Steven Bradford’s work has taken him from New Jersey to the Netherlands representing a host of industries from paint to perfume. When a colleague lauded the open general counsel position at HNI Corporation, the only caveat was the location: the tiny town of Muscatine, Iowa. Bradford gave it a shot and was instantly charged by the collegial atmosphere, bright executive team, and challenging work. I caught up with Bradford at NeoCon in Chicago, the largest commercial-interiors conference in North America, and asked him about HNI’s plans for expansion, how he’s contributing to company strategy, and what a general counsel is doing at a trade show.
Let’s start with a little context. HNI is the number two furniture manufacturer in North America. What’s your competition?
Steven Bradford: There are three large players in the world of office furniture: Herman Miller, Steelcase, and HNI, and we’re all very close in terms of size. HNI is perhaps least well known to the man on the street because the other two companies go to market under the brand of their company name, whereas we are a house of brands. Our brands have a global presence with the largest and deepest breadth of office-furniture solutions and greater ability to tailor and serve customers’ needs. Our major competitors are well-run companies and competition is tough, but we believe HNI is uniquely suited to provide exactly what the user needs where and when they need it.
What unique challenges do you face given the nature of your business?
Bradford: Since office furniture is an infrequent purchase for most companies, it may be one of the first things cut when economic times are tough. HNI has a long history of lean manufacturing. During the recent recession, all of our departments, including legal, embraced the ethic of efficiency we apply in our manufacturing.
How are you applying this principle to your department?
Bradford: I had to find ways to cut costs while still accomplishing our objectives, whether they be in court or in the office. We identified and eliminated low value-added activities and waste. We implemented processes of standard work for regular activities, such as routine contract review, and provided tools for client self-help. We found we were spending more money to defend some cases than they were worth, so now our focus is on early case resolution through negotiated mitigation rather than litigation. We’ve also changed the way we handle intellectual property work by bringing an attorney in-house to cut our external spending by more than half.
You don’t see many GCs walking around the showrooms here at NeoCon. What are you doing here?
Bradford: The better I know and understand our business, the better I can serve the business as general counsel. Being here allows me to connect not just with the senior leadership, but to meet with field sales, government sales, marketing, product development and other teams, and with our dealers and customers. Learning first-hand about how our new products are received by the market helps inform future strategy discussions. For example, we often have international customers visit us at NeoCon. Meeting these customers helps me better assist our international business managers grow their businesses and deal with the challenges of international operations.
I imagine these challenges are extensive and change with each new location. HNI is working to expand in both India and China. How difficult is it for you and the company to establish a legal presence in a new country or region?
Bradford: India and China are two markets we’re expanding into because we see enormous future opportunity as these economies develop. We approach challenges with a process we call “People, Structure, Process.” We think leadership is the key, so we start by hiring people with the same values and business acumen that we look for in our US employees. We want them to be locals, not imported Americans. Once we have leadership in place, we focus on the operational structure of the business, and finally we establish processes to incorporate repeatable standard work. I focus on building the HNI culture of transparent compliance with the local leadership teams. We talk about our corporate values and how they apply locally. We provide training, which can be used at all levels of the organization, and we work on cascading that information and training in a clear and consistent way at all levels.
Have you encountered customs or practices in a particular foreign market that were surprising to you?
Bradford: It is very important as you enter new markets to learn the local culture and understand how relationships are built. Some practices may be very different than cultures we are used to and some practices may be inconsistent with our values and code of conduct. As we move into new countries like China, India, and Brazil, we spend a lot of time understanding the markets and cultures. Giving traditional moon cakes in China, for example, may, on its face, seem innocuous, but often people don’t really care about the moon cakes you’re giving them. It’s the Rolex inside the box of moon cakes or the expensive gift that goes along with them that people really want. We have no problem giving token, nominal gifts that are a cultural norm in a country, but it’s when those are used as improper payments for influence that it crosses the line. Often, you don’t know about these local practices until you’ve spent enough time on the ground to learn and understand local culture.
International expansion doesn’t happen in a day, but necessitates a strategic outlook from the entire management team. Such a mind-set is one that is quickly becoming required for any GC who wants to be effective in their industry. How are you influencing strategy at HNI?
Bradford: We have a small executive team, and I’m involved in most of the strategic discussions about the business, not always in a legal capacity, but often as a sounding board for ideas. These may include new business opportunities, product developments, dealing with changes in the market and competitive responses. I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I served for a number of months as HNI’s interim CIO. As I learned more about our IT systems, it became clear significant changes were required to support our growing business and the complexity created by changing market demands. Embarking on a significant systems change is an expensive and risky undertaking. A prior company I worked for undertook a similar project, which went horribly wrong, and production stopped for months. I was asked to investigate what failed and what lessons could be learned.
And that helped inform your decisions at HNI?
Bradford: Yes. My prior experience with other companies and my experience working with our IT group has helped me understand and contribute to this challenging upgrade of our infrastructure systems. I’m impressed with the thoughtful and careful way HNI’s management, under the involved leadership of our CEO, is managing this important project. It bodes very well for the success of the project, and is an example of how strategy is developed and implemented.