The Smucker Way

Jeannette Knudsen helms a legal team that finds success by not taking itself too seriously

When you try to visualize the legal department of a $6 billion company, a few images may come to mind—suits, heads down, files, file folders, file cabinets. You probably wouldn’t add Hello Kitty or a hot dog roaster to that list, but you’d need to in order to get the full picture of J.M. Smucker’s in-house legal function. At the helm of this atypical operation, Jeannette Knudsen leads her team with a dedication to the company’s cherished commitment to each other, which includes saying “thank you” for job well done, listening with full attention, seeing the good in others, and having a sense of humor.

Playing Pranks

When you walk into the Smucker legal department, you’ll hear laughter. You’ll see people interacting with each other. The architecture, which is bright, open, and welcoming, will reflect the tone of the office. “It’s a place you want to come to work,” says Knudsen. Though her team is about double the size of the cast of The Office, the way Knudsen describes their antics, you might think they deserve their own sitcom. Playing gags on each other is one way Knudsen says the team lightens up what can be a heavy load. She recalls how one employee, whose daughters loved Hello Kitty, found the feline’s visage tattooed on the back window of his car one day after work. “His daughters loved it, and it didn’t come off for a week,” Knudsen recounts, stifling a laugh.

In her 11 years with Smucker, Knudsen says the department has grown significantly, with minimal departures. “It helps with retention,” she says. “When we hire, we focus on the ‘Smucker fit’—we strive to hire individuals who share our passion for our brands and our constituents. We want someone to have the skill set applicable to the gap we’re trying to fill, but what’s most important is a positive attitude, a good sense of humor, and, frankly, passion and compassion.”

An Indoor Picnic

Attorneys have reputations for a few things. Paying attention to detail and not backing down from a challenge are among them. The winter that spawned such terms as “snowmageddon” and “thundersnow” was particularly long in Orrville, Ohio—home to Smucker’s headquarters—such that the legal department decided to defy the frightful weather and host an indoor picnic. The event amounted to more than gingham blankets: the team purchased a hot dog roaster for the occasion. It was such a hit that Knudsen and her team made the indoor picnic a semiannual tradition.

Birthday Festivities

You might expect that the legal team of a company founded on jams and jellies has a bit of a sweet tooth. Each month, the Smucker legal department gets its fix with team birthday celebrations. A cake is shared among the team, but the celebrants are flooded with individual cards that Knudsen says express the true sweetness of the sentiment. Per tradition, Knudsen and her colleagues will browse the cards as each member takes a turn hosting their gallery of birthday well wishes on their desk. “People always find really personally applicable cards,” Knudsen says.

Race Training

A benchmark mile time is not required to make the Smucker legal team, nor is litigating a particularly taxing exercise in cardiovascular endurance, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see some of the attorneys and legal staff heading out for a lunchtime jog together—in some cases to train for a competition. Each year, Knudsen’s team picks a channel through which they can dedicate their resources, financial and otherwise, to a cause in need. Before they were sporting sweatbands and sneakers, the legal crew walked dogs for the humane society, baked cookies and sang Christmas carols for the local nursing home, and adopted a local family whose holiday wish list they were able to fulfill. “The choice is always based on what’s important to our people,” Knudsen says. “We believe in trying to give back, and it’s mutually beneficial that in doing so, we have another avenue to work as a team to achieve a common goal.”

Making Dinner Together

One of the staples of any home is the family meal. At Smucker, Knudsen says her team definitely operates like a family, which is why she chose to host an off-site team building event at a local cooking school. There, the team divided into groups and prepared various portions of a meal that they shared together. “Of course we brought our products,” Knudsen says of the signature ingredients that the team incorporated from the Smucker inventory—the range of which extends well beyond the namesake jellies and jams. Other brands and products of the company include Jif Peanut Butter, Pillsbury baking mixes and frostings, Crisco cooking oils, and Folgers coffee.

Defending a Fortune 500 Company

Knudsen and her team do an excellent job of making what can be a demanding job at Smucker—defending and protecting the company—a fun-filled experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s achieved without any challenges. Because the company has grown extensively through acquisition, Knudsen says the legal team’s workload has increased exponentially, but her team has grown to match the demands much less quickly—a deliberate move on Knudsen’s part. “We only add team members when we really need to,” she says. “Our practice is that all the attorneys on the team have to agree on every hire. If one person says no with good reason, we all agree as a team not to hire that person.” It may seem like a losing fight to expect unanimity for every new member, but Knudsen says when you consider the dynamic the team has created, it’s not so hard to see the value in such stringency.

Since she has been with the company, one of Knudsen’s goals has been to build a more collaborative relationship with the business teams. “One thing that’s of key importance to us is to make sure we’re not viewed as a hurdle to the business and that we’re always available to provide solid advice,” she explains. Making sure every member is up to the challenge of building rapport with the other departments and maintaining an approachable environment within the legal function is another reason Knudsen and her team hold themselves to such high standards. “As our workload continues to grow and becomes more complex, it’s important to find time to socialize, ask people how they’re doing, and maintain the Smucker culture,” she says. “Our values are based on our company’s basic beliefs of quality, people, ethics, growth, and independence. They’re more than just a list of values we put on the wall; they’re something you have to be an active participant in.”