Kristen McGuffey | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
A Lawyer With A Good Foundation
By Karen Rosen
Kristen K. McGuffey began work at the General Motors Proving Grounds in Michigan as an aspiring engineer in a student co-op program and emerged with a new calling as an attorney.
Recognizing that engineers might specialize in a door latch or a fan for their entire careers, “I realized I needed to be doing different things every day,” McGuffey says.
She went on to Harvard Law School, where her work experience sometimes put her at odds with fellow students.
“I walked into law school with a very different perspective than a lot of people on what corporate America was all about,” says McGuffey, who is Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary at Serta Simmons Holdings, LLC. “I didn’t think of all companies as bad actors who needed to be tamed by lawyers. After spending five years trying to figure out how to save lives and make people safer in cars. I was on the other side of a lot of those arguments where people would say, ‘The company was just trying to make money and didn’t have a conscience.’
Now McGuffey, who graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School, manages the legal department and all legal affairs for Simmons Bedding Company (the Beautyrest® and ComforPedic® brands), National Bedding Company LLC (the Serta® and iComfort® brands), parent companies and multiple domestic and foreign subsidiaries.
She originally joined Simmons in 2001 as Vice President, General Counsel & Assistant Secretary. Although Simmons is one of the largest companies making mattresses – a ubiquitous product that everyone needs – it had not had an in-house attorney for years.
“I jumped right in,” McGuffey says. “Starting this law group was like buying a really old house that had beautiful bones but needed some TLC. Every time you tried to open a door to get into a room, the handle fell off. So before you could go into the room, you’d have to fix the handle first.
McGuffey’s initial staff included only a paralegal and an administrative person, with outside counsel remaining as a resource.
“There was very little time during the first eight years when we weren’t buying or selling a business unit or going through a sale or refinancing,” McGuffey says. “For the first few years I kept thinking, ‘When is it going to end?’ but then I realized I was enjoying the work, learning a lot and that I’m probably a bit of a deal junkie. In hindsight, when it’s not so busy, I’m not having as much fun.”
“In 2010 we ended up with new owners which also owned National Bedding Company L.L.C., the majority licensee of the Serta brand and Simmons’ competitor,” she says. Simmons and Serta had been neck-and neck with Sealy, another major manufacturer for years.
The parent company saw synergies with owning two of the largest mattress producers in the U.S. “But Serta and Simmons had been natural rivals until the day that we were acquired,” McGuffey says. “There were trust issues that had to be addressed.”
McGuffey, who was named Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary for both Serta International and Simmons Bedding Company in 2011, said she earned that trust by providing good service.
“Sometimes it’s like having two separate clients,” McGuffey says. “Marketing for one brand needs to know that when they’re telling us something that we’re not going to go and tell the other brand.”
McGuffey recognizes that her ultimate responsibility is to the owners who own both brands. “And if that is the basis for decision-making, it’s easy to determine what is the right thing to do,” she says.
McGuffey has two other lawyers on her staff, Todd Mitchem and Clara DeQuick. Mitchem has expertise in patents and DeQuick is an experienced employment law attorney. But even though they have specific backgrounds and specialties, McGuffey and her team end up wearing a lot of different hats.
They operate under the ‘two is better than one’ principle, often bouncing ideas off each other or reviewing one another’s work, especially when the stakes are high. And everyone on her team is welcome to question or challenge the direction they are taking.
“Some of the issues are hard to resolve and I feel like you’re going to end up with a better product at the end of the day,” McGuffey says.
Growing up, she didn’t have any lawyers in her family, didn’t know any lawyers and walked into law school not knowing a lot of the basics.
McGuffey’s father worked in logistics for a car company and the family moved to a Detroit suburb when she was in middle school.
McGuffey was good in math and science at a time when women were encouraged to attend engineering schools. She enrolled at GMI Engineering and Management Institute (now Kettering Institute), which was a full co-op school, and found employment with the General Motors Proving Grounds. Her stints there included work with crash test dummies as well as in the electromagnetic compatibility, instrumentation engineering and noise and vibration labs.
Although McGuffey graduated third in a class of 427 with an electrical engineering degree, she had more passion for English and writing than science and mechanics. General Motors generously allowed her to work her final summer in their legal department.
Still, she wasn’t prepared for what law school entailed.
“The first year was really hard for me because in engineering school, there’s always one right answer,” McGuffey says. “It might take you seven pages of formulas and math to solve it, but you always knew when you got the right answer.
“In law school -- nobody really explained this to me -- it’s not getting to the right answer, but it’s the process of getting there and how you reason through a problem.”
She spent most of her first year studying alone since she had accepted free room and board from a local family in exchange for doing the cooking and laundry.
“I will honestly say I missed out on a lot of the relationship-building that most people get to do their first year of law school,” she says, but adds, “You learn something through everything you do.
“I would never recommend that somebody else spend their first year working for a family in exchange for room and board, but at least I know how to cook now.”
After graduation, she became an associate at Paul Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Atlanta.
McGuffey had interviewed only with Georgia firms. Her heart had long been set on moving to Georgia because she liked the weather, Atlanta was booming and she’d become acquainted with the region while visiting a close friend here.
She started out in white collar crime, and spent her first few years as a young associate working on a case involving Mitsubishi and a fraudulent scheme in which company insiders pretended they were buying and selling yarn in North Georgia.
She later joined the firm’s corporate group, realizing “this problem-solving thing in me that wants to have a win-win situation was probably better suited for the corporate world.”
That gave McGuffey experience with contracts and mergers and acquisitions. She was seconded to Scientific Atlanta for a few months, giving her exposure into what it’s like to be part of a company.
Contacted by a headhunter, McGuffey joined Morris, Manning & Martin in its technology law practice. At Morris, Manning & Martin, McGuffey worked with John Yates and his Technology group on start-up companies and IPOs.
“I had a lot to learn as the technology had changed tremendously since I had left engineering school in the 80’s when we were learning Fortran computer language,” she says.
She still jokes that she wrote a memo about a “gooey interface” in her first week at Morris, Manning & Martin because she didn’t know the correct term was GUI (Graphical User Interface).
“So from then on, I knew what a GUI interface was and you can tell I’ve never forgotten,” says McGuffey, who went on to make partner.
She had a young son and was pregnant with her daughter when a client, Viewlocity, asked her to go in-house with them in 2000.
Seeking a better work-life balance, McGuffey wound up writing contracts around the clock for this global software company as their only attorney. Following a change of management, she was considering staying at Viewlocity or going back to her old firm when she got a call from Simmons.
“It was a very quick turn of events,” she says.
But McGuffey embraced the change. “If things aren’t changing you’re not growing,” she says.
Away from the office, McGuffey likes to run, bike and swim and enjoys weekends at the lake water skiing with her family. She is married and her children are now teenagers.
McGuffey was on the board at Our House for six years and currently serves on the board of the YMCA’s Camp High Harbour Branch. She is also on the Executive Committee of the State Bar of Georgia Corporate Counsel Law Section.
Although it’s not part of her job description, McGuffey is an advocate for getting a new mattress if someone is sleeping on an old one.
“You hear so many people say, ‘I’ve had my bed for 12 or 15 years or I don’t care about my mattress,’ and I’m like, ‘You probably need a new mattress if you don’t care about your mattress. I can’t wait to get to sleep on mine every night,’” she says.
“You really do feel like you’re solving a consumer problem when someone gets one of our mattresses and it changes their sleep experience. A good night’s sleep really does leave you more recharged and refreshed.”
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