Fred Holc Is on a Journey to Refine the Legal Function

Fred Holc is building an award-winning commercial legal team for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the largest energy producers in the world

Fred Holc, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Photo by Caglar Madenci/Studio Sakura

One of the legal minds behind a Middle Eastern powerhouse, Fred Holc is helping to shape the future of the oil and gas industry in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. His employer, the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), produces three million barrels of oil and about ten billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, and Holc is spearheading its commercial legal team, responsible for managing its everyday business and adapting its portfolio to the ever-changing global energy landscape.

Born in Switzerland and raised in Poland, Holc attended the American School of Warsaw and studied in New York as part of an exchange program before going to university and law school in England. The opportunity for yet another new destination emerged in 2006, when he was working as an attorney in London for global law firm Shearman & Sterling. The firm needed an additional lawyer on location in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—the site of its client, ADNOC.

“Without thinking, I was the first person with my hand up, though I barely knew where Abu Dhabi was on a map,” Holc says. “It sounded like an amazing adventure.”

After Holc landed in the Persian Gulf, that adventure turned into a lasting career. Now, as the general counsel heading up ADNOC’s group corporate and commercial legal department, Holc is responsible for all of the company’s transactional work across the oil and gas value chain, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, and concessions. Holc is one of the architects of the current concession model used for all oil and gas concessions across the Emirate.

ADNOC has been producing and preserving the UAE’s hydrocarbon reserves on behalf of the government since 1971, and it was the first client that Holc worked for upon his arrival in the country, which is not surprising, given that the company had been a client of Shearman & Sterling since its inception. “It was a long relationship that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon, which turned out to be a pillar of my twelve-year career in the UAE,” Holc says.

Holc learned the oil and gas business from his mentor, Philip Dundas, Shearman & Sterling’s former managing partner in Abu Dhabi. “I really liked private practice,” Holc says. “They were amazing guys. I was literally off the plane and immersed in the industry. It was all about oil and gas, and ADNOC was one of our main clients in the country.”

Within a few years, Holc was spending 95 percent of his time on ADNOC matters and was closely integrated with the company’s management. “At one point, I received an offer that I couldn’t refuse,” Holc says. “The current group chief legal counsel, Salem Al Darei, who had done a two-year placement with Shearman & Sterling and had just taken over leadership of the legal division, asked me whether I would help him create a world-class legal function and be responsible for developing and managing a transactional legal department—certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Holc has been building that department for five years. While he is now managing close to twenty lawyers, he is still searching for talent to support the high amount of work required at the organization. “Everyone is working around the clock,” he says. “I was extremely lucky to find the people we have today. We have an amazing team, but we are not at the end of the road. We need to continue to grow to keep up with the demands of the business.”

Even with a lean department, Holc’s legal team is making a massive impact on the company’s growth trajectory. Recently, ADNOC’s $3 billion bond offering for a crude oil pipeline was named the “Finance Deal of the Year,” and the International Financial Law Review recognized the ADNOC Distribution initial public offering as the 2018 “Equity Deal of the Year.”

Holc’s priority is to make sure every deal is “owned” by a legal team member, who is on top of every element of that deal. “We still need a lot of external legal support, but we need to be the driving force because no one knows ADNOC’s business like we do,” Holc says, adding that he is extremely selective in whom he hires. “The technical expertise is, of course, paramount, but that is not enough. They have to be the kind of person who understands this world and can really help drive the business, instead of being the stereotypical blocking function.”

This philosophy has paid off. The ADNOC legal team recently earned the Association of Corporate Counsel Middle East’s Achievement Award, which recognizes individual excellence as well as the advancement of law in the Middle East and contributions to the society’s social welfare. ADNOC was particularly lauded for its scholarship and training program for young Emirati lawyers.

“We send them to the United States or United Kingdom to do their legal studies, mentor them, and place them in training programs,” Holc says. “My current team largely consists of expats, but we are actively looking for excellent local talent and are very focused on molding the next generation of local lawyers.”

Holc concludes that “none of this would have been possible without Salem Al Darei’s vision and huge support. He has always been very clear as to where he wants the legal function to be at the end of this journey.”

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Shearman & Sterling LLP:

“Fred has a powerful combination of sound judgment, strong commercial sense, and the ability to lead his team with single-minded focus and vision. He’s also one of the nicest people in the industry.”

Ben Shorten, Partner