What makes Interstate Hotels & Resorts’ Christopher Bennett a good corporate lawyer isn’t just his work in the legal department; it’s his contributions outside it.
By Nancy Flagg
Becoming a lawyer was always part of Christopher Bennett’s plan, viewing law as an encompassing discipline that touches the full span of a company’s operations. Even before he set foot at the University of Virginia’s Law School, Bennett was busily building a broad foundation, including earning undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Finance at Virginia Tech, working for Deloitte and gaining a Certified Public Accountant license.
With tours of duty at two law firms, Thacher Proffitt & Wood and Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine, Bennett developed expertise in commercial mortgage-backed securities and SEC regulations, making him a sought-after candidate for CapStar Hotel Co., whichhad just gone public and needed an in-house attorney with public company and real estate experience.
Bennett embraced the opportunity, stretching his horizons into the hospitality industry, acquiring exposure in real estate, debt, franchising and employment issues. After a merger and a public company split, Bennett became General Counsel of two public companies: Meristar Hospitality, a real estate investment trust owning an upscale portfolio of more than 100 hotels, and MeriStar Hotels & Resorts Inc., a hotel management company overseeing 150-plus hotels throughout the U.S.
In 2002, when MeriStar Hotels and Resorts merged to become Interstate Hotels and Resorts, Bennett left MeriStar Hospitality. He did so in order to focus on serving as General Counsel of the newly merged company, managing more than 400 hotels throughout North America and Russia.
Secret to a Lean Legal Department
When Bennett joined CapStar, the Legal Department consisted of one paralegal. Today, the department remains surprisingly small, with a total of four attorneys. Bennett’s secret to keeping the team lean is maintaining close relationships with key outside law firms.
The hospitality industry calls for expertise in many areas; rather than hiring additional attorneys in house, Bennett prefers maintaining these relationships with quality firms, allowing them to provide expertise where appropriate.
Interstate’s former General Counsel Tim Hudak is now a Senior Partner at the Pittsburgh-based law firm Eckert Seamans. With access to Hudak and his firm’s broad expertise in the hospitality industry (and Interstate, in particular), Bennett knows that together they can handle wide-ranging legal needs. Bennett sees using outside counsel as an efficient system, not constraining Interstate by the size of its Legal Department. With outside counsel, it “can expand quickly to handle large transactions or a fleet of small issues. With Hudak’s in-house experience, I also know he understands the importance of providing efficient legal advice focused on the important issues.”
Not long after becoming Interstate’s General Counsel, Bennett found his role broadening beyond the Legal Department. After multiple mergers, growth and “constantly trying to reset the organization to match the structure,” Bennett said that he and the executive team became concerned about effectively managing the employment and operating risks of an organization with 350 hotels located over a broad geography, each region having its own employment and reporting laws. As a result, Bennett began to oversee the company’s global Human Resource (HR) Department, which encompasses employee relations, recruiting, compensation and benefits, and organizational development and learning.
At the time he became involved with HR, there were two dedicated departments: one for compensation and benefits and another for employee relations, training and recruiting. Bennett combined the two into one department to improve efficiency and communication.
Bennett and the company’s Senior Vice President of HR, Laura FitzRandolph—who reports to him and is also an attorney, formerly with Akin Gump—are focusing current department efforts on improving employee recognition and satisfaction programs. Turnover is a “major cost factor” in the hotel industry, according to Bennett, and a concern for Interstate considering its staff of 26,000.
An example of an employee recognition program is the “I am Interstate” card. If an Interstate associate believes that a colleague has gone above and beyond their normal responsibilities, the former associate can recognize the latter immediately by giving him or her the card to recognize the outstanding efforts. The second half of the card is sent to the associate’s supervisor so that the company also is made aware of his or her excellent service.
In 2010, Bennett was appointed to an additional role, that of Managing Director of International Operations, via which he is involved in expanding the company into emerging markets, such as China and India. He is engaged in strategic planning as well as in managing the nuts and bolts of the company’s global expansion. When a critical mass of operations is reached in a new region, he then hands the reigns over to the company’s Chief Operating Officer.
With Bennett’s promotion to Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel in 2011, he also began to oversee the company’s Corporate Communications Group: an intuitive match due to the many legal facets to public disclosures. The Legal Department is involved in a wide range of Interstate’s activities, such as hotel operations, accounting, construction, design and purchasing, and it has, Bennett said, “the big picture of where the organization is headed and how all the pieces fit together.” This perspective is critical in defining the company’s public relations communication strategy.
Advice for Up-and-Comers
Bennett’s multifaceted vantage point gives him a unique perspective on what young lawyers should strive to achieve early in their careers. “Work for a well respected law firm,” he advised. By doing so, he is confident a lawyer will learn to be “impeccable” and precise in drafting, interact with smart people who can help them understand how to tackle problems and gain experience thinking through issues to offer concise and cohesive advice to clients.
For lawyers who want to be in the top corporate ranks, having high integrity is critical. “I don’t think there’s anything more important for any corporate executive,” Bennett said. By focusing on doing the right thing in helping fellow executives achieve a company’s business goals, a lawyer will gain a reputation as someone people want to come to in order to reach solutions.
In Bennett’s case, one of the right things to do was to delve deeply into all aspects of the business so that he could offer strategic direction that is both well grounded and visionary.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Chris' Key Partners:Eckert Seamans (Outside Counsel)
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