Changing the face of the Legal Department: Mary Garceau, General Counsel for Thirty-One Gifts.
By Christina Ipavec It’s never a dull day for Mary Garceau, who provides in-house legal support for Thirty-One Gifts, one of the country’s fastest growing direct-selling companies. Similar to Mary Kay and Pampered Chef, Thirty-One benefits from having a niche of its own: What sets the business apart is that its products, which include handbags, purses, totes and home organizational tools, can be personalized. As her 10-year-old company continues to define itself and how it does business, Garceau spends a great deal of time navigating duties and shifting priorities on a day-to-day basis. “You have to be flexible,” Garceau said of her most important lessons to date. “And, treat others how you want to be treated.” This graceful and objective approach to business has made her coveted by companies looking to forge a legal arm. Growing up in Hudson, New Hampshire, Garceau attended the University of New Hampshire and then Vanderbilt University Law School. Upon graduation, she worked as an associate for Columbus, Ohio, law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP, where she worked on company filings, acquisitions, security offerings and more. After making partner, she was contacted by Bob Evans Farms, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. The restaurant and food products conglomerate wanted to form the first-ever in-house Legal Department, and in July 2006 made Garceau its first General Counsel. She set to work understanding the needs of the business, and how the business and legal aspects intersect.
In August 2011, five years after beginning work at Bob Evans, Garceau was recruited by Thirty-One Gifts, a now thriving business where she has worked for nearly two years. The business moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Columbus, Ohio, five years ago and now boasts more than 100,000 consultants nationwide. The company endured through the recession and is a testament to the fact that despite financial binds there are still opportunities to be had. “Don’t be afraid to take risks,” Garceau advises other start-ups. “This has been a great time for our business.” For Garceau, working for a direct-selling company was a new foray in her career. Being a new job, it also came with its own set of challenges. “The early days at Bob Evans Farms and Thirty-One [Gifts] were both difficult,” Garceau said “It’s overwhelming trying to learn the business and drink from the ‘legal’ fire hose at the same time—a lot of long hours and juggling.” And that includes recruiting the right team for the job. “You ask, ‘Where can I find the best legal skill set?’” Garceau posed. “The individuals need to fit the team. You need to identify the legal needs of the particular business then find people who have the substantive skills/expertise and who are a culture fit.” At Thirty-One, she is involved in the hiring process, and also partners with cross-functional teams on the company’s expansion into Canada, which has included compliance with Canadian laws and preparation of consultant documents.
Establishing Processes & Paths
When Garceau arrived at the company, she quickly realized there were a lot of issues—figuring out what could and could not be embroidered on a product, for example—that could be solved by creating a process of standards. And that is just what she did, putting a number of rules in place and therefore eliminating questions about how the business should operate. In 2012, Garceau focused on building the Legal Department while also providing leadership to other departments, including Loss Prevention, Government Relations & Economic Incentives and Business Advisory Services, all core functions critical to the organization’s long-term success. Other accomplishments from the year included implementing a legal review process of marketing materials and sales programs, identifying where millions of dollars could be saved, and designing and implementing an overall intellectual property strategy for the company. No longer working at a law firm, Garceau has found one significant obstacle when it comes to working in a non-legal environment: “Working in-house, I’ve discovered that people have preconceived notions about working with the Legal Department.” It has been a definite roadblock for the rising star, who has vowed to overcome any such stigma. She has and continues to do this by demonstrating to other employees that lawyers are not there simply to say “no.” Of her staff, Garceau said, “We’re here to be helpers—to find a path.” Her biggest victory has been building two legal departments from the ground up, plus finding the time to complete work tasks as well as have a home life with her husband and two sons. She admits, however, taking work home from time to time: “I often break out my laptop after [my kids] go to sleep and work for a few hours.” “Thirty-One is growing rapidly, and I am really enjoying the ride. Our Founder and CEO Cindy Monroe is a true entrepreneur, and she is always thinking about how we can provide more opportunities for women. We launched a new business, Jewell, in April, and I am excited about what else the future holds.” Christina Ipavec is a freelance writer based in Lakewood, Ohio.