Growing Better Together

Jay Dalton merges T.D. Williamson’s family heritage and the ideologies driving the next generation to reboot his legal team

The legacy behind T.D. Williamson Inc. (TDW) is driven by a deep commitment to the health and safety of its personnel, the general public, and the environment. The global manufacturer and services provider for the repair and maintenance of pipelines also has the distinction of being family-owned throughout its entire ninety-six-year history. This is how it was described to Jay Dalton by the chairman of TDW as Dalton contemplated coming on board as vice president and general counsel in 2014. Now that he’s been with TDW for more than two years, Dalton confirms that description’s accuracy.

“What struck me, in a very positive way, was how I didn’t hear anything about profit in TDW’s priority list, which is something you hear quarterly in a publicly traded company,” Dalton says. He adds that the company also introduced him to the concept of extreme customer commitment for the first time. Considering his long career in the legal side of the industry, that’s saying something.

But as Dalton dove deeper into his primary purpose at TDW—to restructure and build out the legal team—he quickly realized that he would face considerable challenges. Not only must he familiarize himself with the complexities of each of the fifty-plus countries in which TDW operated, but he also had to adjust to the expectations of a family-owned company. “I thought I had the skill set to do a pretty good job at TDW,” he says. “As it turns out, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life.”

Something that reinforced this feeling for Dalton was his early realization that TDW’s legal department displayed more of a “gatekeeper” attitude than that of a service provider to the business function. Prompt, effective service to TDW’s business partners was not just a legal department priority, and an extended backlog of million-dollar contracts clearly reflected that fact. Dalton cites a conversation with a former senior lawyer at TDW who told him all he needed to know about the challenges ahead.

“She was making the case that she felt it was good to have what she called a ‘healthy tension’ between the legal department and operations,” Dalton recalls. “And I said to her, as courteously as I could, ‘If you think your job is to come in here and give the businesspeople a dose of ‘healthy tension’ every day, you need to go find another job.’”

He wasn’t joking. Two years later, only four of the eighteen individuals on staff at that time remain employed by TDW’s legal department. Dalton was asked to continue the restructuring by conducting a worldwide search for the kind of attorneys he felt would serve the company best—particularly with regard to the negotiation of contracts, which he describes as revenue portals. As a result, Dalton conducted roughly one hundred interviews at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, headquarters and abroad in only eighteen months.

Even more amazing, perhaps, is that he describes the experience as a wonderful life event in his career. “Here I am, this old baby boomer lawyer, and I’m interviewing the best and brightest Gen Xers and millennials,” Dalton explains. “There wasn’t a single interview that I didn’t walk away learning something from each candidate.”

Dalton also realized the importance of a work-life balance and the increased desire for diversity within the workplace for younger attorneys. He sees an undeniably tech-savvy generation with an expectation of short-order career advancement that wasn’t characteristic of his generation. “These kids are saying, ‘This is what I want to do, and I want to do it now . . . and maybe I’m not qualified to do this yet, but guess what? If you’re a good boss, you need to mentor me and make me ready,’” Dalton marvels. “Interesting.”

Ultimately, Dalton’s legal hires for TDW possessed all the aforementioned traits as well as a deep interest in the quality of the work and a desire for connectedness with the company itself. And while the team is now smaller (fourteen rather than eighteen), Dalton says it’s also much more efficient than it was before. “The moral of the story is that we will actually spend less by hiring fewer people,” he surmises, “but we will hire more qualified and productive people, and pay them more.”

But perhaps even more important is the renewed purpose projected by the team Dalton has assembled. Gone is the policeman mentality, replaced instead by the
trusted business partner connection between legal and operations. That teamwork gives the company the upper hand where he feels it’s needed the most.

“TDW has better risk profiles on most of its contracts . . . better decisions on how and when to exit Nigeria as a market . . . and better decisions on its import substitution strategy and ruble risk management in Russia,” Dalton says. “It’s about binding operations and legal in a way that the two together are better than the two separately.”