Peter Wexler has worldwide legal reach at Schneider Electric

Tasked with supporting Schneider Electric through a period of aggressive acquisitions, Wexler has created an unconventional team built to absorb any change

A few years ago, Peter Wexler was getting used to life on the run—and in the air. With a French phrase book tucked under his arm and language-learning audio loaded on his iPod, he shuffled through airport security on his way to or from world capitals. Wexler had been tapped to head the legal and insurance departments for a leading global energy management company.

Now, six years later, Wexler has steered Schneider Electric through several complex and high-profile acquisitions. Wexler travels about ten to fifteen days per month, getting as much face time as possible with Schneider’s 265 legal and risk management teammates spread across thirty-seven countries. He is responsible for all legal, insurance, risk management, and compliance aspects of the company that has 160,000 employees, $35 billion in revenue, and hundreds of plants and facilities.

Wexler took over when his predecessor retired. By then, he had accumulated the right combination of experience and skills to create and lead a diverse legal team responsible for supporting a growing and ever-changing business. He gained international exposure in private practice and then went in-house with Boston-based Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. There, Wexler worked with, and was mentored by, senior executives on projects in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, and Indonesia. In 1999, he moved to American Power Conversion Corp. When Schneider Electric acquired the company in 2007, Wexler negotiated the $6.1 billion deal and was put in charge of its largest global business unit.

Almost immediately, Schneider Electric continued its history of acquisitions by adding Pelco in 2007 and two Indian power companies in 2009. By then, Wexler was made senior vice president and general counsel and started crafting a new kind of legal team. “I was very fortunate to be able to create my own team, and I’ve worked hard to build a legal department that can meet business needs but remain mostly business-model agnostic,” he says.

When Wexler took over, Schneider didn’t have a unified legal team. Instead, isolated divisional legal teams served the corporation. The rapidly growing business would often shift from a country-dominant business model to a product-centered approach and back. Those shifts sometimes left the legal department scrambling to keep up. That’s what Wexler changed.

He moved to create two main areas. First, the remade legal department has regional general counsel that manage all legal aspects in specific regions. Then, the department has global functions like mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, insurance, and compliance. “We’re an aggressive acquirer and divestor, and we can’t change our legal structure every time we make a change or acquire a company that has a slightly different operating model,” Wexler says. “We needed something flexible enough to handle all business needs even as our strategies evolve.”

The strategy is working. Since 2009, Schneider Electric has made sixteen major acquisitions totaling approximately $10.5 billion. In 2011, the corporation acquired an Indian maker of inverters for $226 million. Three days later, it finalized a $2 billion deal for IT automation company Telvent. Major data center and supply chain management deals came in the following years, culminating with the $5.5 billion acquisition of Invensys in 2014. The flurry of deals has positioned Schneider as a leader in smart grid technology as energy management and delivery companies go digital.

After a merger, Wexler works his integration plan carefully. “We hire from the outside but also promote from within and from acquisitions. We want people to feel like they are part of the team, and we want continuity,” he says. Wexler believes that the key to post-merger success lies in communication. Wexler spends time with his reports, meeting often to define success and expectations. Though it all, he preaches teamwork and accountability. “I assume at this level, we’re all technically competent,” he says. “The rest is about how well you can work with everyone else. The people that perform the best and are the best team players will end up in positions where they can continue to flourish.”

Wexler has spent a lot of time in the energy and engineering sector and knows just how critical it is for each of his lawyers to really understand what Schneider Electric does. “Any lawyer that goes in-house has to know how the business operates in order to give practical legal advice that is truly beneficial,” he says. Wexler assigns lawyers to specific Schneider businesses. Then, they sit down as a team and talk about what the business needs and how legal can provide the best support. If a business changes its model or structure, they reconvene. Additionally, Wexler holds seminars for various parts of his department once or twice a year. In doing so, he ensures legal is strong and consistent across all parts of the far-reaching corporation.

As they go deeper into 2015, Wexler and his colleagues are streamlining Schneider Electric’s legal team and finalizing the post-merger integration of Invensys. With global economies down, the company will likely reduce mergers and acquisition activities and refocus in other arenas. That means legal will again need to find new ways to support an evolving organization. “The pressure is really on for us to deliver on the targets for the company,” Wexler says. But that’s nothing new, and Wexler has shown that he’s up to the task.