Upward Growth

How Cheryl Quain, a long-tenured Syngenta lawyer, is helping protect the company from risk and liability and enhancing its ability to innovate new solutions that will produce more food for the planet

Cheryl Quain, Syngenta

Imagine supporting an international company with 27,000 employees, 8 product lines, 107 production sites, and $13 billion in revenue. Now consider doing that in agriculture—one of the world’s most strictly regulated sectors. That’s what Cheryl Quain does as corporate general counsel and regional compliance officer at Syngenta. In that role, she navigates government oversight and ensures legal and ethical compliance in an era of increased scrutiny and heavy litigation. To do so successfully, she must understand the nuances of a complex business, stay ahead of ever-evolving issues, and keep in step with a business that seeks to outpace its competition.

You’d never know it, but Quain doesn’t come from a farming background, either. After four years in private practice, she joined the company in 1997, when it was known as AstraZeneca. Two decades later, she’s mastered agricultural jargon and embraced the culture that comes with it. But she doesn’t describe Syngenta as an agricultural company. “People know Syngenta as an agrochemical and seed business, but we’re really an innovation company,” she says. “We have the most productive research and development in terms of ROI and launch more products than of our competitors.”

It’s that understanding of the business and its trajectory that makes Quain successful. She and her teams embed themselves in business units, provide updates, answer questions, and work tirelessly to support Syngenta’s business objectives so that they can act as true business partners that identify not only potential problems but also areas of opportunity.

As the industry evolves, Syngenta is doubling down on seed breeding and crop protection innovation and investing more heavily in digital solutions that help farmers manage their crop operations more efficiently and profitably. The goal is to ensure producers can meet the agricultural needs of a growing global population, even as resources, including arable land and fresh water, remain limited. The company focuses on eight major crops and uses expertise in bioscience, breeding, and chemistry to develop products that increase yields, enhance safety, and preserve natural resources. These issues coalesce in a unique corporate initiative known as the Good Growth Plan, through which Syngenta is working with growers, governments, NGOs, and others to improve the sustainability of agriculture and its business through six measurable commitments it aims to achieve by the year 2020.

The once-public company went private in May 2017, when ChemChina, a government-owned entity, acquired Syngenta for $43 billion. Quain says the deal allowed her team and the company to maintain operations with minimal interruption. She views the completed process as a major competitive advantage. “In an area of heavy consolidation, we’re the first major industry player to complete our strategic activity, which is a change of ownership, not a merger, while our competitors go through full mergers that can be disruptive and distracting,” she says. With the deal in place, Syngenta can now focus on creating value for its customers, communities,  employees, and stakeholders while remaining aligned with its Good Growth Plan.

Quain’s two decades in the company helped her navigate the change in ownership well. “I’ve been with this company for twenty years, but there have been so many evolutions that during that time I have had lots of different jobs,” she says. “There’s consistency in mission and culture, but the changes have kept things fresh.”

Quain started as a commercial attorney supporting the business before moving to the corporate side. In 2008, she helped create a formal compliance department from the ground up. She and others have trained company leaders on related issues, arming them with effective communication tools and helping them participate in ongoing discussions on ethics and compliance. In doing so, Quain and her legal teammates have worked to create a “speak up” culture where employees can be comfortable raising issues and asking questions about regulations, standards, and practices.

In recent years, headline-making breaches at other companies and Syngenta’s increased focus on digital solutions have required Quain to sharpen her skills in areas such as compliance and data privacy. Syngenta’s legal team uses online courses, webinars, seminars, in-house presentations, and other tools to stay responsive and effective as the company’s needs change based on internal strategy and external factors. Likewise, Quain must keep herself up to date through news articles and various industry reports in many jurisdictions to maintain compliance and anticipate changes in policy and regulations. Additionally, the legal team needs to understand what Syngenta is introducing to the market so that they can educate others on the inherent legal issues and proper use of the products. 

It’s a challenging job, but it’s one that Quain has found endlessly rewarding. “Stakeholders want to do business with companies that are both effective and ethical,” she says. During her time at Syngenta, Quain has worked with others to build a formal compliance department. She’s also helped the company stay competitive and make progress toward achieving the goals of its Good Growth Plan. In doing so, she’s helping Syngenta harness innovation and technology to promote sustainable agriculture around the world.