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Legal Times talks with Kellye Walker who is general counsel for Diageo North America, a producer of alcoholic drinks, based in Norwalk, Conn.
Can you tell us about the company? Diageo is the world’s leading premium drinks business with an outstanding collection of beverage alcohol brands across spirits, wine, and beer. These brands include Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Smirnoff, J&B, Baileys, Cuervo, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, Beaulieu Vineyard, and Sterling Vineyards wines. Diageo is a global company, trading in some 180 countries around the world. The company is listed on both the New York Stock Exchange and the London Stock Exchange. Diageo North America is the largest market for Diageo, and covers the U.S. and Canada. Our North American headquarters are in Connecticut; and we have other offices and production and bottling facilities across North America.
Has Diageo been around a long time? Diageo itself is 10 years old, resulting from a merger between Guinness and Grand Met. These companies were engaged in a variety of businesses, including beverage alcohol, hotels, and foods. The strategy for the merged company was to focus on the beverage alcohol business. This strategy led to a variety of divestitures and acquisitions, which focused and enhanced our brand portfolio. We own brands that have been around for hundreds of years.
How is Diageo North America different from the larger company? In the United States, the beverage alcohol industry operates under a regulatory scheme that’s three-tiered. In other words, there is a three-tier vertical system that includes suppliers, such as Diageo, distributors who are wholly owned, independent businesses, and retailers. In this model, suppliers are mandated to sell to the distributor, who in turn services the retailer. This system was a compromise made when Congress decided to repeal the 18th Amendment, thus repealing Prohibition. Though the marketing and sale of beverage alcohol is regulated around the world, the three-tier system is unique to the United States.
How many employees are there overall? There are about 23,000 employees worldwide. We operate in over 180 countries around the world, and have four major divisions: North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, and International.
Whom do you report to? I actually have duel reporting, both to the global general counsel and also to the CEO of North America with whom I interface daily. The system works very well. The global general counsel handles global issues, including managing the global legal function. My remit focuses on issues that are specific to the North American market. I have the autonomy to do that, but we’re in constant communication. There are 12 lawyers in my department, and the total global legal department has approximately 80 lawyers. They’re in a variety of locations around the world, with several based in London and Singapore, and then scattered in a variety of countries. We work well as a global function and periodically all get together for a global legal conference. This year’s conference will be held in Shanghai, to celebrate Diageo’s growth in the Asia Pacific region.
What would you say are the biggest legal challenges? Given the highly regulated environment, our most constant challenge is in that arena. Regulatory compliance also involves educating our work force through training, especially our salespeople and marketers. So part of our role is to make sure that we provide them with the information and tools they need to comport with the regulatory scheme. In this industry generally, and with Diageo specifically, we recognize that alcoholic beverages bring pleasure to millions of adults every day; yet we also recognize that alcoholic beverages are sometimes consumed irresponsibly. With that understanding, Diageo’s global commitment to responsible drinking is a key element of its overall business planning. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to Diageo was that it is a company of families: of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who care deeply about how our products are marketed, sold, and consumed.
What does that entail? We have a robust marketing code, to make sure that our brands are marketed responsibly. For example, we don’t market our products in ways that promote activities where the consumer doesn’t have control over the amount of alcohol one consumes; so we will not show someone taking multiple shots or being involved in shot-drinking games. Diageo also doesn’t advertise in markets and in venues unless the vast majority of the audience — at least 70 percent — is above the legal drinking age. Additionally, and I think most importantly, one out of every five ads that we broadcast is dedicated solely to responsible drinking. We know that people do things and that you can’t control everything, but what we can do as we market our products is to do so responsibly. So, the responsible drinking agenda is a major commitment. It’s something we constantly work on, to really promote the responsible consumption of alcohol by those people who are of legal drinking age. Our corporate relations group manages much of this agenda, but it clearly crosses over into the legal area because at some point the law might be implicated.
What are the other legal issues you face? There are clearly the things that are the result of operating in corporate America — HR issues, litigation. We have production and bottling facilities, many of which are unionized, so we deal with unions, as well. Given that Diageo is a brand company, we from time to time consider acquiring new brands to further enhance our portfolio. This presents lots of fun legal work. Like any other large company, we have a full range of legal issues.
Have you divided up your law department in any particular way? We’re broken down in groups: HR and labor; regulatory and compliance; litigation; and commercial.
In your role, do you concentrate on any particular area? I actually joined the company in February, so I’m looking at all of it. And I think that part of my job is to keep a balance and do the more important job of adding value for our internal legal clients. My role is to pay attention to all of it.
What’s your background? I was general counsel at BJ’s Wholesale Club, outside of Boston. I was there for just about four years.Before that, I was a corporate partner in a large Boston law firm. I was trained as a corporate lawyer, in mergers and acquisitions.
What do you most enjoy about the job? In total, the thing I most like is the culture of the place. It’s a wonderfully challenging culture. The company has values, including giving each other the freedom to succeed. That speaks volumes, and has rung true. It allows me to bring what I can to the table, and it allows me to grow. And to be in the biggest market of a world leader is pretty exciting stuff. I am trying to position my team to add value to the business because the thing about Diageo is that it’s on top and it intends to stay there. We are doing things to try to put us in a position to remain the world leader. That’s extraordinarily exciting.
What outside firms do you use? We do use outside firms, some in specialized areas, but I don’t want to mention any in particular.
What keeps you busy outside the office? I have a couple of things. I have a 7-year-old son whom I enjoy very much. And then there’s a project I’ve been working on, the Stakeholder 100. I’m on the national committee there, to help identify and train the top 100 associates of color in the country. As an African-American woman, who has throughout my career benefited from people investing in my career and me, part of what I have tried to do over the years is to help and be a resource to those associates who really want to do something with their careers. The Stakeholder 100 will help me and other like-minded in-house counsel to do that in a more formalized fashion. I was fortunate in my young career to have folks look out for me. So, to the extent that I can share the things I’ve learned, I will. Including some of the missteps. For me, that really is very energizing, and that I take very seriously. It’s a true labor of love.
Are you doing this sort of mentoring yourself, or are you still in the process of identifying candidates? Both — at this point, we’re in our inaugural year, so we’re still identifying associates who will be the stakeholder awardees. We’re putting a lot of time into that. But I also have folks I work with and speak with, people who know that they can pick up the phone and call. It’s about making ourselves available; giving them access to people that in the normal course of things they might not have access to. If you ask somebody to call the general counsel of a company, they may not do that. But if they know that person is genuinely committed to helping them, that call might just be a bit easier to make.
And you’re also on the board of the Association of Corporate Counsel? Yes. I’m on the advocacy committee, and we work on things like preparing amicus briefs on issues like the eroding of attorney-client privilege. They’ve got a wonderful staff there and they do the real work. As board members, we try to provide guidance and thought leadership where we can.
Seen any good movies or read any good books lately? The last movie I saw was “Ratatouille.” The last book I read to my son was The Three Questions by Jon Muth. But I am also rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God [by Zora Neale Hurston]. I was in a bookstore, in the children’s section, and I walked by a display that had wonderful African-American authors and saw Zora Hurston, and thought, “I really should read it again.”
And one final question: what’s your Diageo beverage of choice? Bailey’s Original Irish Cream.

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