What Happens When Everyone’s Invested

Matthew Geekie shares how the unique company culture at employee-owned Graybar makes it easy for him to instill an ethical tone and attract top legal talent

Mattew Geekie, Graybar

After nine years with St. Louis-based wholesale electrical component distributor Graybar, Matthew Geekie just celebrated a tremendous milestone and, perhaps, his proudest moment as senior vice president, secretary, and general counsel. In March 2017, Geekie and the legal department successfully held a vote to continue the company’s voting trust. It’s a complicated process that dates back to the company’s roots.

In 1929, Graybar became the largest employee-owned company in the nation when employees bought the company from its parent company, Western Electric. At the same time, a voting trust for the company’s shares was established to provide the company with long-term stability.

The trust is composed of five trustees who vote to establish the number of directors on the board and to elect directors for the coming year. They may also vote on other major issues that affect the company and require shareholder approval. However, they do not have the ability to sell or transfer any of the stock that has been entrusted to them. “As a creature of New York Law, all of our 8,400 or so shareholders get the opportunity to say whether they want to participate in the voting trust,” Geekie says. “By law, we have to put it up for a vote every ten years.”

As the general counsel, Geekie led a campaign to educate employees on the process and ramp up excitement for the vote. It was a yearlong process that ended in March 2017 with 81 percent of shareholders voting yes, which Geekie says is a significantly high number. In fact, he says, less than about 1 percent voted no on the measure. For Geekie and the leadership team, it’s an affirmation that Graybar employees and retired shareholders endorse the company’s corporate strategy, and it highlights the unique culture at the company.

Graybar’s employee-ownership structure and one of a kind culture are essential to Geekie’s role as general counsel because it helps cultivate a shared sense of camaraderie among employees, which helps Geekie establish an ethical tone throughout the company.

“Whether it’s someone in the warehouse driving a forklift, or our CEO who started with the company at age nineteen, we all are invested,” Geekie says. “It’s a simple word to use, but this is our company. We’re all pulling together all the time. When any one of us, I think, wakes up and looks in the mirror, we know and believe that the work we do is going to impact others.”

Although Geekie now says the company culture is one the most rewarding aspects of his job, it was initially something he was apprehensive about. A lifelong St. Louisan, Geekie earned his bachelor’s in history and JD from Saint Louis University before he began to practice law. When Graybar moved its headquarters to the Gateway City in 1982 it was big news, so Geekie was well aware of the company’s reputation. When the previous general counsel, Tom Dowd, reached out to Geekie to see if he’d like to be considered for the position, he was excited, yet cautious.

“I was well aware through my research of the tenure of employees and how strong the culture is,” Geekie says. “I was concerned whether they would be accepting of an outsider, but the folks top to bottom all over at Graybar were more than welcoming. Actually, the people there couldn’t be any more open and receptive to an outsider. And I like to say after you spend a little bit of time drinking the Kool-Aid, you’re very happy that you’re here.”

Now, Geekie is approaching his tenth year with the company. And just as Graybar has adapted to the ever-changing field of electronics since it was founded in 1869, Geekie has seen major changes and is helping guide the company into the future.

“One of our founders was involved with Thomas Edison in helping create the first light bulb,” he says. “So we have a long history of changing and changing with technology.”

One market Graybar is expanding into that excites Geekie the most is Internet of Things (IoT) products: intelligent electronic components that can communicate with software and help Graybar’s customers monitor their energy consumption. But that’s not where Graybar’s twenty-first century evolution ends. Geekie says the company is actually innovating the way it approaches its service.

Instead of just providing its customers with electrical components, Graybar is helping its customers look at the entire life cycle of a building, providing the right products for the holistic health of a building.

“We’re doing this in a way that’s sustainable and energy efficient, helping our customers’ end users manage the life of the building,” he says. “We’re helping them predict when things might need repair or maintenance in a proactive way. We’re helping them make the right choices for the building that they’re creating or rehabbing or refurbishing. It’s almost more of a holistic approach now as opposed to just selling discrete products.”

Similar to the company’s overall innovation, Geekie is helping the company adapt from his seat by adjusting its risk profile. Because Geekie sits on the board of directors and holds the general counsel position, he has been able to contribute to the company’s overall strategy and helped the board see that the company’s risk profile was too restrictive. Now, Graybar is able to expand with new products that the company had previously thought to be too risky. But that doesn’t mean the company has done this in a cavalier way.

“We were very adamant about what kind of risk we were willing to take, whether we are discussing consequential damages, who we would indemnify, or how we would demand indemnification,” Geekie says. “All the products aren’t the same. So we’ve taken a little bit more of a nuanced approach towards products, understanding that some entail more risk than others. And depending upon the nature of the products or the product mix, we’ll adapt what we expect or demand from our suppliers or our customers in helping protect Graybar from risk and, frankly, trying to fairly share risk.”

As Graybar continues to grow and innovate for the future, Geekie knows the company will need a strong legal base. Currently, he oversees a legal team of fifteen, and he says he trusts in and challenges everyone on his team. It’s a diverse group that Geekie enjoys mentoring and helping grow. And when the time comes to add to the legal roster, Geekie has the benefit of Graybar’s strong culture.

“It’s easy to attract talent,” he says. “I think Graybar enjoys a great reputation so that’s very helpful. The legal department is highly regarded as a partner in the corporation. Because of our ownership structure, we intentionally take a long-term view of how we behave and the decisions that we make, and that’s reflected in how we treat employees, including the people in the legal department. We want them to be successful and do whatever we can to make them successful.”