Greg Birge, Chief Legal Officer at Purchasing Power, discusses how his background in finance has helped him connect to the business as a legal executive and better support a growing organization
Although he now serves as Chief Legal Officer & Corporate Secretary for Purchasing Power, LLC, Greg Birge is as comfortable with a balance sheet as he is with a legal brief.
Birge graduated college with a bachelor’s in business administration and worked as a certified public accountant before earning a law degree and landing a job at a global law firm. But he always knew he wanted to work as in-house counsel for a company, combining his financial sense and legal know-how to make decisions that truly impact a business’s bottom line.
“The primary reason I went in house was not only to be closer to the client, but to actually be the client. I gain more professional enjoyment from being part of a team, part of an organization, being able to help accomplish objectives, enjoying the highs and the lows, building relationships and helping our team and organization succeed,” he said.
In his time as a corporate associate in the Miami and New York offices of the law firm White & Case, LLP, Birge worked long, hard hours on a variety of matters, including mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, corporate restructurings and multimillion-dollar commercial loan transactions. Emergency “fire drills” were determined by the clients’ needs, and could change dramatically by the day. As an in-house counsel, he has more say over how he spends his time, but it was much more that attracted him to working in a company.
“The biggest improvement of going in-house isn’t the myth that all in-house attorneys work 9 to 5 and have two-hour lunches,” he said. “Essentially, given that you have one client you serve, you’re not being pulled in different directions as much.”
Indeed, you’re working with the same business people every day. And, just like them, you have to live with the consequences of deals you help ink.
“Outside counsel in law firms are advisers in many respects. Although they give quality advice and are trusted partners, at the end of the day, the responsibility rests with the client, with the business, with the organization, and I enjoy being part of that equation,” he said.
Birge first learned to balance those equations working as a CPA in Texas before attending law school at the University of Miami. His undergraduate degree in business and early accounting experience helped him as a corporate lawyer by making him fluent in both business terminology and financial statements from the ground up.
“I’ve met bright lawyers who don’t have much financial acumen,” he said. “But they’re brilliant litigators, brilliant advocates, brilliant writers. The CPA and the financial statement ability really gives me a head start whenever I join a business in being able to understand and learn the business quicker.”
A company is more than its contracts and other legal matters. To truly comprehend it, Birge looks first at its financials, then moves on to examine its strategy, operations, risk profile and overall value proposition within its industry. In more than 17 years as an in-house attorney at companies ranging from multinational behemoths like General Electric to startups still vying for their first or second round of financing, Birge has had the opportunity to work with organizations at every phase of their legal lives, a fact he says has kept his legal career interesting and challenging. Further, having a firm grasp on a business’s financial statements and overall operations also makes him better at his own job, whether he’s reviewing contracts or responding to labor and employment issues.
“Nothing legal happens in a vacuum. It always happens within a context, of that business, that organization and its regulatory environment, especially when you are in-house,” he said. “As an attorney, being able to understand that context helps me provide sound legal advice and make good legal decisions that advance the strategic objectives of the organization along the optimal path.”
Crafting His Role
Birge joined Purchasing Power two years ago as its first in-house counsel and saw the job as a unique opportunity to create the template for what a lawyer should be and do at a growing ecommerce company where he calls the environment entrepreneurial, service-oriented and informal in the best sense of the word. The Atlanta-based company was recently named to Inc. Magazine’s list of 5,000 fastest-growing private companies for the seventh year in a row. Purchasing Power has been around since 2001, and with a pool table and ping pong table in the break room, it has maintained its energetic and fun-loving culture that attracts and retains its top talent. However, with success and fast growth come challenges of process and policy creation, protections, and more. So his wide-ranging career prepared him well for the issues facing a firm of this size that’s still poised for major expansion and future growth.
“From working with startups, I learned the critical need for speed, action, responsiveness, and a certain degree of comfort with ambiguity. I had to stop being a perfectionist and learn that in certain circumstances, there was a ‘good enough’ for a situation rather than a ‘perfect’,” he said. “From working with larger and more established companies, I learned the benefits of systems and processes and the need for cross-functional involvement in order to accomplish or implement projects.”
He was also exposed to excellent leaders and professional development at ChoicePoint and General Electric, where he had the opportunity to attend a week-long manager development course at the corporation’s world-class training academy.
“I still remember lessons learned from that to this day even though it was more than 15 years ago,” he said.
Birge’s broad background is critical at Purchasing Power, where he acts as a legal team of one. “I don’t have the luxury of relying on specialists internally to handle employment, intellectual property or litigation or to do the commercial contracts, which means I get what I enjoy – a wide variety of interesting legal matters,” he said.
But, as his own department, he does have the luxury of crafting his role at the company. Shortly after he was hired at Purchasing Power, he completed the thorough three-day employee orientation in which leaders of different divisions give new hires an overview of the business. He followed up, inviting execs out for breakfast, lunch or a cup of coffee to better educate himself about the company and also let them know what an in-house counsel could do for them. In-house lawyers aren’t there to simply reject contracts or completely revamp deals that have taken months, he says.
“Some professionals have a perception that in-house counsel is there to prevent them from accomplishing their business objectives. I’ve heard plenty of jokes calling in-house counsel the ‘sales prevention department’ or ‘Dr. No.’ I tried to be very proactive in forming relationships and getting my teammates to understand my role, particularly because it was such a new concept in our fast-growing organization.”
To this end, Birge spent time in his first few weeks at Purchasing Power educating his colleagues. Although it was a slow process at first, it turned into a big advantage for both sides since it allowed them to collaborate on their shared responsibilities and expectations, as well as customize their ideas for what an in-house attorney should be at Purchasing Power. Birge began by letting colleagues know he was there to do much more than just review – and reject – contracts for the e-retailer, which provides an employee purchase program to 7.6 million workers at a wide range of companies and organizations throughout the United States.
“It was easier in that I had a clean slate with my position, and I got to mold it in a way that gave me the ability to prioritize the areas in which I thought the organization needed to focus,” he said.
A Partner, Not a Prohibitor
Today, he hopes they see him as a fully invested partner in the business. And lately, he’s even been using his extensive corporate connections in the Atlanta area to land a few sales himself. The experience has better informed him of the challenges and pressures the sales team faces and improved his ability to give sound legal advice. It’s also strengthened his relationships as they see he truly understands their needs.
In business, Birge has learned that most decisions aren’t black and white and are more about balancing risk and reward than breaking laws or breaching ethics. Still, most attorneys are well-versed in examining the worst-case scenario for choices they make.
“You have to make sure you always consider the up side. I don’t think enough attorneys spend enough time thinking about the reward in the risk-reward equation,” he said. “Because, if you can’t quantify that side of the equation, you can’t balance it.” ♦
Lessons from Mentors
As the first female Under Secretary of the Air Force (with enlisted and officer experience) and former Deputy Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, Carol DiBattiste boasted an impressive resume when she came in to help revive ChoicePoint.
The Georgia company, which collected and provided information used in background checks, was the victim of a criminal data breach that compromised the records of more than 160,000 consumers in 2005, slashed the company’s market capitalization and eventually resulted in a $15 million payout to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that the firm’s practices had violated consumers’ privacy rights.
“Carol came to ChoicePoint at a time of crisis, at a time of challenge,” said Greg Birge of the general counsel and chief privacy officer who would become one of his mentors. “And Carol was hired to come in and be a catalyst for change and turn the battleship, so to speak.”
Given the company’s dire circumstances, DiBattiste was given a lot of support in her efforts as a change agent. Even so, her role in recouping the company’s value and putting it in the position to be acquired by LexisNexis in an attractive $4-plus billion deal just three years later was impressive, said Birge. She accomplished goals through leading by example rather than micromanagement.
“From a leadership style, her energy, her passion, her dedication was, and still is, off the charts and it was contagious,” he said. “She taught me you have to put together a great team, then delegate, then trust. You can follow up, but you’ve got to give your direct reports some autonomy in their areas of expertise and she was excellent with that.”
Other lessons are harder to quantify for Birge, now Chief Legal Officer & Corporate Secretary for Purchasing Power. He most admired DiBattiste’s ability to present herself and her ideas in the best light to any audience.
“If you can put together the right mix of focus, of passion, of dedication with a little humor thrown in, you can really accomplish great things from a professional standpoint.”
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