David Stryker

When David Stryker came to Huntsman Corporation in the summer of 2013, he didn’t arrive to clean up any identifiable mess. In fact, the $11 billion company had shown steadily rising profits ever since the end of the recession, and its legal department was, by all accounts, running well and working productively.

David Stryker considers the growth of his team a top priority

But throughout the company’s return to growth, the legal department had focused so much attention on supporting that growth and legal compliance—even Stryker’s first six months were consumed by a major acquisition—that the focus on providing day-to-day business operations with the most efficient, highest quality legal service from the best lawyers available in the market seemed to have become lost.

As the door closed on 2013, a focus on high-quality day-to-day service—the basic blocking and tackling of every in house legal department—emerged. For Stryker, it is this, and not the high profile M&A or litigation matters, that he hopes will be both his and the legal department’s legacy.

To move forward, Stryker first had to move backwards and make things simpler. Huntsman’s business operations are organized into five global business units, each working independently and headed by a division president. The legal department, on the other hand, had moved in the opposite direction, becoming organized on a regional, geography-based model. Stryker took the business operational model as the guide for his first move, reorganizing the legal group to parallel Huntsman’s business operations. The 43 commercial and intellectual property lawyers working under Stryker are now committed to specific business units, and the lines of reporting and responsibility are fully transparent both within the group and to their business clients. The reorganization stripped away bureaucracy and roles that once overlapped from one lawyer to another, resolving ambiguity. “Each division knows clearly who their lawyers are, and there is never a doubt where the client goes to secure service and who is accountable for the delivery of that service,” Stryker says. “Greater efficiency and accountability are the two main drivers of high-quality service.”

“You’ve got to be ethical, and you’ve got to be safe.”

Stryker also initiated an internal project within the intellectual property department consistent with his view of legal’s dual role as a legal adviser to the business and a steward of Huntsman’s assets. At a chemical company, those assets include chemical compounds and manufacturing processes, and patents—thoughtfully secured and then aggressively protected—are critical to delivering shareholder value. “We spend in excess of $20 million on legal costs, and just over half of that is in IP,” says Stryker, who saw that Huntsman had room to improve the process of identifying the patentable features of its products and subsequently how to protect them as intellectual property. Now, between the research and development community, which delivers critical innovation and product differentiation, and the marketing and sales teams that sell products, intellectual-property lawyers are the key link driving effective portfolio management, and thus revenue.

Finally, Stryker is focused on building the best team in the industry. He wants to ensure that the Huntsman legal department of today is the team to best serve the company that Huntsman will become over the next five years. Being part of the senior executive group guiding the overall business at Huntsman gives Stryker key insight into strategy far in advance and puts him in a position to translate the legal needs required to implement that strategy into “on the ground” resources and legal skills that can deliver the requisite service. This year, the current team will develop and hone those legal skills, and the department will bring in new talent who can deliver whatever can’t be found in the current mix.

Even though some of this talent will move on to new jobs since long-term opportunities in the Huntsman department are limited due to its relatively modest size, Stryker sees it as no reason to shy away from the challenge of recruiting the best. “Those who leave will go out and describe our company as a great place to practice their craft,” he says. “I want top talent to look at Huntsman and consider it the place to fully develop their skills.” While Huntsman may not be able to recruit the sheer number of top legal minds as Fortune 20 giants like GE or Exxon Mobil, Stryker says there’s no reason not to aspire to secure that talent, and reaching that goal starts with a commitment to the highest ethical and legal standards. After all, “No one remembers what contracts you worked on, but whether you met those standards,” he says.