Making a case for the importance of the legal profession in business and beyond.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
I’m an avid consumer of media (a must for someone in the industry) and a longtime favourite genre of mine is legal dramas such as Suits (2011-2019). More than the thrill of watching someone argue in court, I’m intrigued by the concept of someone using their wits and in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of law to change the legal fabric of the country as we know it. When I sheepishly disclose this to Rachthep ‘Thep’ Bhatia, the Legal & Public Affairs Manager at Thai Asia Pacific Brewery Co., Ltd., he chuckles and admits, “I wish my day-to-day life was the same as Harvey Specter! Unfortunately, it’s not the case. What they don’t portray are the unglamorous behind-the-scenes activities. There’s a lot of paperwork, meetings, and negotiations, before you reach a conclusion or settlement. And sure, we still wear the suits, but definitely not every day!”
Armed with a lot of knowledge despite his clear youth – he confesses that he’s only recently turned 27 – Thep is charming, confident, and clearly passionate about the law. “I’ve always thought that the legal department of any company is like a sword,” he tells me. “You can either use it to attack others, or you can use it to defend yourself. And that’s one of the responsibilities of the legal department – at times, we’ll need to be proactive and take measures to protect the company’s interest, while at times, we need to defend ourselves from false accusations.”
I ask him if he’s always wanted to pursue law, as someone who’s inspirational in his love for his career, and he tells me about growing up in a business family, not uncommon in the Thai-Indian community. “For a lot of my high school life, I always thought that I wanted to study business,” he says. “ It was only when I started to know more about the legal profession, which was when I was close to finishing high school and before university, that I decided to give the legal profession a shot.” Is this decision to move away from the family business one that he’s received pushback from, I ask, and he laughs. “In fact, they were all supportive on my decision and joked about having the benefits it’d get them to have a lawyer in the family! Working as an in-house lawyer, it’s key to have keen business acumen, so I’m lucky that I grew up in a family of businessmen and businesswomen as those same skills that I grew up with can be used in the legal profession across many industries. At the same time, however, I wanted to do something different than the various family businesses, and I’m once again fortunate that my family and friends have been nothing but supportive.”
He speaks to Masala further about his career, and the importance of law in all aspects of life.
What led you to a legal career, and specifically one in the beverage industry, with HEINEKEN?
Law is something that all businesses need, especially the larger corporations. There’s a lot of emphasis put on the legal department, and that is something which got my interest, just knowing the vast scope of work of the legal profession. You always need to be on your feet, because when problems do come, they come unannounced. It makes the work exciting – as I often say, occasionally the work of the legal department is the same as firefighters. You extinguish fires left and right! [Laughs] But at times you’ll also need to be involved in planning the strategy of the company in order to ensure that all legal risks are mitigated.
Can you provide an overview of your role at Thai Asia Pacific Brewery Co., Ltd. and could you share some of the key challenges and responsibilities that come with overseeing these crucial aspects of a multinational corporation’s operations?
There are two parts to my role: the legal part, and the public affairs part. The legal aspect of my job requires me to oversee all legal issues at the company. This includes reviewing and drafting contracts, intellectual property management, overseeing litigation disputes, corporate secretarial work, approving intricate details such as labels of new products, and approving all marketing material, because alcohol laws are sensitive in Thailand. This role requires me to make sure the company is in compliance with the law.
On the other hand, my public affairs role is more about maintaining relationships with stakeholders, spanning from various government agencies to trade associations; making sure the company is operating in an optimal business climate; and trying to shape the law wherever possible.
I imagine that this comes with its share of challenges that you’ve had to overcome over the years. You have to navigate a balancing act between staying within the law, and trying to change it as you go along. What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Being an in house Legal Counsel of a large corporate, it’s crucial that you are a key business partner for all departments, especially the commercial department. If the legal department wants to make their own lives easy, they can take the easy route of simply telling people “no” when you are not sure about something and pass the problem to the other person. But understanding the person you’re dealing with and having a grasp of the situation at hand is more important, and it all boils down to your risk appetite. Being a good Legal Counsel also requires you to come up with creative solutions so you can support your colleagues and the company.
The alcohol industry in Thailand has to circumnavigate a number of legal hurdles, especially when it comes to the sale, distribution, and marketing of alcohol. What are the major legal and regulatory issues facing the beverage industry in Thailand, and how do you navigate and address them?
Yes, Thailand has stringent alcohol control laws. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, BE 2551 lacks clarity, is quite vague and open-ended. And whenever there are laws which lack clarity, there’s a lot of interpretation which is required, which means that there is a lot of discretion when it comes to law enforcement. This results in inconsistencies when it comes to enforcing the law
For example, the law states that one cannot induce people to drink or express the qualities of an alcoholic drink either directly or indirectly. But what does “indirectly” mean? It boils down to interpretation, and discretion on how to enforce the law. In my legal opinion, you need to see the definition of Advertisement first. In Thai, โฆษณา (khosana) is defined as any act which enables the public to see, hear or know of any information for commercial purposes. If a consumer posts a photo on their social media page with an alcoholic beverage, it doesn’t fall under ‘commercial’ use, as that person’s page is not for commercial purposes. Despite this, there have been occasional issues when people have posted pictures of alcoholic beverages on their social media page. As you can see, there are a lot of areas where you need to pay close attention to.
This lack of clarity is something which we want to amend, and it’ll make life a lot easier for business operators, which includes not just our partners, such as the Thai Alcohol Beverage Business Association; but restaurants; bars; hotels; and more. One of the key issues is that alcoholic beverages cannot be sold between 2 to 5 pm, and this is something which we are trying to resolve. We’re working with stakeholders to push for this and other laws to be amended. This will help drive the tourism industry and benefit business operators such as restaurants and hotels among others.
In your opinion, what unique aspects of HEINEKEN’s presence in Thailand set it apart from competitors, and how do your responsibilities tie into this differentiation?
I am proud to work for Thai Asia Pacific Brewery, which is Heineken’s presence in Thailand, and be a part of a multinational corporation which has a lot of great values. Responsibility is very important to the company, and that’s why, while we “brew the joy of true togetherness” and want everyone to have a good time, we also promote “enjoy[ing] responsibly.” The company is adamant that we don’t promote the use of harmful alcohol consumption.
That’s why we also have Heineken 0.0, a non-alcoholic malt beverage, which is an alternative beverage for people who are health conscious; or who want to consume an alcohol alternative, such as when they want to drive; but still want the same enjoyment as a regular beer, and to fit in with the crowd. When you’re in a bar, you may not get the same enjoyment as drinking a soda or orange juice, and with our Heineken 0.0, you get the same taste as well.
Part of our focus on responsibility is caring for the environment, which is why we aim to be carbon neutral in production by 2030, and we’ve made strides toward that target.
Public affairs need to make sure that we keep abreast of legal developments on the horizon and how that might affect the company, so we ensure that the company can firstly, voice its opinions, and secondly, that we remain agile so that we’re always competing on a level playing field.
You’ve mentioned the importance of keeping abreast of industry trends and legal developments – how do you do that, and which legal developments on the horizon in Thailand excite you the most?
I need to follow all the government developments which are taking place, which also includes tuning into all the cabinet meetings, and reading about the agendas of various ministries. Of course, with the recent national elections, we now have a new government in place, and they’re driving the business agenda forward, which will be great for the country if they achieve their targets.
The new government is considering seeing which laws hamper business, and how we can make day-to-day commercial activities easier for the common business operator by amending or removing those laws. It’s a development which I’m looking forward to, and I commend the government for looking into this.
You’ve reached your current position at the age of 25 and you’ve been awarded Best Employee of the Year in 2021. What do you attribute your success to at such a young age, and are there any initiatives that you’ve implemented in the time you’ve held this role?
I’ve had some great mentors, and a great team as well, who are willing to work hard, and ensure that I always have the company’s goal in mind. We’re doing everything it takes to make sure that both the company and our department achieves our goals, and I’m so grateful to all of them.
One of the things I did in the legal department was to commence a digital transformation initiative; making sure that a lot of the processes we have were digitalised and we changed our ways of working. It streamlined a lot of processes and increased operational efficiency, and I’m proud of it. Digitalisation is so important in this day and age, and this way, we don’t have to deal with excessive amounts of paperwork.
I’m sure in your quest for operational efficiency, you’ve managed to free up some time for yourself for pursuits outside of work. Tell us a little about them.
Spending time with family and friends is definitely something I enjoy; quality time is something which shouldn’t be taken for granted. In addition to that, I enjoy playing and watching sports, which is a great stress reliever. I’m watching the cricket World Cup right now, and I’m keeping up with football and Formula One. And I’m a firm believer that the lessons you learn while playing sports, you can apply to work as well, such as teamwork. I like to apply the lessons from my personal life to my work life as well, and this is something that can be achieved with hobbies such as travelling, which I love too.
Any advice for up-and-coming youths in the Thai-Indian community who may want to follow in your footsteps and enter the corporate field?
It can’t be denied that your studies are important, but at the same time, it’s even more important to be an all-rounder. When you’re in school or university, put a lot of emphasis on extracurricular activities as well.
Make sure that you’re someone who is switched on and is aware of your surroundings, and don’t shy away from hard work. There will definitely be long hours from time to time, and if you put in the hard work, especially in the early days of your career, they will surely be fruitful and help you after a couple of years.
Be confident in yourself, and know your goals, and what you’re trying to achieve. At the same time, agility is important, as well as being a good listener. When you’re working in the corporate world, you’re working with a lot of different personalities, from different backgrounds, and from different careers. Everyone has their own expertise, so listen and adapt. The best way to achieve a particular goal might not be what you had in mind, so be ready to adapt and learn on the go.