Christine Leahy, senior VP, general counsel and corporate secretary, CDW
CDW exec integrates successful team practices from the ground up
Christine Leahy guided CDW's legal team through a leveraged buyout and helped boost the ranks of women and minority employees at the firm, but the current challenge is to help the technology reseller stay relevant and grow. (Shaun Sartin/For the Tribune / February 20, 2013)
"We all still wore suits, with pantyhose and skirts that hit just at the knee -- not above, not below -- and mostly silk blouses that tied at the neck," recalls Lisa Pattis, a former Sidley & Austin partner who is now executive vice president and general counsel at Wintrust Financial Corp.
But one particularly cold winter day, Pattis' mentor at the venerable law firm showed up in a pair of tailored black pants with a jacket.
"She didn't get everyone together for a meeting about it, she just did it," Pattis recalls. "It was a cold winter, and we had been working late and walking to the train in stockings. We all went out that weekend and bought pantsuits."
Pattis' mentor, the rebel in the pantsuit, was Christine Leahy.
Now senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at CDW, the Vernon Hills-based technology vendor, Leahy is still breaking new ground.
Since leaving Sidley and joining CDW a decade ago, Leahy has built the company's legal team from scratch, started its women's leadership development initiative and helped take the company private while still maintaining enough financial and legal disclosure to get it back on this year's Fortune 500 list.
She's one of 10 executive committee members -- four of them women, three of them named Chris -- guiding the $9.6 billion firm.
"She's beyond being a very good general counsel," said Tom Richards, CDW's president and chief executive. "The things she does to keep her team engaged reeks of someone with leadership skills all over the place."
Walking through a customer demonstration center in Mettawa recently, Leahy, 48, talks about CDW's technical capabilities, from traditional networking and data recovery services for government and business clients to protecting a hospital's patient data in the cloud. She emphasizes how important it is to her that the legal department be seen as part of these operations, not an obstacle.
"People see us (CDW) as a reseller offering tech-agnostic advice," she said. "Now, with cloud computing, we're dealing with new providers and how to ensure CDW's position" in the competitive mix.
Richards, who is leading the company's push into new information technology services, calls it a key strength that Leahy is able to articulate the company's legal issues, from supplier contracts to data security measures, in the context of the overall strategy.
"She makes sure everybody stays focused on the bigger business issue, and I value that a great deal," he said.
Business has, indeed, been improving at CDW after hefty losses during the recession that in 2009 prompted the first layoffs in company history.
It was a rough ride after private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners paid about $7.3 billion to take CDW private in 2007 in a leveraged buyout, only to see business begin to collapse the following year as companies slashed IT spending.
CDW snapped a string of net losses in 2011 as the economy improved, and Moody's Investors Service in April upgraded the company's debt rating. The agency noted the company's improved operating performance, market share gains and the expectation that the company will further cut its massive debt load, which was a whopping $4.6 billion in 2007, according to the credit agency.
The improvement has spurred speculation about another public offering.
"Every company that goes private eventually deals with an exit strategy," Richards said. "Is the possibility that we become a public company again on the list of options? Absolutely, it is."