The last decade hasn’t been an easy time for the steel industry, with global oversupply and—until the US-imposed tariffs in 2017—a steady and sustained influx of Chinese imported steel adversely impacting domestic steel producers.
“Our customers were hurting and, as a result, we were hurting,” says Masha Trainor, vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Ampco-Pittsburgh Corporation, an NYSE-traded industrial manufacturer, which classifies its businesses into two segments: forged and cast engineered products and air and liquid processing.
So when the former head of Ampco-Pittsburgh retired in 2018, new CEO J. Brett McBrayer, together with the senior management team, developed a new strategy to bring the company back to profitability. The three-year plan includes simplifying the operational structure of the company, reducing the inherent complexity in its manufacturing processes, and, through a variety of channels, generating greater cash flow while focusing on expanding margins for the company’s products.
“With the goals clearly set by our CEO, every member of the executive team has a role to play, which ultimately supports the overall strategy,” Trainor says. In an ever-changing environment, that is crucial, and Trainor is up for the challenge.
Born in Russia, she left at seventeen to come to the United States and attend high school in Joplin, Missouri. She then went on to earn her finance degree from Missouri Southern State University, followed by both a law degree and an MBA from the University of Tulsa. “I ended up never going back [to Russia] and to be honest, that was part of my personal strategy all along,” she says.
Excelling both in law and finance, Trainor focused her academic and early professional training on becoming a well-rounded corporate lawyer with a focus on bridging her legal and business training. After law school, she spent fourteen years based in Pittsburgh doing deals for the global law firm K&L Gates LLP. As a partner at the firm, her practice involved advising clients on their most significant cross-border and domestic mergers and acquisitions, commercial contracts and joint ventures, and securities and corporate governance matters. During her time at K&L Gates, she saw the firm grow from ten offices in the early 2000s to more than forty offices worldwide.
With her corporate practice growing rapidly, Trainor caught the eye of Ampco-Pittsburgh. Though she wasn’t looking to leave private practice, Trainor saw an opportunity to contribute and to become part of a business team that works together to improve the historic Pittsburgh-based company’s shareholder value and overall financial performance. Since Trainor came on board in 2015 and became Ampco-Pittsburgh’s VP, general counsel, and secretary, the company has gone through several cross-border and domestic acquisitions. Each of these transactions were complex, strategic, and challenging both in terms of the legal and business issues involved.
Now, with a new corporate strategy in place and priorities firmly in place, Trainor is part of the senior management team, which is focused on achieving sustained success for Ampco-Pittsburgh and its nearly two thousand employees around the globe. It’s a dramatic change of pace and focus from her private practice days, working purely as an outside adviser and often in a reactionary role, rather than as part of a team building strategy and goals from the ground up.
“When you’re in the legal department of a company, particularly acting as its general counsel,” she explains, “you have to assume a leadership role in contributing to the overall strategy and be a proactive partner to the business and management team.”
When engaging with outside counsel, Trainor takes the time to explain the importance of Ampco-Pittsburgh’s strategy and its overall direction. Each acquisition, divestiture, or financing should not be viewed in isolation but as a building block in achieving the company’s strategic goals and objectives. Trainor believes that when outside counsel understand corporate strategy, they can bring more value to their clients by thinking ahead and anticipating the issue before the client calls.
“It’s all part of deeply understanding our business and partnering with us to achieve our goals. And with that understanding and partnership, outside counsel often will develop solutions that are more creative,” she explains. Outside counsel are sought out because they are the experts in their specialties. The outside counsel who stand out from others are those who are proactive and strategic. “Many of the outside lawyers we use will reach out and say, ‘I know you are looking to do X, Y, and Z. Have you thought about this?’ I always appreciate and value this type of thinking. Those are the firms that get our repeat business.”
With the challenges of the past few years, Trainor finds the best way to face them is to focus intently on the key business drivers for each matter and then to “divide and conquer” with a relentless focus on cost-effective execution. “For each project, we have a member of our senior team who is appointed as project lead who is given the responsibility to manage the project from start to finish,” she explains. But with a lean staff, it is important for the legal function to partner with others in the company in order to be efficient and timely on execution.
In her past four years at Ampco-Pittsburgh, Trainor’s plate has always been full. Whether it’s M&A, working on a credit facility or a financing, overseeing the company’s compliance program, or addressing employee issues or customer concerns, every day brings something new and different.
“My experience here has been very interesting, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about our business and how to build a successful legal function that contributes every day to achieving our strategic goals and objectives,” Trainor says. “It’s exciting to be part of a management team that’s smart, focused, and looking forward to achieving great things for Ampco-Pittsburgh, its employees, customers, and shareholders.”