Kerry Davidson originally imagined a different sort of career path for herself—from law school to working in a firm to becoming a partner. But her passions and opportunities aligned to create a new trajectory that carries with it no regrets. Davidson shows a palpable exuberance for both its challenges and its satisfactions.
As executive vice president of human resources and general counsel for Burnham, Illinois-based Scrap Metal Services (SMS), Davidson still gets to use her legal know-how to help guide the company’s growth initiatives. But it also gives her a solid base and a new mind-set in dealing with human resources for a business that’s seen incredible growth since being founded in 2005.
OFF THE CLOCK WITH KERRY DAVIDSON
Kerry Davidson has served on the executive committee as the nominating chair of the Future Leaders Council and two auxiliary boards of the Chicago YWCA, which aims to eliminate racism and empower women.
She also contributes to several treatises published by the Labor and Employment division of the American Bar Association, including the Developing Labor Law and Age Discrimination in Employment Law.
She is a founding member of the Board of Ambassadors and has also written legal updates for the National Academy
For Davidson, it all started in law school. It’s where she says she found “an absolute love and passion” for labor and employment law, which is what sparked her career path. After working in business as a labor relations representative, an equal employment opportunity specialist for a utility company, and in human resources at a large medical center in Chicago, she ended up at a boutique labor and employment firm. She adds that the firm gave her “a lot of exposure from soup to nuts.”
Ultimately, this led her to join another Chicago law firm, Levenfeld Pearlstein. “Soon after I was there, I started working with SMS and assisting with their ongoing labor and employment needs,” Davidson says. “They had some HR needs. They were using an outside consultant, yet they were growing exponentially. And they had a driving legal need, as my firm was also serving as their corporate counsel for a number of mergers, acquisitions, contract reviews—the sorts of things growing companies deal with.”
Davidson continued to work with the SMS business team and got to know the day in and day out of operations. “It was a natural synergy, and it led into helping to create a role that would serve the company’s growing HR need,” she says. “But there was a need emerging for a general-counsel-type figure.”
The position evolved out of client problem-solving discussions, and Davidson says it took off from there. “I kind of had a five-year interview,” Davidson adds with a laugh.
In January 2013, she began her current role at SMS. The previously outsourced HR duties now became an in-house function. Davidson began her “department of one” for not only corporate human resources but as the sole attorney at SMS. “I wasn’t coming into uncharted waters, but my goal was to make sure the house was in the order it should be for what had become a much larger company,” Davidson recalls.
Among her first priorities was making sure that operations managers knew they had a trusted resource for advice and business needs. “It was really just putting a face to the human resources function here. My job is to make everyone else’s easier,” Davidson says. “My HR role evolved out of my experience in labor and employment. With the alphabet soup of regulations and rules that employers need to follow, and also with a solid background in labor relations—which is very different from traditional HR—it was a natural fit.”
The function of her HR role came at a time when the company was becoming more corporatized, according to Davidson. “We’ve been trying to unify and be consistent with the procedures that everybody follows, not in terms of too much red tape, but recognizing that as a company grows, there’s a need for more consistency,” she explains.
SMS continues to grow, even in a depressed market in the scrap-metal recycling business. Wearing her legal hat, Davidson’s helped guide the company through numerous mergers and acquisitions throughout the United States and beyond. Plus, the company is in the process of growing internationally with opportunities in Mexico.
Davidson says she is excited that SMS is expanding its current reach into new markets, such as Mexico, and recognizing current market challenges. “We are constantly adjusting and trying to make the right decisions, and analyzing does this make sense or does this not make sense,” she says. “We experienced tremendous growth in a very short amount of time. Last year, unfortunately, we had to do a fair amount of right-sizing, but I think that is an important part of any business model.”
Davidson’s roles at SMS also allow her to grow personally by adding new skills and ideas to an already formidable portfolio. Such lifelong learning is possible due to the company culture that she helped create. “I think one of the things that really makes me enjoy practicing here is being given the opportunity to expand my role and become part of the business team,” she says. “Having a stake in the outcome makes a world of difference.”