Kathy Mahoney, General Counsel and Secretary at SpartanNash, discusses the journey of merging two multi-million dollar companies into a nearly $8 billion organization and the lessons learned along the way.
Jessica Bozzo: Can you begin by giving us some background about your role as General Counsel at SpartanNash?
Kathy Mahoney: I’ll begin with a bit of background on SpartanNash. The Nash Finch Company and Spartan Stores underwent a transformational merger in November of 2013 to form SpartanNash Company, the largest distributor to U.S. military commissaries and exchanges in the world, in terms of revenue. We also are the fifth largest food distributor in the United States. We serve independent retailers in 2100 locations, as well as own more than 160 corporate grocery stores in nine states. We have 20 distribution centers throughout the United States and we are headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Merging two multimillion dollar companies into a nearly $8 billion dollar organization has been an incredible journey. As a member of the Executive Steering Committee (“ESC”), I have been fortunate to have a hand in the arduous work entailed in integrating two large companies onto common platforms with cohesive management styles and methods of operation. Dennis Eidson, our Chief Executive Officer; Dave Staples, our Chief Operating Officer; and I comprise the ESC, and we are charged with overseeing the integration management operations team (13 VPs representing every business segment and function) of these two great companies.
In addition to bringing the two businesses together we are also blending the people and combining the cultures of companies with 125 year and nearly 100 year legacies. Being part of the leadership team providing strategic direction for this integration has been an incredible opportunity. The number of decisions we have made in the past year has been far reaching – from our company name, logo, tagline, stock ticker, board and senior leadership composition, and corporate headquarters location; to financial, HR, and IT systems integration and beyond.
Nearly all of our service center associates are involved in some form or fashion with the integration, in addition to our “day jobs.” My role as General Counsel includes serving as advisor to our Company’s Board of Directors and also our CEO and the senior leadership team. I also oversee our in-house legal team, which partners with our business segments to help them achieve their goals with minimal legal obstacles, and consult with outside counsel as needed.
Last but not least, I oversee the Corporate Affairs, Communications, Licensing, Government Affairs, and Aviation team members.
“Perhaps one of the key lessons learned is what a small world we live in. The Nash Finch Company and Spartan Stores had been ‘courting’ each other for years, and in 2011 we pursued a deal that looked much different from our 2013 merger.”
SpartanNash formed as a result of the merger between Nash Finch Company and Spartan Stores in 2013. What lessons did you learn throughout the merger that you can share with other General Counsel?
Perhaps one of the key lessons learned is what a small world we live in. The Nash Finch Company and Spartan Stores had been ‘courting’ each other for years, and in 2011 we pursued a deal that looked much different from our 2013 merger. Had both parties not been respectful, fair, and transparent in 2011, we may never have come back to the table two years later to merge these two great companies. We must always be mindful of how we treat each and everyone we encounter and stay true to our of our core values: respect, integrity, accountability, teamwork, customer focus, innovation, celebration and fun, and patriotism. In fact, our vision statement is to be a best-in-class business that feels local, where relationships matter. Throughout this merger, we have learned how important relationships are – with customers who shop our stores, our independent retailers, military heroes and their families, suppliers, vendors, communities – and our co-workers.
A second important lesson is recognizing things will go wrong. What matters is how we respond, address the obstacles, and move forward. This can be very challenging when so many of us are spread thin doing our day jobs on top of our integration jobs. Mergers are like marriages – we can’t be better together if we continue to operate with a ‘my way’ and ‘your way’ rather than a blended ‘our way.’
How has your role changed since the merger and how has your team evolved?
With any merger or position change, you have to re-earn your place at the table. This applies to everyone. The speed of trust is critical. Our senior leadership team is different today, so we have had to get to know each other, our work styles, and expertise. The functions reporting into legal also have changed following the merger. When I was General Counsel for Nash Finch, I oversaw the legal department and also risk management, asset protection, regulatory compliance, insurance procurement and aviation. Now in addition to the legal department I oversee communications, corporate affairs, government affairs and aviation. Prior to the merger, the Spartan side of the transaction did not have an inside legal department so we have been able to expand the in-house counsel to benefit the legacy Spartan footprint.
You’re chair of the NFC Foundation – can you give us some additional information on the foundation and what inspired you to become involved in its charitable initiatives?
I have always been committed to giving back and volunteering – going back to my days with the Girl Scouts where I served as a cookie mom, a Girl Scout Leader for my daughter’s Cadette and Senior Girl Scout Troops, and later served on the Board of Directors and as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scout Council of St. Croix Valley, which was located in Eastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. The NFC Foundation had evolved over the years, forming partnerships with nonprofit organizations to address hunger and shelter needs, as well as support our military, veterans and their families. Not only was this support greatly needed, but the Foundation also provided the opportunity for our associates to volunteer. We established the Helping Hands Day so associates could volunteer at our 10-15 partnering organizations and learn firsthand what their needs were and how we are helping. Our teams love it –and it has fueled our culture of giving back.
Over the past year, we have been working to combine the NFC Foundation with the Spartan Stores Foundation to form the SpartanNash Foundation. I now serve on that board, and I look forward to working with our Trustees as we develop our support areas, volunteer opportunities, and fundraising channels.
“As General Counsel we hold a title that can be intimidating and a position of authority. It is important to demonstrate that we are approachable, open and caring. We must remember that no matter what job we have in an organization, we all work hard to serve our customers, our consumers, our communities and each other; leave your ego at the door please.”
How would you describe your own leadership style? What are some of your key insights/core beliefs that shape your view on General Counsel Leadership?
I believe my team would see me as a strategic, collaborative, decisive, and inclusive leader. I also believe that you must demonstrate your business skills to earn the respect of your peers, so as a leader, it is my job to create a culture that fosters this.
As General Counsel we hold a title that can be intimidating and a position of authority. It is important to demonstrate that we are approachable, open and caring. We must remember that no matter what job we have in an organization, we all work hard to serve our customers, our consumers, our communities and each other; leave your ego at the door please.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I consider it my duty and responsibility to mentor whenever and wherever I can. In addition to corporate and Foundation responsibilities, I also serve on the Warriors at Ease Board of Directors and the Best Lawyers Advisory Board, and am an active member of the National Association of Corporate Directors, the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, and the Network of Executive Women.
Kathleen Mahoney is Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary of SpartanNash, Company assuming that role effective with the merger of Nash Finch Company (Fortune 500) and Spartan Stores, Inc. in November 2013. Prior to the close of the merger,Kathy was the Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary of Nash Finch Company. Kathy is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the NFC Foundation, the Nash Finch Company charitable foundation and is a member of the Advisory Board of Best Lawyers®. Kathy recently concluded nine years of service as a member of the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners. In 2011, Kathy was named one of 25 Industry Leaders by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and in 2012 was named as a Top Women in Grocery by Progressive Grocer.
Prior to joining Nash Finch, Kathy was the Managing Partner, St Paul Office of Larson King, LLP, a litigation boutique firm. Kathy was formerly a Partner with Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, LLP, serving in a number of capacities including Managing Partner of the St Paul Office, Chair, Labor and Employment Practice Group and Chair, EEO Committee. Kathy also served as Special Assistant Attorney General, Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, from 1983 – 1989. Kathy held two clerkships, one with the Hon. Douglas K. Amdahl, Minnesota Supreme Court, and the other for the Hon. Neal P. McCurn, U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York. Kathleen earned her JD degree from Syracuse University College of Law.