Deep in the Heart of Ethics – Sarah Hlavinka McConnell, SVP & General Counsel at ABM Industries

J.R. Ball Issue 06 - July/ Aug 2013, Legal Leave a Comment

How ABM General Council Sarah Hlavinka McConnell’s Texas roots laid the groundwork for her family business success.

By J.R. Ball

The year is 1939. Viking Press publishes John Steinbeck’s iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath,” while American farmers across Oklahoma, Texas and the Great Plains have yet to return to the homes and farms they abandoned during the Dust Bowl. Fortunately,ingenuity and optimism—perhaps the greatest of American ideals—had not been abandoned.

2013-06-29 18_53_45-FM0713_SarahMcConnell_HRThat same year, in the small rural municipality of East Bernard, Texas—a town barely 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, nestled in a temperate coniferous forest where lumbermen harvest Loblolly Pines and migrant workers once stripped dried bristles from cotton bolls by hand—39-year old Monrovian immigrant Joseph C. Hlavinka,  starts an agricultural equipment company with a reputation for quality that carries through to the present day.

Three quarters of a century later, situated inside the offices of a 38-story Manhattan skyscraper, sits Hlavinka’s granddaughter, Sarah Hlavinka McConnell.

Nothing Less Than Full Energy

From her vantage point on 5th Avenue, McConnell is the Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of ABM industries. From janitorial engineering to energy-efficient lighting and electrical solutions, ABM provides a myriad of facilities management services for thousands of companies across the U.S. and beyond.

A Texas A&M University alumnus who graduated magna cum laude, then obtained a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from The University of Texas Law School, McConnell credits her family for what could easily be described as an indiscriminate work ethic.

“My primary mantra is that hard work pays off,” McConnell said. “My work ethic is just part of my genetic makeup. It was engrained in me at an early age.”

2013-06-29 18_10_33-FM0713_SarahMcConnell_HR

This ethos, it would appear, has served her well. McConnell’s resume includes numerous high-profile positions, including Vice President and Assistant General Counsel at Fisher Scientific International, as well as Associate General Counsel and Assistant Secretary for Hewlett Packard.

The challenges McConnell has faced during her career, including acting as lead counsel on a $10-billion dollar merger at Fisher Scientific—one that she understood at the time would likely mean the elimination of her job due to a corporate redundancy—did not cause her to devote anything less than her full energy.

“I’ve been blessed,” McConnell said. “The merger at Fisher was a tremendous learning experience, but I’ve been fortunate to have a smooth career path,” she paused, “because hard work pays off,” and laughed.

The Human Element

Now in her fifth year with ABM, McConnell says her greatest joys come from working closely with the other executive team members, including the CEO and Board of Directors.

“In the past seven years, I’ve been exposed to the inner-workings of three publically traded companies by interacting with their executive boards,” McConnell said. “I find the human dynamic of these boards fascinating, especially since they directly influence how a company is run through the oversight function of the board.”

2013-06-29 18_53_25-FM0713_SarahMcConnell_HRThe human element, McConnell explained, is also something of significant importance when seeking out new talent. At present, her team comprises 15 lawyers and 10 support staff members.

“I look beyond the résumé and seek out people who are well-rounded,” McConnell noted. “Just like in sports, it’s often important to find the strongest athlete, not merely draft for a specific position.”

While she is quick to point out that she did not coin the term, McConnell uses a particular phrase to describe her team, as well as herself. “I consider myself a calm risk-taker. It would be tough to be the General Counsel of a $4.5-billion publicly traded company and not be that way.”

Whether it’s her steadiness, her work ethic or her infectious sense of optimism, McConnell personifies not only a model businessperson, but also a model Texan—albeit transplanted some 1,700 miles away in a city famously not known for their salsa.

You can take the girl out of Texas, but the rest goes without saying.

J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, TX


Comments, thoughts, feedback?