Wilfried Drean, head of legal at Suez Environnement, speaks with Candy Chan about the challenges of building water waste treatment facilities in rural parts of Asia and trends in the region’s waste treatment sector
Can you tell me a little about the legal team at Suez and the projects it is working on in South-East Asia?
We are based in Paris but have regional headquarters in Hong Kong. Our regional office does projects in Greater China and Asia as a whole, not including India and Australia.
In Asia, our legal team comprises six experienced lawyers and we provide support on the development side, helping to submit proposals and participating in public tenders. We ensure transparency rules and public funding rules are observed and work on the preparation of the joint-ventures with our partners, locally and internationally, to perform the contracts.
We currently have projects in Indonesia in the water treatment industry - drinking water and waste-water treatment. So we see opportunities for the construction of plants, extending existing plants and operation of drinking water productions plants and/or distribution network.
What are the main trends in your business sector in Asia?
The trend in China is for better enforcement of environmental protection rules and an increasing number of these rules. There is also increasing interest from the authorities and private parties to go into the waste treatment activities, in particular household or industrial waste. We also see a trend towards an increasing focus on improving the waste-water treatment capacity in Southeast Asia.
Has the company ever been involved in any public-private partnership projects in Asia?
We work with local governments across Asia so we are working in a PPP-type environment. A PPP can have different contractual translations because PPP is a term for a family of various contractual arrangements. We do work for the public sector, we do work in the interest of the local communities and local governments, so we are working in a PPP state-of-mind.
When you are developing water treatment plants, how important is it to have a good relationship with the local community in which you are working?
When you work in the drinking water sector, it is very important. We are essentially working for each individual in a city or community as we help the local governments provide them with drinking water. We are always keen on opening doors to local communities to show them what we are doing, explain about the quality of the water, our cleanliness procedures and measures. We also have special programmes for the less-wealthy to ensure everybody has access to water. We also support local governments in communicating by trying to embed into communities as much as we can.
Have you ever faced any legal challenges to building water treatment plants?
When you work on long term projects - 10, 15, 20 year contracts - you do sometimes encounter legal issues. If we do, we explain our role in a transparent manner, the benefit we are bringing to the local community and the value of the work we are doing. Drinking water requires treatment and is not available like the fruit on a tree, you cannot just open the tap and the water comes. Before that you have to have a lot of know-how, expense and equipment, and of course personnel. We explain the value of all these, and usually it is sufficient to solve all the legal issues.
Does the price of drinking water ever cause disputes?
The price people pay for the water is not usually set by us but by the local governments. We support local governments to make decisions that reflect inflation and other factors.
Can we discuss the company’s use of outside legal counsel? How do you choose the law firms you work with?
When look for outside legal support for infrastructure projects, we look for firms with a practice specialising in this area. In Indonesia, Baker and McKenzie is usually well-placed.
What we also look for is local knowledge because national practices are different so you need firms with true local experience.
Water and waste contracts are different from energy and transport, so when it comes to these projects we need lawyers with experience of advising on design and build contracts and good at putting together a build-operate-transfer (BOT) project. It is a sector for which we need a high level of legal expertise.
How much of your work legal work is done in-house and how much is outsourced?
It is difficult to say because you have different phases of project work, you have preparation, bidding and construction, then you have operation. External legal advice is more intensive on the project preparation and bidding phase up to signing. For these phases, we have up to 50% of the work done by external counel.
What do you expect will occupy your legal team in 2016?
On the legal side, we are always internally trying to influence the business side - the business development and the operations side - with all the essentials for a prudent legal operation. We work on outlining for our non-lawyers all the things you need to know to be safe and efficient development and operations manager. Another important role for us is to ensure that the group procedures are well understood, well known and put into practice.
An important project for 2016 is the rebranding of the company to Suez. Our group is now working as one unified service company in the water and waste industry under this name and the legal team are helping to roll out the rebranding exercise across the company in Asia.
We are taking part by ensuring the changes happen in the company and all its subsidiaries to localise the name Suez. We expect a lot of communication with stakeholders, clients and the community.
Head of legal
Wilfried Drean heads the legal team at Suez Environnement in Asia, which is headquartered in Hong Kong. Leading a team of six experienced lawyers, Drean’s activities include projects, acquisitions and corporate matters across the jurisdictions of Greater China and Southeast Asia.
Before moving to Suez’s Hong Kong office in 2010, Drean was based in Suez’s headquarters in Paris. He has previously worked in the oil and gas drilling and defence sectors.