Stefan Sulzer’s career trajectory has taken him through diverse experiences and across continents. He grew up in Switzerland and began his professional journey working as an investment advisor at a Swiss bank, then attended law school and worked at an international law firm. He credits his Swiss heritage with sparking his interest in international law and instilling in him a global outlook. “Because of Switzerland’s size and location, it has developed strong business connections with other countries. An international mind-set and open-mindedness is crucial for success,” Sulzer says.
To quench his curiosity about the differences between civil law in continental Europe and common law in the United States, Sulzer extended his education at the University of Michigan Law School, where he received his master’s degree in law (LLM) and also worked as a research scholar for two years. He joined the global healthcare company Novartis in 2007 as head of corporate finance and legal at the Novartis headquarters in Switzerland. He moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2011, shortly after Novartis completed its acquisition of Alcon, assuming responsibility for supporting Alcon’s business development and licensing functions.
Later, he took on the role of head of legal and compliance for the Latin America and the Caribbean region before stepping into his current role as head of legal for the US and Canada region. The combination of his experience in finance and law drives his vision that an in-house attorney should function as an essential partner in business. Now, as Alcon has become an independent, stand-alone company after the spin-off from Novartis earlier this year, Sulzer looks forward to the increased opportunities for his team to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and take ownership of the new challenges coming their way.
Sulzer says that he works best in an environment where he’s constantly challenged to step outside of his comfort zone and learn new things. He loves the constant evolution of the legal field, and his multifaceted background has allowed him to fold seemingly divergent responsibilities into his tenure at Alcon. What ties these various elements together is his commitment to serving as an integral part of the business. He compares his role to that of a football player, saying, “I want to be the legal business partner of choice, playing on the field with the team, not just supporting the team from the sidelines.” In the same way that football players have to earn their spots on the field, Sulzer stresses that an in-house lawyer must earn his or her seat at the table with the business. He sees three essential elements to becoming a legal business partner of choice: you have to understand the business, you have to be close to the business, and you have to add value to the business.
Understanding the business simply comes down to knowing the products and how they are sold, Sulzer explains. For instance, going on field rides with sales representatives provides valuable insights on how the sales force interacts and engages with customers and promote products. Closeness to the business is based on proactive involvement. Sulzer highlights, “You need to become part of the business team. This may start with a simple thing like taking an office close to the business function, rather than sitting with the legal department. Colocation provides an opportunity to easily engage in discussions with the business, allowing you to identify and address legal issues early on.”
To become the legal business partner of choice, you also have to add value to the business. “It’s not just about being a great lawyer; it is something that goes beyond legal knowledge,” Sulzer says. It is about that team on the field—boiling down complex ideas into simple execution, orienting yourself toward the solution, and taking a big-picture view.
An in-house lawyer must be able to explain complex legal issues in a way nonlawyers can understand, Sulzer says. If you have a brilliant legal idea or strategy but you are not able to effectively communicate it, that brilliant idea or strategy may never be executed. As a legal business partner of choice, you work with the business on solutions and keep your brilliantly drafted and researched legal opinion as a backup, he says. Sulzer sees in-house lawyers as in a unique position to connect the dots.
Alcon’s spinoff from Novartis has presented great opportunities to dive deeply into the medical device business, and Sulzer has been thrilled about the prospects this has presented for his team. “It’s important to me to empower team members and see how everyone in the organization makes a positive impact on the success of the organization,” he says. Sulzer continues to build the interdisciplinary nature of his team, going back to his holistic approach of adding value to the business. “We are continuing to further integrate my team as enablers of the organization by developing expertise and providing legal advice in several connected areas, such as commercial, advertising and promotion, and communications, enabling us to tear down silos to become a more nimble organization,” he explains.
Ultimately, Sulzer’s efforts put entrepreneurial spirit into action to stretch beyond business to the company’s mission of enhancing people’s quality of life. “It’s not just legal work. We help people see better, and that makes our work even more purposeful and rewarding,” Sulzer says.
Norton Rose Fulbright is honored to work with Dr. Stefan Sulzer and the talented legal team at Alcon Inc. Our vision is to provide world-class legal support to our clients through our business principles of Quality, Unity, Integrity and Community. Please visit nortonrosefulbright.com to learn more.