Mentorship and an open mind are two prominent factors that played a role in Gaither Keener’s progression toward becoming executive vice president, secretary, chief compliance officer and the first in-house counsel of Lowe’s Cos. Inc. After landing a job in retail during his first year out of college, Keener decided to venture into graduate programs, thinking his interests would be better suited in a different field. He kept his options open, with applications to programs in history and seminary studies.
Keener also was interested in law, and he channeled childhood influences such as his favorite TV character, Perry Mason, and family friend Samuel Moose, to narrow his decision toward law. Keener recalled Moose—who went by the nickname “Sub”—as a man full of character, whose distinguished daytime career as an attorney was followed by his nighttime position as a little league baseball coach. These two childhood role models were Keener’s first influences in his later decision to become a lawyer, and it was his admiration of Moose that led him to equate the practice of law with coaching a team.
Although Keener is an avid sports fan, his coaching is done off the field with newly hired lawyers at Lowe’s. Keener provides law students with a unique opportunity to pursue interests in in-house law by hiring second-year law students for a summer internship program, and placing whichever students are hired for a full-time position in a 12-month educational project. He makes it a point to guide students to adopt the same open-mindedness he assumed with his educational pursuits by hiring students who sought a general legal education, and supplementing their skills with a rotational training sequence in the legal and business applications employed at Lowe’s.
This program, Keener believes, will produce future generations of better lawyers, and it is his goal that all of the attorneys on staff at Lowe’s complete it before he retires. The program is a testament to successful leadership tools that brought Keener to his leading position today at Lowe’s.
Q: How did you start working for Lowe’s?
A: There was an opening in a well-established law firm called McElwee Hall McElwee. Mr. McElwee was not only an excellent trial lawyer, he also represented a lot of the major corporations in North Carolina. He was the general counsel for Lowe’s, and later the company became one of my clients. In 1985, he gave me the opportunity to still be a partner in the firm, but also to become an employee of Lowe’s. I worked two jobs and, in 1987, left the firm after practicing for 10 years and moved to the company as its first in-house lawyer.
Q: What interested you in in-house as opposed to law firm work?
A: When you are in a law firm, you only get 10 cents of every dollar you make, and you are lucky that you get those 10 cents. The opportunity I saw to keep a general practice while becoming more involved in the growth of the company through its evolution from a small regional company to an international company was the key. I saw the plans back in 1977 that set out to make Lowe’s a Fortune 500 international company, and I liked what I saw.
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
A: A lot of people don’t believe this, but retailing is a very diverse business. When you are dealing with 50 states and different countries, you pretty much have to have a great grasp of the general law, the exceptions to the general and minority law and, more particularly, you better know how both of those laws pertain to retailing. It’s a business that encounters vast changes every day. You have to be nimble, flexible and resilient so that you can turn on 70 percent of the information, ensure that 70 percent is correct and provide the best advice for the business people to implement their plans. This is the greatest challenge.
Q: What is the most rewarding part ofyour work?
A: The most enjoyable thing has been watching the company metamorphose and evolve from 1977 until today. The culture of the company also is one of the outstanding aspects of my job. We are always reforming ourselves, not only for the benefit of our customers, but also our employees and shareholders. It’s the culture of this company that has made me stay here for so long.
Q: Tell me about the Lowe’s legal department.
A: I have people who graduated from tier-one schools, such as Harvard and Yale, and some from tier-four schools. It’s not about how book smart you are, but how street smart. We have a very diverse group; many of my vice presidents are females, Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans, and having that diversity is the only way you can really practice law.
Q: What goals do you have for your company?
A: In this economy where some corporations are not expanding, I’ve been expanding. I’ve done various analyses for seven to 10 years and found that if you bring quality individuals to your business, business relationships are better, and you become the hub of the retail. It is just like a wheel. You have a wheel, a hub and spokes. The spokes are the different business units, and the lawyers have to be the hub. They have to understand that one aspect of the business unit can affect business and the whole wheel.
The goal is to make lawyers generalists and not specialists. Another goal of mine is to continue our membership with the Blue Chip Counsel, which comes together to expand diversity in law firms and legal departments. I am proud to be a part of the group and will continue bringing in diverse lawyers who bring in ideas that a good old white boy from western North Carolina may not think about.
Q: What is your proudest moment?
A: At Lowe’s, we have been given the opportunity to hire two classes of [second-year law students] students for a summer internship program. Several students from those classes have since been hired for the company, and start in a 12-month rotation system throughout the various sections to get to know the various business aspects of the company. I truly believe that these bright, young lawyers will become some of the better lawyers in five to 10 years because of the rotational aspect. Every attorney who I hire now, in addition to working in their specialized field, goes through this program every 30 days to learn the total picture of the company. Doing so allows them to become a hub of the wheel, not a spoke. It is my hope that every attorney in the company will go through it before I retire.
Q: What advice would you give to young lawyers who aspire to be general counsel?
A: My advice to young lawyers is this: Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Everyone thinks that because I work in a corporation, I handle business law. I also do family law, criminal law, I know the SEC rules backward and forward, and I work with international, repertory, and U.K. bribery laws. To be successful in a corporation, you have to be a generalist, and that is why you’re called a general counsel and not a specialist counsel.
Q: What would your dream job be if you didn’t work in law?
A: My dream is to own the Dodgers and bring them back to the East Coast!