Corporate positions allow award-winning attorney to reach her career goals early

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Alisha Cieslak, General Counsel at Gordon Food Service

PHOTO COURTESY OF ALISHA CIESLAK G

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

 It might come as no surprise in someone who has accomplished so much at a young age, but Alisha Cieslak, currently General Counsel at Gordon Food Service (GFS) is thoughtful and considered about her success and the recognition of it.

As noted in the Grand Rapids Legal News 8/3/2016, her most recent honor is inclusion as one of the Women in the Law from Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

“You know no one is more surprised about all this than me! People often ask me what the secret sauce is,” Cieslak says, laughing. “I honestly I think it’s a combination of luck with a lot of hard work and an incredible amount of sacrifice.”

Miller Johnson nominated her for the Women in the Law designation based on the firm’s lawyers reporting positive interactions with her. “I was just amazed at what she has accomplished when I worked on the nomination,” said Miller Johnson’s Kimberly Houtman.

These accomplishments would be impressive even in someone with a long career, but the fact is that Cieslak has been an attorney for less than ten years, starting after her graduation from Wayne State University Law School in 2009.

A native of the Plymouth-Canton area near Detroit, Cieslak attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn for her undergraduate degree in political science and corporate communications. After attending the Dickinson School of Law for a summer abroad program in Florence, Italy, she received her J.D. in corporate law from Wayne State.

She worked only briefly in private practice, for a little over a year at a small civil and commercial litigation firm in Farmington Hills, before joining Benteler Automotive in late 2010. “I graduated  from law school in the recession-era years, and the auto industry was particularly affected. Benteler was looking for a junior to mid-level attorney to help manage the day-to-day legal work as well as assist in the supplier and customer bankruptcy issues. I had a little bit of bankruptcy and practice management experience, so even though the years of experience weren’t exactly what they were looking for, I hired in there as corporate legal counsel.”
It was not long before she found herself Director of Legal Affairs, North America, for the Salzburg, Austria-based company. The Benteler Group, which has been around since 1876, has business units including automotive, steel/tube, and distribution; the automotive division is primarily a supplier to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers, which generally refers to those who rebrand and sell a manufacturer’s products) in the U.S., Europe and Asia. At the time of Cieslak’s tenure, the global Benteler Group had about 30,000 employees at 150 locations in 38 countries.

As Cieslak tells it, “There was an expatriate who had come from the central legal department in Germany. He was there for two years and at the end of his first year he started recruiting for support with the possible intention that that person could be a successor, or at least provide some continuity.” The opportunity meant overseeing legal affairs in Canada and Mexico as well as the U.S.

Initially covering mostly the automotive group, Cieslak’s position changed when Benteler determined it would be beneficial to expand its steel/tube manufacturing operations, which supply the oil and gas industry, in the United States.

“Really, there was very little infrastructure to support a legal department when I came on,” she says. “Little in terms of templates, policies, procedures, best practices considering U.S. law, records retention or other policies.

“We needed, really, to get the practice organized so we could start to understand how best to serve the business in this region.”

After consideration, Cieslak and her team saw a tremendous need in the area of labor and employment, with so many unionized facilities. “I was not a labor and employment attorney,” she says, “but I had to become one very quickly.”

The application of her organizational and legal skills over approximately the next two years earned her a place on the Top Corporate Counsel list for 2014 from DBusiness Magazine.

Cieslak says she was not looking to leave Benteler —  “I have a lot of respect for my colleagues still there, and I enjoyed all the relationships I formed,” she says — but she was sought out by Gordon Food Service when they were looking to establish a legal department under much the same circumstances she had already faced.

“They had a closed search and solicited referrals from some of their trusted advisors and law firms. I was put forth as someone they would want to talk to.” Cieslak explains. “When I heard it was Gordon Food Service, I instantly felt drawn to the opportunity. Gordon Food Service is sort of nostalgic to me, I associate it with holidays and birthdays going to the Gordon Food Store. And I have to say, on a professional level, it was a good opportunity to be elevated into the primary general counsel role instead of the regional general counsel.”

GFS has also been around for a long time, since 1897, and is a $10 billion plus corporation. Cieslak notes that the department, which now consists of three attorneys, two paralegals, and a contract life cycle manager, is full-service. “We really handle anything that comes through the door or is on the other end of the phone,” she says. “Primarily we’ve focused on M & A, corporate governance, commercial contracts for vendors and customers, and real estate,” Cieslak says.

She adds, “We have done a lot of things from a legal department organizational standpoint that I’m really proud of. We’ve centralized all of our matters, and have processes to ensure that our business clients are only using preferred and vetted law firms.”

But perhaps most importantly, “We introduced a client-facing intranet that’s also a self-serve portal for automated standard form agreements. When they submit the form, it emails them a PDF document that’s populated from their entries. We’ve also done some interesting non-traditional legal training, leveraging some casual video technology effectively resulting in 2 to 5 minute YouTube-style videos on an informative level such that they’re digestible and not overwhelming to the business people,” she says.

For such endeavors, and particularly the website, InsideCounsel Magazine earlier this year named GFS to its IC 10 list of the  most innovative law departments nationally, alongside such companies as Target and Discover.

Cieslak herself was named an MCCA Rising Star by Diversity and the Bar Magazine in April 2015.

Outside of her job, Cieslak works closely with the Special Olympics of Michigan, particularly serving on an advisory board tasked with reaching out to the next generation of volunteers and donors. Her reason for doing so is personal: she has younger twin brothers who are autistic. She volunteered with Area 23 Special Olympics as often as she could when they were younger.

There are also a number of professional memberships that keep her busy. Among them are the Association of Corporate Counsel, board of directors, for which she chairs the West Michigan Committee, responsible for organizing a Chief Legal Officer roundtable four times a year; and the Women’s Foodservice Forum, a professional and leadership development organization.

In addition, Cieslak recently hosted an all-day conference of GFS legal partners. “While many of the attorneys in the room are competitors outside of GFS, we were trying to promote the idea that inside of GFS we’re all part of one team,” she comments.

“Coming from the Detroit area I didn’t grow up as part of this legal community, but I would say it’s been very welcoming and supportive with my transition here. I think in part these local law firm partners have been key to the success we’ve experienced in growing our department,” Cieslak says.

Singing the praises of GFS, which she notes is in the process of adding some “on-trend and culinary-forward” products to its line, Cieslak observes, “What’s interesting is it’s a culture of continuous improvement and change. There’s always some sort of new challenge. So I think that this will keep me busy for a while.”