Name: Brandon B. Smith
Title: Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary
Company: Tenneco Inc.
Sonya: When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Brandon: I had a great opportunity to work with the General Counsel of an insurance division during a summer Finance internship with a large bank. I found it fascinating that he had such a significant amount of influence on a number of areas in the organization. In his role, he had a seat at the table on nearly all major matters – and this lined up well with my own ambitions, as I was eager to help solve diverse problems and drive profitable growth at a corporation.
Similarly, this is one of the best parts of my job today. I find it highly rewarding to be able to get involved in so many facets of Tenneco’s business. It is truly a dynamic global enterprise – with no shortage of complex challenges.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Brandon: I have always been inspired by people who are successful in business – yet also make significant contributions to their country, their community and their families. This type of balance seems harder to achieve with each passing year – however, I have had the good fortune to have been associated with a number of talented mentors that set a high bar to reach for. Kevin Morris and Scott Falk, both of whom sadly passed away recently – were two people that did this best at my former law firm – and they certainly influenced the way that I view being successful as an attorney, as a citizen and as a father.
Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Brandon: This is a great question. A common trait that I see in many successful attorneys is the ability to take complex issues and explain them with simplicity. As Albert Einstein once famously said: “If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough”. Having the ability to confidently, competently and concisely advise your management team and your Board is usually a good recipe for a successful outcome.
Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Brandon: Throughout my years as an attorney there have been a number of occasions that I will continue to look back fondly upon, including helping our company navigate through the 2008 financial crisis and then transforming our business with the acquisition of Federal-Mogul – which roughly doubled our revenues and nearly tripled our number of employees worldwide.
Notwithstanding those outcomes, I am most proud of the legal team that we have built at Tenneco. It is a team that impresses me every day with its dynamism and ability to adapt. Perhaps most importantly, it is a team that has earned the respect of the business units that we support – as each of our team members come to work with the mindset of a business person who happens to be an attorney, not just an attorney who happens to be working in a business. Because of the respect that our team has earned, it has created many opportunities for our team members to significantly advance their careers.
Helping to create an environment where my colleagues can achieve their career aspirations, while simultaneously fostering compliant and profitable growth for the Company’s bottom line – will always be something that I am quite proud of.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Brandon: Having great mentors is, in my opinion, an essential part of one’s career path. As I mentioned previously, I have had the good fortune to have been associated with many incredible mentors, including Scott Falk and Kevin Morris, as well as two of Tenneco’s CEO’s, Gregg Sherrill and Brian Kesseler – both of whom had taken an interest in my career long before I rose to the level of Tenneco’s General Counsel. Similarly, I encourage all of our attorneys to seek out mentors (and we have an informal practice at Tenneco to help facilitate that).
I have served as a mentor to a number of very promising young attorneys, both through my former law firm, as well as through my alma matter. It is by far one of the most rewarding experiences that I have known professionally. Most recently, I began serving as a mentor to an exceptional lawyer through AdvancedLaw’s diversity and inclusion initiative. If you are not yet familiar with the program, I highly encourage you to reach out to them – as they are creating an excellent program that will benefit many young men and women greatly.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Brandon: This is indeed a very timely question. Certainly, technology will continue to play a major role in evolving the way that we consume and deliver legal services for our companies. Notwithstanding the enormity of the changes that these advancements will bring, I suspect that the changes brought on by our global experiences with the Coronavirus will also impact the legal profession significantly. Not only will we be far more mobile (which should expand our ability to hire professionals from communities that, perhaps at one time, seemed too distant from our home offices) – but I firmly believe that we will also emerge from this situation with a renewed sense of what is possible.
To this day, I am still amazed at how quickly our company was able to shift from making industrial transportation equipment – to manufacturing components for hospital grade ventilators. Similarly, our Law Department professionals rapidly expanded their skillsets to provide legal advice on topics that had at one time been reserved for specialty outside counsel – all while doing so remotely, which met the speed and cost constraints that our business urgently needed.
Each of these events reminded me, with the subtlety of a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, that our potential for achievement is without limits when we let go of what we are all trained to think is impossible – and challenge ourselves to create what “should” come next. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “the best way to predict the future, is to create it”.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Brandon: One significant challenge that I faced in my career occurred a few years ago during the early days of the Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged anticompetitive practices in the Automotive industry. As I researched the DOJ’s tactics and areas of focus, it was clear that the inquiry was getting closer to our company’s product lines, as certain of our competitors had been raided, but only with respect to products that we did not overlap with. In this respect, we had a key decision to make, as to how the Company would approach this issue:
- Should we attempt to cooperate early with the government’s investigation and potentially benefit under its leniency program?
- Should we continue to monitor the DOJ’s investigation and hope to avoid the cost and scrutiny that comes with being a leniency applicant?
Both options were not without significant risk and there were multiple views expressed within the company. I had studied antitrust cases thoroughly and understood that the difference of being the “first-in” leniency applicant vs. being “second-in-line” could be in the form of significant fines and penalties. Therefore, if we had facts that would be of interest to the DOJ, I believed that we should contact them – and we should do so quickly. In this respect, we immediately mobilized a team and conducted an internal investigation to determine whether we had information that the DOJ would potentially find helpful to their investigation. We then presented our position to the DOJ and achieved “first-in” leniency status – thus insulating the Company from U.S. government fines and significantly reducing the potential damages that could be sought by litigants in civil litigation.
Overall, this was a complex decision that had to be made in a short period of time – and it featured two critical lessons that can be applied in most crisis situations:
- Be prepared to act quickly, but do so with the most accurate and actionable data that you are able to collect within a reasonable period of time.
- When choosing a course of action – ask yourself which option best aligns with your organization’s values – and often you will find that your choice is a clear one. I think Clayton Christensen said it best when he stated “Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time”.
Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Brandon: Diversity and Inclusion is a critical concept for any organization. In the Legal profession, it appears that we are making notable progress in becoming more diverse and inclusive, particularly on account of certain foundational elements that have been put in place at law schools and law firms around the country. While this progress is commendable, we certainly still have much more that can be done – and we are continuing to evolve our approach within Tenneco, from our hiring practices – to the way that we organize our leadership team and rotational opportunities.
Overall, I view it as essential that everyone in our Department feels that they have the ability to contribute their ideas in a way that will yield the maximum impact on the organization – and in order for us to be able to harness the best ideas, our team needs to reflect the diversity of our communities and the customers that we support.
Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Brandon: While I very much enjoy working in a business, I have also always had a strong interest in public service. I think that it would be fascinating and exceptionally rewarding to contribute at a state or national level, especially during these times of economic transition – with multiple paradigm shifts that are taking place around the globe.
Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Brandon: That is an exceptional question, as after recently passing a milestone birthday, I have been reflecting on what I have learned over the past 10 years – and how I can apply those lessons to best shape the next decade.
I would definitely tell myself (approximately 10 years ago) to create more balance in how you spend your time. A few years ago, I joined the Board of Directors for the 100 Club, which is an organization that supports the families of first responders who have lost their lives in the line of duty. I chose this organization, as I have always felt an affinity to firefighters and emergency medical providers, since I had worked as a firefighter and EMT for a few years while I was in college. Once I joined the 100 Club, I realized how much I missed being part of an organization that is supporting our communities – and I wished that I had done so sooner!
There is no time like the present for continuous improvement in your life, regardless of whether it is to focus on your health, your family or charitable initiatives. As one of my colleagues had imprinted on all of her coffee mugs, “Today is the day, let’s make great things happen!”.
Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, that you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Brandon: Two of my favorite hobbies are working the land and working on vintage cars (my children and I are currently restoring a 1968 Mustang, which had been my grandfather’s car). I have practiced these two hobbies for most of my life and they have always been a great way to relax and refresh my perspective. Further, working outdoors teaches you to focus on controlling what you can control – and influence outcomes when you are not in control (ask any farmer about how they approach the weather!). Likewise, working on classic cars can teach you a lot about patience (especially, if you are not a trained mechanic).
Regardless of how you spend it, everyone needs an opportunity to re-center. Some of my best ideas for the office have come when I am furtherest away from the office!
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya 😊 )