TLS Interview Series Part 1: Tobias Kruis, Tech Data, a TD SYNNEX Company
Dennis van de Schraaf, TLS Director of Business Development, recently interviewed Tobias Kruis, European Director of Ethics and Compliance and Global Competition Counsel at Tech Data, a TD SYNNEX company, about the ins and outs of his career and current role.
Tobias, tell us a bit more about your career thus far and how you ended up in the world of competition and compliance?
I started my career studying law at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. When you study law here in Germany, you must study all areas of law. You can't really specialize in just one thing. I worked for a professor who specialized in European Union Law and that is when I became interested in that area, and more specifically, competition law, which is heavily determined by European Union laws and regulations. So, after I finished my first state exam, I decided to deepen my knowledge. I did a master's in the UK at King’s College London. I also attended the classes of Richard Whish, who is known as “the guru” of European competition law.
After finishing my master’s and the second state exam to become fully qualified, I started my professional career in competition law, first working as an associate at Latham & Watkins in Brussels. After a couple of years, I moved back to my hometown, Munich, to join the law firm Noerr, also as a competition lawyer. Just over a year later, I decided to leave the big law firm partner track and seek an in-house opportunity. In 2016, I was glad to get the opportunity to join the in-house legal department at Tech Data as the competition law specialist. I was also responsible for the antitrust compliance program, where I developed and provided training. By the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, Tech Data’s Legal and Ethics & Compliance department was going through a global restructure, which gave me the opportunity to take on a new role as European Director of Ethics and Compliance. I applied internally and got the job, and here I am still.
How do you divide your time between your competition and compliance roles?
It really depends on the matter and on what is happening. In more “quiet” periods, where there is no big, ongoing matter, you could say it is a 50/50 split. I try to focus mainly on proactive initiatives on both sides. For instance, we have been involved in the evaluation of the European Commission’s vertical competition rules. On the ethics and compliance side, we are monitoring the implementation of the Whistleblower Directive here in Europe. Additionally, we are constantly working with our business teams to review our internal controls and, where possible, improve those controls. But if there is, for instance, a big M&A transaction that requires regulatory filings and antitrust approvals, that can consume close to 100 percent of my time for a while.
What has been the biggest challenge in your work over the past years and what was it that made it so challenging?
The greatest challenge I faced was the transition from law firm attorney to in-house counsel.
When you make that switch, you quickly recognize that you need to change the way you provide advice to the company. As outside counsel, most of your clients are your counterparts with a law degree or at least some legal knowledge. As in-house counsel, both in competition law and in compliance, your colleagues are not lawyers and have very different and diverse backgrounds. When asking for legal advice, they often expect a yes or no answer and that can be challenging. To solve this, you really need to ensure your advice is always pragmatic and solutions oriented. You don’t want to earn the reputation of being the “department of no.” So, you need to ensure that non-lawyers can understand your advice and that it is digestible for everyone, including those without a law degree. Of course, you should always ensure that your advice is practical and can also be implemented with the resources you have available.
And then there are times when you have to say no because something is simply not possible, perhaps from a compliance perspective, but then you should not stop there. In that case, it is important you provide an alternative, and that of course requires you to have a good understanding of the business and its needs—especially as those needs evolve. For example, in our area, the industry is facing a challenging transition to cloud computing and everything-as-a-service business models. You need to understand what's going on to be able to really advise your business colleagues properly.
The Tech Data and SYNNEX merger took place recently. How does this merger affect TD SYNNEX's global strategy from a competition and compliance perspective?
The merger was completed early September 2021 and with that, TD SYNNEX has become the largest distributor and solutions aggregator for the IT ecosystem globally, at least in terms of sales. If you look at the geographic profile, we have added some countries in some regions, Japan, for example, where Tech Data had not been present. In terms of strategy in this area, especially competition and compliance, from my perspective, it doesn’t really change our strategy. At Tech Data, we have always taken compliance very seriously. And the same goes for our colleagues from legacy SYNNEX. The most important thing now is to focus on bringing one and one together, and then really make the most of it. Ideally, one and one should not add up to two but maybe three or even more, but to get there, we must ensure that we have a best-in-class compliance program that also benefits our business partners. Ultimately, compliance provides us with a competitive advantage in the industry because our suppliers and customers will prefer to work with a reliable and trustworthy partner who shares their values and commitment to compliance.
What major developments do you expect to see in the competition and compliance market in the coming three to five years?
Overall, compliance requirements and expectations will grow globally. For example, in Europe at the moment, many countries are busy with implementing the so-called Whistleblower Directive, which will bring new requirements for companies. Likewise, data privacy will remain important. While the European General Data Protection Regulation has been in force for a couple of years already, we’re now seeing data privacy requirements also spreading and increasing in other areas of the world. Furthermore, there is a huge focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and supply chain accountability. In addition to that, the cooperation of regulatory authorities will continue and potentially become even more intense, despite the current geopolitical challenges.
In the area of competition law, there's a huge debate going on—how do we include those other policy objectives, such as battling climate change and protecting data privacy, in the antitrust assessment? For example, how can you allow companies to cooperate and collaborate to meet carbon-reduction targets? So, there's a lot going on. For companies, that means you need to closely watch those developments, and then adapt your compliance program as needed. Another big topic is digitization. On the one hand, it will bring a lot of new opportunities, but on the other, it may lead to new risks and challenges.
How do you expect technological advances to impact legal services or the legal industry in the next five years?
I expect those to have a huge impact. You can already see that today. For example, within legal departments, there is huge automation potential that will allow in-house lawyers to work and spend their time more efficiently. Automation can help us get rid of redundant, administrative tasks and shift our attention to higher value activities.
At the same time, using legal tools and thinking how you can implement legal tools in your company will also significantly improve the user experience of your business colleagues. For example, at TD SYNNEX, we have been busy developing our own self-help tools both on the legal side and on the compliance side. Think of contract automation tools or digital policy guidance tools that really help our business colleagues to get what they need much faster and are much more focused and targeted than requiring them to study a five-to-ten-page policy.
Furthermore, from a compliance perspective, it will be important to think about how you can leverage the data that is available already in your company. How can you use that efficiently to ensure an effective compliance program, especially for assessing and monitoring risks? And finally, in my view, digitization will also enable us to implement compliance controls by design. For example, if the company is working on a software tool that aims to harmonize and centralize certain work streams within the company, it's very valuable if you as a compliance expert sit together with the colleagues working on those projects to allow you to provide input to implement compliance controls “by design.” Identifying and making use of these opportunities will significantly improve the quality of your compliance program.
On a more private note, if you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?
When I was studying in London in 2007 and 2008, I fell in love with a certain burger chain there that offered what they called gourmet burgers—you could say fancy burgers compared to the standard fast-food restaurants that we had here in Germany. At the time, I toyed with the idea of opening my own burger store back home. I never got round to it, and I missed the right moment because at the time, there were only fast-food shops. But now, if you visit Munich, you will see there is a burger shop or restaurant on almost every corner.