Legal Departments Of The Year: Chemtura GC Billie Flaherty Not Fazed By Bankruptcy Or Other Crises
One publication dubbed Billie Flaherty the "Rebound Queen," for helping global chemical company Chemtura Corporation get through a difficult bankruptcy. But it's hardly her only success in the corporate world.
When she worked for Pitney Bowes, Flaherty negotiated the $30 million sale of the Stamford company's 22-acre main manufacturing complex to a commercial real estate developer. At New Jersey-based GenTek, she was the face of the company, calming political and civic leaders and community activists after significant chemical releases from plants in California and Delaware. And as managing attorney at Hanson North America in Pittsburgh, she challenged insurance company decisions to deny coverage for environmental liabilities, resulting in $300 million in negotiated settlements.
For her many achievements in a corporate legal setting, Flaherty, currently the senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Chemtura, will receive the Connecticut Law Tribune's Lifetime Achievement Award at an upcoming Legal Departments of the Year ceremony.
She has the enthusiastic backing of her Middlebury-based Chemtura legal staff. "Billie has the uncanny ability to scope any challenge, and deduce the complexities in a way that make solving the biggest problems both actionable and achievable," corporate legal staffers wrote in response to an emailed question.
How many attorneys start their careers with the goal of working in-house? Flaherty may be one of the few. But, she notes, "my career path has not always been a straight line."
In fact, after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1982, she started out her career in litigation at a Pittsburgh law firm. But she left after two years for in-house work at Pittsburgh companies, first Westinghouse Electric Corp. and then Koppers Company.
"I practiced outside for a while with the goal to go in-house. While I enjoy litigation, it was very reactive," she said of that first job out of law school. An in-house lawyer, can certainly help out when there is trouble. But, even better, according to Flaherty, a GC can also offer advice on how to stay out of trouble.
It was at Koppers that Flaherty settled into a career niche. There, she was responsible for environmental, health and safety compliance for the company's chemical operations. In two of her future jobs, at GenTek and Pitney Bowes, she was vice president for environmental, health and safety. And she's worked for several companies, including Hanson, GenTek and Chemtura, that are in the chemical industry.
In 10 years as managing attorney at Hanson, she had her hands full developing and implementing strategies to resolve environmental claims and litigation with a contingent liability of more than $1 billion. She spent the next six years at GenTek, where, in addition to handling "high-profile encounters with regulatory agencies," according to her résumé, she also implemented safety and health compliance programs that reduced the company's employee injury rates and workers' compensation costs.
She came to Connecticut in 2004 to work at Pitney Bowes, a company known for its business office machinery. But she left the next year, feeling a bit out of place. "It was my first time out of the chemical space," she explained.
So Flaherty moved on to Chemtura, where she was first the associate general counsel for litigation. It was the first time the specialty chemicals company had designated one attorney to oversee all litigation. She soon added to her portfolio the title of associate GC for environmental, health, safety and security, and regulatory affairs.
Finally, in February 2009, she was promoted to the top spot in the legal department.
"When I became the general counsel, it was shortly after the recession started," Flaherty said. "The economy was in a decline. Companies, especially in the chemical industry suffered greatly … so we started running into trouble. Shortly after, we were looking to file Chapter 11. My primary responsibility was to get us through the Chapter 11 process."
As Flaherty's staff noted in its submission to the Law Tribune, this was a pressure-filled time.
"Imagine, you have just been promoted to General Counsel of a global chemical company with a rich, 100-year history. Your new CEO presents you your first challenge, 'Get us out of bankruptcy as soon as possible.' Now imagine receiving over 16,000 claims with claim amounts totaling over $9 billion. What do you do? Immediately, consultants, committees, courts, [and] lawyers sprout like weeds."
To this point, Flaherty had little expertise in the fine points of bankruptcy law. But she got up to speed quickly. Upon earning her promotion to GC, Flaherty had already taken her couch out of her office and replaced it with a work table. Now she used the same no-nonsense approach to stay up to date with the bankruptcy proceedings.
"Even some of the smallest claims involved several layers of consideration," the legal staff noted. "Considerations included insurance implications, customer relationships, public relations, [and] contractual considerations. Billie has an incredible knack for remembering details and was familiar with the issues [behind] almost every claim."
Flaherty poured over thousands of documents and had daily discussions with an outside counsel over the status of court filings. Chemtura executive vice president and chief financial officer Stephen Forsyth worked closely with Flaherty during this time, handling the business side of the bankruptcy as she handled the legal end. Forsyth called her a "quick study."
"She's a very engaged leader. She wants to understand the facts of a situation and wants to be kept up-to-date," Forsyth said. "She's always listening and will adjust her approach if need be."
Chemtura was ultimately able to pay all creditors in full and return money to shareholders. "It was a successful process," Flaherty said. "Some Chapter 11s go into liquidation, which is a failure. When we came out, we were able to pay all of our creditors in full with interest."
Another silver lining in the bankruptcy proceeding is that, according to Flaherty, it brought the 35-member legal department closer together. "We all needed to get it done and we all needed to row together," she told Profile magazine, which caters to business executives (and which dubbed Flaherty the "Rebound Queen."). "It allowed us to all bond around a single process and created a teamwork that I've been jealously guarding and trying to expand upon."
Post-bankruptcy, things have returned to normal. But that's still anything but routine.
Flaherty oversees lawyers and support staff who are involved in environmental, IP, employment and commercial law. Some members are in Switzerland, Brazil, and China, and she travels to those places once a year
As corporate secretary, some of her time is spent preparing materials and logistics for meetings of the Board of Directors. She's also responsible for the legal department budgets and for making sure her staff is embracing the best practices for an in-house law department. One initiative has been to introduce an FAQ section to the company intranet site that covers a wide range of legal topics — from data protection and insider trading to health and safety and business ethics. The department also has developed contract templates, which results in faster response to customers and suppliers.
Flaherty said that one of her strengths is "problem solving in the legal context." She cites an early mentor, at the Koppers Company in Pittsburgh, who taught her how to communicate effectively when talking about highly technical and non-intuitive matters. "I learned to communicate in a way that people could understand. I learned to be a problem solver," she said.
And now Flaherty, in turn, is influencing others with her work.
"Billie is motivated, driven to success, and won't quit until the desired result is achieved — the right way," said Flaherty's executive secretary, Jacqueline Hawes, "Throughout bankruptcy, she rolled up her sleeves and was not afraid of hard work. This is what made me realize what an exceptional mentor I had in Billie."•