Celanese General Counsel Gjon Nivica has discovered the secret to building a better team.
By J.R. Ball
Destiny is a funny thing. Sometimes literally.
In the 1990 comedic gem “Mr. Destiny,” Jim Belushi stars as Larry Burrows, a man whose downtrodden life is, as he believes it, the result of being struck out during a pivotal high school baseball game. With the aid of an inter-dimensional guardian angel, played by Michael Caine, Larry is transported to an alternate reality—one where his triumph at the plate led to a life of wealth and influence.
Larry’s epiphany, of course, is that his modest former life—one surrounded by friends and loved ones—was filled with riches more satisfying than fleeting glory and a hefty bankroll. Regardless of whether or not you have seen the film—and judging by its lackluster box office returns, it is quite likely you have not—many of us can point to an event that started us down a path we could not have realized at the time. For some, it is a chance encounter. For others, it could be choosing one graduate school over another.
For Gjon Nivica, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for Celanese, a Fortune 500 technology and specialty materials company based in Dallas, his destiny was put in motion by a phone call: one that went unanswered.
“I called the law firm recruiting officer who was looking to place me in my first job out of law school,” said Nivica, a Harvard Business School and Boston University Law School graduate. His intent was to accept an offer to join the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as an Associate in New York City.
The call, however, went unanswered. Nivica slept on his decision, or as he puts it: “For one night, I lived vicariously through a life that hadn’t happen yet.”
“The next day, I called the recruiter back: ‘I’ve accepted a position with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher… in Los Angeles.’”
The opportunity at Gibson’s LA office represented the perfect marriage of sophisticated deal work and a cultural atmosphere that was more attuned to Nivica’s personality.
His new home also proved to be the backdrop for another successful marriage: where Nivica met his future wife—“an L.A. girl, born and raised”, he said—and the place they began raising their family.
In hindsight, his choice to head West (and the dividends it paid), is a decision about which Nivica said he could not be happier.
“It’s amazing when I look back at how my life and career would have differed—not to say I wouldn’t have ended up ultimately in a similar place,” he said, “but the path would certainly have been different.”
After five years at Gibson Dunn honing his craft inside the high-stakes world of M&A, divestitures and securities, “among some incredibly talented attorneys,” Nivica’s path led him to a very different world: that of in-house legal counsel. A former partner at Gibson, Terry Carlson, who Nivica admired for his creativity and business sense, as much as for his keen sense of humor, hired him into his first such position, with AlliedSignal Aerospace Inc. This allowed Nivica to, as he puts it, operate at the intersection of law and business.
“As an in-house lawyer, I’d become interested in driving value more broadly within an organization,” he said. “Good outside lawyers are very aware of their clients’ expectations for a particular transaction, but generally don’t have the access necessary to think about the corporation and its current or future needs as broadly as someone that sits with the business. Regardless of how good a particular outside lawyer is, the scope of vision is just more narrow.”
At AlliedSignal, Nivica would benefit from the first-hand observation of two influential men—CEO Lawrence (Larry) Bossidy, formerly the Executive Co-Chairman of General Electric, and Peter Kreindler, the man Bossidy hired as his General Counsel. Nivica refers to Bossidy and Kreindler as “informal mentors.”
“When I got there in 1994, Larry was changing the company in radical ways,” Nivica said. “I had the opportunity to see firsthand what an authoritative leader with a fierce will looked like during my formative years.” This early impression was lasting.
Bossidy, according to Nivica, treated the legal department at Allied—and later Honeywell as a result of a 1999 acquisition—as key business partners.
“I didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t normal or natural,” Nivica said. “From Larry, I learned how important it was to pursue simultaneously both excellence and efficiency, and to be relentless about it.”
Meanwhile, Kreindler, to whom Nivica would directly report, was leading the same transformative experience within the Legal Department.
“I am grateful for Peter, who took a shot on me early on, earlier than I had a right to expect it.” Nivica was 32 when Kreindler promoted him to VP & GC of AlliedSignal’s then largest business unit.. “He held others to the highest standards of good judgment and execution for results. By bringing me along as he did, I was provided access to senior executives and experiences very early in my career that broadened me in ways not otherwise possible, and certainly not possible had I remained an outside lawyer.”
In 2009, Nivica joined Celanese as VP and General Counsel. With him came the lessons learned from Bossidy and Kreindler, albeit packaged in a leadership style that Nivica describes as all his own.
“Peter certainly has his own distinct style,” he said. “To be successful, it’s important to be observant and reflective, and make sure that your leadership style picks up the best in what you see in others, eliminates perceived deficiencies, but is always consistent with your own personality and vision.”
Nivica also brought with him the belief in excellence and efficiency first observed in Bossidy.
“Soon after joining Celanese, I presented a strategic plan to the executive team and the board with the goal of driving investment in our in-house services,” Nivica noted. “While our in-house budget would go up modestly, we would bring in superb talent, deliver better legal services and drive down total expenses by removing or reducing the need to look externally for counsel. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
With this approach, Nivica said, the legal team has been able to resolve thorny and complicated legacy liability issues and prevent new litigation from cropping up, while being on pace this year to cut total costs in half since he started.
“I made it clear that we could deliver sophisticated advice and guide good judgment to prevent unnecessary risk or litigation, while favorably resolving the litigation we had” he said. “Delivering these solutions also helped build and maintain credibility for our department within the company.”
Call for Ownership
As Nivica guides his team of about 30 lawyers and nine direct reports through a myriad of strategic and tactical priorities, he insists that finding and cultivating the right people for the job is equally as important as any initiative set forth from the organization.
“You simply must have the right lawyers with the right mindset; people who are passionate and talented.” Nivica’s key leadership tenant is encouraging lawyers to “act like owners.”
“It’s so important to have people who really care about the business and their colleagues,” Nivica emphasized. “Acting as an owner forces people to think about their role in the company differently.”
Owners are inherently different, he believes. “They care about elements of the business that someone who views themselves as an ‘employee’ would not. There is self-initiative, breadth of interest and a passion to ‘get it right’ for the customer.” Nivica added, “Often, people have these qualities within them. As a leader, I can stoke those flames, but the spark has to be there in the first place. Those are the kinds of lawyers we are looking for”
For those now under the tutelage of Nivica, the reflective leader who altered his own path based on a desire to drive value inside an organization, a destiny of possibility awaits.
J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.
Gjon's Key Partners:CPA Global (Docketing and Annuity Payment Services) | Kirkland & Ellis (Outside Counsel) | McDermott Will & Emery (Outside Counsel) | Gibson Dunn (Securities Advice) | Wachtel Lipton (Governance Advice)
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