Axel Viaene: Starbucks

Starbucks’ head of legal for Emea Axel Viaene is a man on a caffeine high – and the extra boost will come in handy when it comes to handling the coffee empire’s ambitious expansion plans. David Middleton reports

So, you work at Starbucks, perhaps the world’s most famous coffee store chain. You have unlimited coffee of your choice from the enormous range at your fingertips. What do you drink?

Well, if you’re head of legal for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) Axel Viaene, the choice is simple.

“Tall skinny latte.” That’s it? “I have about three a day,” he says. “I used to have three grande sizes a day when I started in 2003, but I’ve toned it down.”

Caffeine has played a big role in Viaene’s career. He has never worked in private practice, joining the Coca-Cola Company’s in-house training programme straight out of law school. “I’ve had a very caffeinated life,” says Viaene.

With all that caffeine, he must be practically bouncing off the walls. But that amount of energy is needed to keep on top of the 900-odd stores in the region.

Starbucks operates a small legal function in Europe, with just one German-based lawyer to assist Viaene. Consequently, the company outsources almost all of its legal work, with Baker & McKenzie the counsel of choice. In the UK, Clifford Chance and Wragge & Co are the other main beneficiaries. Across Europe, though, Viaene turns to a number of boutique or regional firms in different jurisdictions.

Viaene is coy about divulging Starbucks’ annual external spend for Europe, only to say it was “huge”, believed to be around the £6m mark.

But Starbucks operates an unusual structure in the Emea region. Stores in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany are wholly owned and come under Viaene’s direct supervision. Stores in France and Spain, meanwhile, are run through a 50-50 joint venture with Grupo Vips, which has its own 10-lawyer in-house function.

Starbucks also has joint ventures covering Greece and Cyprus, and Switzerland and Austria with Marinopoulos, which has five lawyers based in Athens. The company licenses its brand in the Middle East to outlets operated by Al Shaya, which has four in-house lawyers.

It all adds up to a lot of collaboration for Viaene, who is based in Amsterdam, where, bizarrely, there are no Starbucks stores other than the in-house coffee shop.

“My role doubles as in-house and external counsel,” explains Viaene. “In the UK I’m sitting down with the outside counsel to instruct them. With our joint venture partners I’m acting as an ambassador, a correspondent, watching over the quality to make sure that the brand is protected.”

Having no private practice experience is an advantage, he believes. “I know what the [internal] clients want and how to advise them,” he explains. “With private practice the mechanics are different – they’re also running their own business. When you’re in-house, your life, your fortune rests on the company you work for. What you give them is no more, no less.”

Brand protection is a massive issue for Starbucks and remains its number one legal issue. The company has a dedicated team handling the issue at Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters, where most of the 40-odd North American lawyers sit, including global general counsel Paula Boggs.

For the Emea region, brand protection is not something Viaene has to worry about, other than issue spotting. His time is taken up ensuring the smooth operation of the expansion of the Starbucks empire.

“About 40 per cent of my work is site development – acquisition of new store sites, rent renewals and so forth,” says Viaene. “Another 40 per cent is human resources-related, handling all of our employee issues.”

The remainder is a varied bunch, including corporate governance and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Viaene also has a direct involvement in contracts for the company’s Switzerland trading house, through which Starbucks’ global coffee supply is sourced.

“There are issues of quality control, transportation, warehousing and insurance,” explains Viaene.

With some 200 stores planned to open in the next year, it is little wonder Viaene is reviewing his options to get a little bit of help in-house.

“It’s certainly up for discussion, but we need to work out which is the right model for us,” he says. “Do we have a token in-house presence with a large external support, or do we have a big in-house [team] and little external support? I suspect it will be somewhere in between.”

Whatever Starbucks decides, the one thing that is unlikely to change is Viaene’s order – tall skinny latte. Just watch out once he takes that approach to his external spend.

Axel Viaene
Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) legal director

Organisation Starbucks
Sector Retail
Turnover $7.08bn (£3.84bn)
Employees 115,000 staff in 11,500 stores
Legal capability Global – 45, Europe – 2
Main law firms Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Wragge & Co
Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) legal director Axel Viaene
Reporting to Vice-president International Paul Mutty and general counsel Paula Boggs
Axel Viaene’s CV Education: University of Leuven (law) (1996); University of Chicago LLM (1997)
1997-2000 – The Coca-Cola Company, international associate attorney, Atlanta;
Work history: 2000-03 – Dell Computers, Benelux legal director, Amsterdam; 2003-present – Starbucks, Emea legal director, Amsterdam