Dishing Out Good Judgment and Making It Look Easy

Erika Schoenberger transforms her legal experience into corporate leadership at EveryWare Global, where she’s bringing stronger interdepartmental relationships to the table

Some lawyers just want to practice law. Others see law as a path to leadership. Erika Schoenberger, general counsel and senior vice president for tableware and food service products giant EveryWare Global Inc., definitely falls in the latter camp.

Schoenberger had everything going for her out of law school. At her first employer, Frost Brown Todd, one of the largest law firms in the Midwest, she quickly advanced to a litigation role as an associate, working with a number of major corporations as a national litigation coordinator. Her fast-learning style and flair as a litigator kept opening doors, and she was soon named a partner. Pleased with her path thus far, Schoenberger envisioned a long and successful career with the firm.

However, just shy of her tenth anniversary at Frost Brown Todd, she received an offer from EveryWare, which had been a client of hers for many years. Because of her close working relationship with contacts there, Schoenberger decided to give it a look. She says it was also dawning on her at the time that continuing the path she was on, however successful and exciting it was, probably meant going narrower and more focused on one specific subject matter. She explains that it is a trend that went against the grain of what she loved most about being a young litigator: learning a new subject matter for every new case.

Schoenberger loves to learn, and she describes going in-house as an opportunity to do that in a broad way. “I was also realizing that what I found most fulfilling about legal work was advising executives—really getting ingrained in their business, helping them to create value through making connections, building relationships, and being proactive on the business side,” she says. “I felt like I could bring more to the table that way than helping them navigate a specific lawsuit or a specific legal issue.” In other words, her personal calling to become a corporate leader had awakened.

EveryWare offered many ways to satisfy Schoenberger’s appetite for knowledge as one of the world’s leading designers and sellers of tabletop and food preparation products for consumer and food service markets. The company is also the largest supplier of dinnerware to the food service industry in North America. With international distribution of a vast portfolio of products including flatware, dinnerware, crystal stemware, glassware, serve-ware, cutlery, buffet-ware, candle glass, floral glass, spirit bottles, and an array of kitchen tools and accessories, the company provided her with a challenging environment in which to expand her repertoire as a lawyer.

But of even greater importance to Schoenberger, EveryWare offered fertile ground for her emerging business leadership skills. With that as the kicker, she made the leap and hit the ground running.

Schoenberger was promoted to general counsel shortly after joining the company. She found herself at the table with the board of directors, where she collaborated with executives from every department and tackled issues that she had little experience with on a daily basis. In addition to overseeing the company’s “small, but mighty” legal department, Schoenberger took the helm of the twelve-person human resources department, which oversees a variety of programs such as benefits, compensation, training, development, compliance, and safety.

“What has been thrilling for me is that every single time I have flexed my mental muscles, worked hard, and rolled up my sleeves to learn something new, the leadership at EveryWare has recognized that ambition and leadership ability, and grown my responsibilities more and more,” Schoenberger says. Now in her third year at the company, her involvement and value across departments continues to grow. “I’m passionate about understanding the various business levers and the impacts they have and being a critical partner that acts as a sounding board. As a functional leader, if you want to be invited into the room by the business people, it’s important that they view you as someone who can help solve their challenges and further their goals. Sometimes it’s legal or human resources, and a lot of times it’s just that they trust your judgment.”

For example, connecting the dots between research and development, marketing, and product liability goes a long way toward gaining the good graces of business leaders, Schoenberger adds. In one such instance at EveryWare, she was working on developing a quality standard for a specific type of process used in one of the company’s product lines. Rather than rely on an internal quality standard, she approached an industry trade association and worked with them to develop the standard, which includes a third-party verification process.

“It was initially done in what I call a ‘defensive legal posture,’” she says. “But the fun part was getting to take that to our top-talent marketing team because it’s a rigorous third-party verification and a marketable claim, and thus, something they can build into their plans. When you can make them say, ‘Wow, my lawyer thinks about marketing,’ and you’re handing them something that they had not been driving forward themselves, it gives you a little bit of an extra right to be there as a business partner, not just as a person they need to run legal questions by.”

For Schoenberger, these challenges are immensely fulfilling. It also helps that she loves the product line: “It’s something that has been in my kitchen, was in my grandmother’s kitchen, and hopefully will be in my children’s kitchens.” She also knows that it has been cherished by and on the table of generations of Americans at backyard barbecues, during holiday meals, and at everyday family dinners.

The company’s two most iconic brands, Oneida and Anchor Hocking, have each been at the center of the American dining experience for more than a century. This year, the company is in the midst of a major new strategic push to figure out how its products will maintain relevance over the next century, according to Schoenberger.

“I can’t emphasize enough what a special moment this is for the company,” she says about the much-anticipated rollout of its new strategy. “We have great assets and brands that were built the old-fashioned way, which is people’s good experience with a quality product. But I’m a big believer that there is a season for everything and that we are in a major regrowth phase from those deep roots.” It’s a tall order, but for Schoenberger, this is clearly an exciting challenge.