Founded in 1901 as an early manufacturer of electric signs, Oak Brook, Ill.-based Federal Signal Corp. quickly moved into the siren business and the territory it’s best known for today — safety and security systems. The company makes fire and rescue equipment ranging from high-tech lights and sirens to lift equipment for first responders and private industry.
It has diversified into other heavy-equipment industries as well, including industrial-sized cleaning equipment such as water blasters and street sweepers, as well as vacuum excavation equipment used in the repair of water mains, petroleum pipelines and exploration for buried utilities.
Federal Signal reported 2012 revenues of $803.2 million, up nearly 17 percent from the previous year.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
Jennifer Sherman serves in a number of high-ranking positions at Federal Signal. She’s chief administrative officer, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. She also holds operating responsibility for the company’s public safety systems division. Sherman leads a team of four full-time lawyers who share general legal matters at Federal Signal.
The team members also have their own areas of concentration. Dan DuPré, who was in-house at Sears, Roebuck and Co. and previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, is deputy general counsel and focuses on litigation. Corporate counsel Paul Henry handles transactions and corporate counsel Angela Hatseras deals with employment matters. The team works with one additional attorney on a contract basis. Sherman said that DuPré carries a lot of responsibility in the department, given that "50 percent" of her daily activities today are nonlegal.
Sherman is the rare general counsel who holds operating responsibility for a corporate division. She reports to Federal Signal president and chief executive officer Dennis Martin, who joined the company in 2010.
The team’s ability to multitask was put to the test during the past few years as the company faced real trouble. Following several executive changes at the top, Federal Signal was trying to integrate a number of unprofitable acquisitions while simultaneously negotiating its loan covenants. Sherman was active in the debt renegotiation that finally closed in March 2012.
Meanwhile, the team was completing a particularly complicated deal with 3M Co. that required a successful outcome in 2011 patent litigation involving 3M for the transaction to go through.
The legal department was in the thick of all of it, Sherman said. The case ended satisfactorily, after which round-the-clock negotiations closed the 3M deal.
"One of the things I’m proudest of is that through difficult years and multiple CEOs, we’ve kept the team together," she said. "We know each other well and we care a lot about each other. I have a great assistant and great paralegal help, too."
Sherman works as needed with legal contractors in key support posts. Contractors were a critical addition to the legal team during the team’s busy 2012, she said.
Sherman believes in project budgeting, alternative fee arrangements and electronic billing. "I don’t want to have to ask why there are six lawyers working on something," she said. For litigation, she uses holdbacks and pays bonuses for successful outcomes. "I believe our vendors should have a financial interest in the outcome of what they do," she said.
Sherman has moved a ­significant amount of Federal Signal’s outside legal work into smaller markets to save money. The company works with Thompson Coburn in St. Louis on corporate, litigation and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission matters. Thomp­son Coburn continues to assist with work related to the 3M deal.
Federal Signal also works with Chicago-based Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott on litigation. Before joining the federal bench in the Northern District of Illinois, Thomas Durkin, former litigation partner at Mayer Brown, handled Federal Signal assignments.
Sherman’s work as chief administrative officer with the public safety services division and her job overseeing the information-technology and human-­resources departments are in addition to her res­ponsibilities within the legal department. She spends considerably more time on the road visiting the company’s operations, dealers and investors than she used to, she said, and that’s why she leans extensively on her team.
While traveling, she maintains constant contact through conference calls and emails. "Aside from any activities that are preplanned, the team is able to work remotely in a seamless fashion," Sherman said. "I have a lot of confidence in the team members. They often receive assignments directly from our business units."
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Sherman earned her bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Michigan and her law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1989.
"I thought the combination of law and business opened up a lot of opportunities," she said.
She began her career at Chicago-based Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum Perlman & Nagelberg working on commercial law, labor law, bankruptcy and securities matters. In 1993, Sherman worked in-house for the first time as an attorney at Hook’s-SupeRx Inc. and helped negotiate its acquisition by Revco DS Inc. in 1994, the year she joined Federal Signal.
She became deputy general counsel in 1996 and moved up to general counsel in 2004.
Sherman is the mother of five sons, aged 7 to 21. Her husband, Douglas Cherry, also a Michigan Law graduate, is chief counsel for litigation at Kraft Foods Inc. The family has three Labrador Retrievers "in chocolate, yellow and black," Sherman said.
Sherman serves on the board of the Chicago-based Center for Disability and Elder Law, and as secretary of The Community House of Hinsdale, Ill. The nonprofit organization provides specialized activity programs for the elderly and autistic children.
"I can’t state strongly enough that it’s important as a leader to find something to contribute to in the community in which you live — something you have passion for," Sherman said.
LAST MOVIE AND BOOK
Sherman is a huge movie fan and attends the Sundance Film Festival every year, she said. She recommended keeping an eye out for the films Fruitvale Station and Blood Brother when they finally make it to theaters. She recently read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.