Before going into law, Donna Bunch Coaxum worked as an accountant. She saw no discrepancy between the two fields, however, because “everything is a business decision with legal implication.” Today, Coaxum serves as vice president, general counsel, and secretary of OSI Group, a global food manufacturer based in the Chicago area, but her passion extends well beyond the office. Profile caught up with the seasoned attorney, author, and active volunteer to discuss how such a background has influenced her career.
Where did you begin your law career?
Donna Bunch Coaxum: I worked as an accountant for five years, becoming a certified public accountant before going to law school. I went to law school with the idea that whatever I did in law would capitalize on my accounting background. I focused on corporate and tax law, and when I graduated I went to work for Arthur Anderson. But I didn’t last long, because six months after I started I got a call from Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation (now a division of Kraft), for which I had interned during law school.
Was it an easy decision to go to Oscar Mayer?
Coaxum: At first I thought they wanted money. They actually tracked my brother down through directory assistance in Chicago. I called them back reluctantly, because 10 years before, after I had interned for GTE, GTE called me, too, but they told me they had overpaid me and they wanted the money back. But Oscar Mayer actually wanted to hire me, and I liked the idea of going in house, back to my corporate roots. It was the best time of my life to that point.
Coaxum: I loved being back in the corporate setting, and I jumped into it. I quickly sought to learn the business by visiting several of our manufacturing facilities. I drove to our turkey facility in West Liberty, Iowa, flew to our turkey facility in Newberry, South Carolina, and toured the facility in Madison, Wisconsin. I thought, if I’m going to give legal advice and tell people what they can and cannot do, I want them to know that I understand the business.
How did you end up in your current role?
Coaxum: Several years later—after leaving Kraft for a job at Sears [Brands]—I was seated at the table of the CEO of OSI Group at a wedding reception. I introduced myself, and said, “I used to work at Kraft, where I negotiated with your legal team, and they thought I was really mean.” He’d heard of me, for bad or good. He asked why I left Kraft for a job at Sears. I said, “Because I had a baby, and I couldn’t manage the two-hour commute anymore.” He said, “Did you know that OSI Group is located near your home?” I joined OSI as senior counsel in 2001, but left in 2003 because my husband was being relocated to California with his job. I actually cried when I gave my notice, so I was really happy when I was able to return, in 2009, to head the law department.
What have been your major accomplishments at OSI Group?
Coaxum: When I rejoined the company, it had grown from approximately $3 billion to nearly $6 billon, with more activity in China and Europe. That gave me opportunities, and I’m proud of a lot, but what stands out is rewriting and restructuring the corporate crisis program and creating a mobile application to facilitate its effectiveness. So, if a member of our team is in China and we have a crisis in the United States, that team member can access information, at the touch of a finger, about the process flow, every customer, every facility, every product line, every applicable governmental agency, and every employee that needs to be contacted to resolve the crisis, in every location where we have a presence.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Coaxum: Getting my arms around the world. OSI started with an entrepreneurial focus, and we had different facilities operating independently; now we are operating with a one-company focus led by our president and our CEO.
How has your accounting background informed your work?
Coaxum: I thought accounting would make me a better corporate lawyer, and that’s been proven true. When the board is discussing EBITDA or cash-flow analysis or balance sheets, I don’t have to ask what they’re talking about, and I think I give better service because I understand.
You’re active beyond the company with volunteering; where did you get the passion for such work?
Coaxum: I was raised by a divorced single mom on the west side of Chicago, and there were a lot of folks who helped me. I was my eighth-grade class valedictorian but didn’t have any shoes to wear to graduation, and my sixth-grade teacher gave me the money for some. She left it on my seat inside a card that read, “There’s a law of compensation that keeps working all life through: when you give your best to something, the best comes back to you.” I couldn’t repay her at that point, but decided that I would pay it forward. So now I sit on the boards of the Chicago Boys and Girls Club, the Indian Prairie Educational Foundation, and my 15-year-old daughter’s foundation, Maya on a Mission, that helps underprivileged children around the world.