of the University of Neuchâtel are every bit as well-prepared as those leaving any other university. Having said this: while the Faculty of Law provides its students with an excellent education, its research footprint is perhaps smaller than it might be.

Today, you’re coming back to the University, as a teacher rather than a student.

I’ve been lucky enough to keep a foothold in academia by teaching at the University of Fribourg. Academia is a privileged environment where theories can grow, ultimately influencing tomorrow’s practice, and where the exchange of ideas can take place in a mutually respectful setting. For me, it’s also a different viewpoint from which to see the world of economics. And finally, in all my years of study, I’ve been able to benefit from public funding. So I’d like to give something back to the community which gave so much to me.

What advice would you give to current or future students?

To “succeed”, it’s vital to be brave, self-confident, hard working and not to lose faith. “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Criticism and experience, often difficult, force you to improve. I’ve always remembered the credo of Vince Lombardi, a legendary American football coach, who basically said: “Most people have the will to win; few have the will to prepare to win.”. Good preparation always bears fruit.

Interview UniNE 2015