When shoppers fill up their carts at the grocery store, they’re probably not thinking about Natalia Torres—but she’s thinking about them. She is the senior legal counsel for Bunge Latin America, which buys various agricultural commodities—like grains, soybeans, and oils—and distributes them across Latin America. Agribusiness appeals to her, she says, because it touches everyone and allows her myriad opportunities for growth.
“When people sit down at the dinner table in Latin America or the US, they don’t think about the supply chain that started with seed and fertilizer in rural Argentina or Paraguay,” Torres says. “The efficiency and dependability of agribusiness makes it possible for them to afford high-quality food and not think about whether it will be in the store tomorrow. Being at the center of that supply chain is a great challenge, a great responsibility, and a great opportunity to grow as local economies grow.”
Torres acts as the sole lawyer for Bunge Latin America, where her to-dos change every day. One morning, she might participate in a management meeting; the next morning, she might have to answer a crisis call. She also prepares presentations for business teams and helps devise appropriate responses to investors’ questions. To gather insight and support, she is constantly communicating with her colleagues at the White Plains, New York headquarters as well as those in St. Louis, Missouri, and Geneva, Switzerland.
Acting as a one-woman department can be challenging, especially with so many responsibilities falling within Torres’s purview. She manages her workload by anticipating the legal needs that could arise so she can work ahead, and educating the business lines on an ongoing basis. She also evaluates her projects based on the principles of operational excellence, a management style that minimizes waste and maximizes standardization. Using those principles, Torres weighs the business value of her projects against the resources available. “I may have to identify resources that could do something more cost-effectively than I could,” she says.
The hardest part of her job, she says, is managing risk effectively for the company. “Legal training and extensive experience in a tough region like Latin America can sometimes make lawyers conservative about risk,” Torres says. “But after many years working in the region, I know that companies can get great results and be principled and legally compliant.”
Risk-wise, the legal environment in Latin America poses complex challenges, like “inflation, corruption, lack of judicial independence, foreign exchange control regimes, and constantly changing and unclear regulations,” Torres notes. “That challenge is where we add value as in-house lawyers—by managing risk rather than just saying no.”
Managing risk requires a thorough understanding of the region’s legal systems and their quirks. Thankfully, Torres can bring her native knowledge to bear—she grew up in Venezuela. “There are definitely differences in culture around the region, but lots of similarities too. An understanding of the culture as well as the business is very important for the role we play as in-house counsel,” Torres says. She received a law degree in Venezuela, which gives her a firm grasp on the civil law system, while her US law degree gives her knowledge of the common law system. With her two degrees in tow, Torres can manage risk from an educated position.
“I have already experienced some wonderful opportunities in my short time with the company: empowerment, exposure, agility, and the ability to navigate into uncharted waters.”
One of the other big challenges of working at Bunge is the company’s decentralized structure, which presents significant opportunities for growth. The structure encourages employees to make decisions independently and implement them quickly, but it requires some adjusting for newcomers. Torres remembers participating in a conference call during her first month at Bunge. “It was certainly a pleasant surprise to me that the conclusion we reached would be immediately implemented, with no need for further input,” she says.
Now, having adapted to the fast-paced decision-making that happens at Bunge, Torres says she appreciates that each employee has agency. “I have already experienced some wonderful opportunities in my short time with the company: empowerment, exposure, agility, and the ability to navigate into uncharted waters. That has made me a more well-rounded counsel for the business,” she says.
To seize the opportunities presented by Bunge’s decentralized structure, Torres draws on the lessons she learned at Cargill, an agribusiness giant where she worked for sixteen years. At Cargill, Torres learned about operational excellence and the importance of closely working with colleagues to share knowledge and avoid duplicating work.
Torres transitioned from Cargill to Bunge in 2016: she wanted to continue in the agribusiness industry and work with a smaller legal team to maximize her impact. With her one-woman department, Torres has certainly fulfilled that desire.
Above all, Torres appreciates working for a values-driven company. Bunge emphasizes safety throughout the organization—to the point where Bunge Latin America begins every Monday morning meetings with a safety tip. “The best part of my career has been working for organizations that are value-based and where principles matter,” she says.