Daniel Czepl: Striving for Excellence in Legal Services: Agri-Business

The 10 Best Legal Service Providers to Watch 2024

Four years ago, Daniel Czepl began a new phase in his career when he joined The Meridian Group as Regional Legal Counsel. He now heads the Group’s legal and compliance function as its Senior Legal Counsel, based in South Africa, providing business and legal support to Meridian’s African retail chains, wholesale divisions, commodity trading, and procurement divisions, operating throughout South East Africa.

Stepping into an Unfamiliar Industry

Prior to joining the Meridian Group in April of 2020, Daniel was Legal Counsel at eAdvance Group, an ‘Edu-tech’ start-up with a vision to revolutionize the delivery of primary and secondary education in South Africa.

While eAdvance and Meridian share an entrepreneurial approach to business, the similarities between the two go no further. Agri-business was new and unfamiliar territory. Gaining a footing in the industry, understanding the business of agribusiness and the regional and international ecosystem did not happen overnight, Daniel says.

He points out that when he joined, Meridian required a dedicated legal and compliance function, and he had to bring himself and the new legal function “online” as fast as possible. He had to work quickly to understand his client’s needs and their pain points and simultaneously socialize, implement, and then enforce new protocols to manage commercial and legal risk.

Daniel says the first and the biggest hurdle to overcome was building trust with his clients (the various business units). Gaining this trust took hard and dedicated work, with a focus not only on the quality of work output and the immediate usefulness of this deliverable but also on building relationships and demonstrating the tangible, long term benefits of utilizing the group legal function.

About the Meridian Group

The Meridian Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ma’aden, the Saudi Arabian Mining Company. Meridian is a market leader in fertilizers and agricultural commodities across Southern East Africa, specializing in the manufacture and distribution of fertilizers and agricultural commodities.

The Group caters to all farmers, from small holdings to commercial enterprises, NGOs, and government growing programs. Daniel emphasizes that Meridian’s success in the region is based on an exceptional understanding of the ecosystem in which it operates, underpinned by over 25 years of experience and unparalleled, embedded supply chain structures.

In Africa, food security is a critical challenge. Daniel underscores that the Meridian Group plays “a hugely important role” in the Southern East Africa region by supplying and supporting farmers at all levels.

When he first arrived, he saw the opportunity to play his part in leveraging Meridian’s dominant market position, excellent foundations, and experienced and dedicated leadership team to build a world-class business.

As the Group stabilizes its operations post-acquisition, it is looking to the future to determine the best strategic route for the business. Daniel says that there are numerous avenues of growth the group will be assessing across the industry and its operational capabilities. He and his team believe that the coming decade will be a high-growth phase for the business across many areas.

“Meridian’s story is one of successful entrepreneurship,” Daniel says. “It is in the DNA of the company to innovate and to find solutions when confronted with business and market challenges.”

The Professional Journey

After articles at a leading global law firm, Daniel stepped into the business world, looking for an alternative to legal practice. This led him to eAdvance Group. He points out that his opportunity to learn how to be an in-house lawyer came in the form of a position at SPARK Schools (eAdvance) – which was at that stage a start-up in its early stages.

SPARK Schools’ mission is to provide world-class, private, primary, and high school education at an affordable price point. It is a mission borne from the need for affordable education alternatives, in the wake of a failing South African public education system.

At that stage, SPARK Schools was funded by several, global social impact investors. Daniel got the opportunity to work closely with SPARK’s founders, executives, and investors through its series B and C funding rounds, securing capital for growth and operations, and working to establish effective controls to manage commercial and legal risk in the business.

“I joined SPARK when it owned and operated 7 primary schools,” he says. “When I left the company four years later, SPARK owned and operated 11 primary schools, and its first high school – serving approximately 12,000 kids.”

Daniel decided to join the Meridian Group, inspired by its growth story. He was also excited about the opportunity – and challenge – of creating a legal function in a new business.

Role of the Senior Legal Counsel

In his role as the Senior Legal Counsel, Daniel focuses on transaction support for procurement, commercial sales, and the Group’s financing activities – especially trade and commodity finance.

The role of legal counsel involves day-to-day business and legal support, negotiating sales and financings, and resolving commercial disputes. Success here depends on the quality of legal services. Daniel explains that excellent legal service is legal advice that is “useful” (fit for purpose), “comprehensive” (doesn’t miss anything out), and “considered” (have alternatives been considered?). “The same ‘excellence’ criteria should be applied uniformly,” he adds. “How you do anything is how you do everything” encapsulates this approach.

Like other businesses in the agri-business space, the business of the Group is bound to seasons, which fluctuates the demand for fertilizer. Daniel says that there is a cyclical trend to the businesses’ funding requirements for procurement and working capital, and the buildup of inventory follows with shipping, transport, and warehousing arrangements.

“The window to sell stock in time for optimal application is short – and liquidating stock through, especially, commercial and public sector sales, is critical and requires close business support,” he adds. Functionally, Daniel’s department is also responsible for governance, compliance, and intellectual property.

As he “cut his teeth” as a legal counsel for a start-up, the value proposition for his role, according to him, was that he could find practical, feasible, implementable solutions to commercial and financial ‘problems’ – with a quick turnaround and limited budget.

As Meridian scales and corporatizes, Daniel’s approach to providing solutions to his clients does not change. It is, however, accompanied by systemization and leveraging of technology and legal tech to streamline the delivery of legal services, and to ensure that business, legal, and compliance risk does not fall through the cracks.

Still, a Lot to Accomplish!

Daniel has earned a strong reputation in his field. Asked whether he has achieved everything he wanted to “Absolutely not, obviously,” he says.

He hopes to accomplish a tremendous amount more at Meridian. According to him, with the intensity of day-to-day business demands, medium- and long-term innovations and ‘good ideas’ are often neglected. He plans to allocate time to develop and implement innovations and enhancements in relation to the delivery of legal services to the Group, especially in relation to commercial contracting and transaction support.

Top of his current list is the introduction of a legal service desk and deployment of a system to build and populate commercial contracts for Meridian group companies, based on a group-approved playbook and templates. For both projects, he intends to leverage recent advancements in technology, legal tech, and AI.

“With that said – I can certainly look back on my career up to this point with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of contentless that I have found my calling,” Daniel says.

On a Personal Note

Passion for one’s work should not come at the cost of a healthy work life balance. Daniel says. Work-life balance is critical to avoid burnout. For Daniel, balance is achieved through holidays, sports, and friends.

“Holidays are an amazing way to take a pause, re-stock, and then re-engage with work, re-energized,” he says. “But holidays need to be earned!”

“Sports (I am obsessed with Padel) and gym is a fantastic way to relax during the workweek,” he adds.

A personal goal of his is to save up for a piece of land – later, a house – on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia.

Message to Aspiring Legal Professionals

Daniel left legal practice after articles. “I still wanted to be a lawyer, but I wasn’t sure where I would fit into the business world.” “I didn’t have much knowledge about the legal industry outside of legal practice.”

He had some skills, and fortunately, he had spent his articles learning from some of the best lawyers in the industry. The skills of a recently qualified lawyer require massive amounts of polishing. Daniel’s appetite for learning (and a fair amount of trial and error) helped with the polishing process. At the time, he was driven to learn as much as he could about business, finance, and the role of a corporate legal counsel. He points out that young and aspiring lawyers do not tend to know much about the legal roles and opportunities available in the corporate world. “So, I would say to a young or aspiring lawyer—pre- or post articles – if practice doesn’t work out, all is not lost,” Daniel says.

“I would also say that legal knowledge/skill, while critical, is not the sole determinant of a successful corporate or commercial lawyer – business acumen is key; effective solutions, not hours worked is the measure of success; a drive to learn is critical – learning and absorbing from business leaders, external counsel and specialists along the way must be a priority,” he adds.