When Claudia Coscia’s son was a toddler, he answered friends’ queries about what his mommy did for a living succinctly: “She makes bread.”

Julian, now 7, has recently amended his answer to, “She works for Mrs Baird’s, but she doesn’t make bread,” Coscia relates with a laugh. “He’s trying to get it a little more right, but he still doesn’t really understand what I do.”

Actually, Julian’s original answer may have been more accurate: Since Coscia, 34, became the first general counsel for Fort Worth-based Bimbo Bakeries USA — which bought iconic Texas company Mrs Baird’s in 1998 — she has reduced the company’s legal costs by more than 50 percent, say Coscia and her boss, Greg Stehr.

Savings came through a combination of tactics, Coscia says. “We started doing much more of the work in-house, and we also started managing the outside counsel much more closely. We came up with guidelines on what we would pay and what we would not pay. We also negotiated some fixed-fee schedules, which had never been done before,” she says.

She might not be baking bread, literally, but she’s certainly saving some serious dough for the company, says Stehr, vice president of human resources and legal.

“It was an extremely drastic savings and happened amazingly quickly,” says Stehr, who hired Coscia away from Fort Worth’s Cantey & Hanger in 2002 to start Bimbo’s in-house legal department. Bimbo officials already had been looking for ways to reduce legal fees, Stehr says, and in early 2002, when the company became a licensee for George Weston brands Boboli, Entenmann’s and Thomas’ — which essentially meant doubling the size of Bimbo Bakeries USA — that sealed the deal on starting an in-house department, Stehr says.

Bimbo (pronounced “Beem-bow,” with the accent on the first syllable), a privately owned company that is the U.S. operation of Mexico City-based Grupo Bimbo, had until Coscia came on board used strictly outside counsel — including Coscia, who says she started her legal career as an associate with Fort Worth’s Cantey & Hanger right out of Baylor Law School.

Stehr, who has been with Bimbo for 10 years, says Coscia was a natural choice to become the company’s first GC for several reasons. While at Cantey & Hanger, Coscia had been instrumental in Bimbo’s early 2002 conversion of some 1,000 wholesale distribution jobs in Texas to independent distribution routes.

“It was a challenging situation,” Coscia recalls, because people were losing their jobs. “We used a consultant who had done the same type of conversion elsewhere, and that helped a lot,” she adds. She says Bimbo focused on helping drivers transition to owning their routes, assisting with financing packages for the routes and trucks.

“It was really a good deal for them to go independent,” she says. “They could own their own business, and make more money, within the limits of the contracts.” A significant number of employees became independent distributors, she says.

Coscia’s adaptable personality also helped her win the job, Stehr says. “We wanted someone who could quickly make the conversion from outside counsel to in-house, which is actually harder than it sounds,” he says.

“The fact that she was fairly young and hadn’t been doing this for very long, so she wasn’t totally set in her ways, was actually a big plus for us,” he says. “And we saw from working with her that she’s very flexible and had an understanding of the business interests, of what were good business, as well as legal, solutions.”

The savings Coscia produced made Bimbo happy to expand the legal department, which now includes an associate general counsel and a staff attorney in addition to Coscia.

As of late 2005, Grupo Bimbo had more than 80,000 employees in 14 countries, with 73 plants and more than 100 brands, including Mrs Baird’s, Tia Rosa, Francisco and Oroweat, Coscia says. About 7,000 employees work for Bimbo in the United States. In the Western United States, Bimbo acts as the exclusive licensee for George Weston Foods brands Thomas’ and Entenmann’s, she says.

“Anything you can make with flour, we’ve got it,” Coscia sums up with a chuckle.

Grupo Bimbo is the third-largest baking enterprise worldwide, No. 1 in the Americas and No. 4 in the United States, Coscia says. In the United States, Bimbo had sales of $1.2 billion in 2004, according to its Web site.

Grupo Bimbo formed Bimbo Bakeries USA and entered the U.S. market in the mid-1990s with a nearly $1 billion investment in bakeries in 14 U.S. cities, according to an Oct. 12, 2005, article in The Wall Street Journal Online. In Texas, Bimbo contracts with about 850 independent distributors, with about 500 additional distributors covering parts of 10 other states, Coscia says.

The “Bimbo” name is a combination of the Italian word “bambino,” an affectionate term for “baby,” and Bambi, the orphaned fawn whose eponymous Walt Disney movie was popular when the company was founded in 1945, Coscia says. In Mexico, the name “Bimbo” has become a common slang term for white bread, she adds. The Bimbo logo is a fluffy white bear wearing a festive baker’s hat.

LEGAL LANGUAGE

Coscia’s bilingual abilities come in handy, particularly given Grupo Bimbo’s Mexican roots. “I don’t think it would necessarily have kept us from hiring her, if she hadn’t been bilingual,” Stehr says, “but it has been even more beneficial than we had even thought it would be.”

“The [United States and Mexico] have distinctly different legal systems, and even if we’re dealing with someone at Grupo Bimbo who speaks very good English, sometimes it really helps expedite things if Claudia just takes the reins and explains things in Spanish.”

Coscia says her English and Spanish skills especially help when parsing the nuances of contracts that involve the United States and Mexico or South American countries.

“People from different countries just operate differently,” she says. “Something we might say here totally innocently could insult someone from Mexico. So knowing those subtle things can make a big difference in how successful we are.”

Coscia was born in Venezuela and also lived in Uruguay before moving to Fort Worth, she says. When she was a freshman in high school, her father’s work at Alcon Laboratories Inc. brought the family to Texas, she says.

“I had to adapt quickly and to have a lot of … well, cultural awareness,” she says with typical diplomacy. She admits, though, that her first years at Southwest High School in Fort Worth were “tough … . It was very hard, being in a big public school and not speaking the language well … . I remember, I would put my U.S. history book and a Spanish-English dictionary side by side when I did my homework and translate word by word.”

After high school, she attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, majoring in psychology and French with a business minor. She graduated in 1991, received a teaching certificate and taught middle and elementary school for a year and a half in Fort Worth before attending law school, she says.

“Nobody in my family had been an attorney, but I thought it would be a great way to help people,” she recalls. “I had traveled so much, and ‘international law’ seemed so exciting. I didn’t really know what it meant, but it sounded great.”

An academic scholarship took her to Baylor Law School in Waco, and she graduated in 1996. She was a summer associate at Cantey & Hanger the summer before her third year, and the firm hired Coscia as an associate directly out of law school.

Dean Tetirick, a corporate and securities partner in Cantey & Hanger, says Coscia projected star potential from the start. “Her ability to interact with clients was incredible, even for a new associate. And her writing capabilities were exceptional, too.”

When Coscia left the firm for Bimbo, Tetirick says, “It was disappointing … for us to lose her … . But with her bilingual skills, and the amount of work she’d already done for them, it was just an obvious thing for them to make her the offer. And we were happy for her.”

A combination of grace and firmness served Coscia well, he says. “She really knows the ins and outs of how a law firm works, and she had no problem switching quickly from being the person serving to the person directing,” he says.

“She assumed that role of ‘the boss’ quickly, even though she was dealing with people at our firm who had been above her, and she made it clear — in a very nice way — that she was now the client, and she was the one giving the orders,” Tetirick says.

The change also proved difficult for Cantey & Hanger financially, he says, as Coscia quickly took over much of the work the firm had done, and she also brought in more outside firms for specialized work. “It was a drastic falloff in business, but we expected that, and it’s gradually beginning to pick back up,” he says.

Bimbo now uses about 20 outside firms, Coscia says. Thomas Corwin, associate general counsel at Bimbo USA, says that in addition to Cantey & Hanger, major firms Bimbo uses include Jackson Lewis nationally for employment issues; the Silicon Valley office of Bingham McCutchen for a couple of large cases in California; the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson for intellectual property matters; and Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist.

TYPICAL DAY

Although now owned by Bimbo, Mrs Baird’s has retained its strong Texas identity. All six Mrs Baird’s plants in the state — in Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Abilene, Waco and Lubbock — give tours that thousands of Texas schoolchildren remember fondly, especially for that buttered slice of warm bread they receive at the tour’s end. (Coscia didn’t take the tour as a child, but her children — Julian and 3-year-old Karina — have, along with her husband, Julio Cedillo, a radio and television producer.

At this point, Coscia could probably give the tour. Since joining Bimbo, she has embraced the baking world with fervor, her colleagues say. Staff attorney Matthew McCarley says, “She’s never just a lawyer. She has taken the time to go out and put herself in a delivery truck, to go out on routes, to understand plant operations and to understand everything about our business.”

Coscia says her typical day at Bimbo varies greatly, an aspect of the job she thoroughly enjoys. On a given day, she can deal with distribution, operations, marketing, contracts, litigation, Food and Drug Administration compliance or inspections, or all of the above.

Corwin, who says he handles most of Bimbo USA’s litigation, notes that suits usually revolve around employment issues. “We have an occasional dispute with a supplier or a distributor, and most of those are fairly frivolous and are settled amicably,” Corwin adds. “We also have a few large commercial cases,” he says, “but hardly anything actually goes to trial.”

Of those that do, he says, “We have what I’d call an extremely successful record. I’m not familiar with one we’ve lost in the two years I’ve been here.”

One of the biggest changes, Coscia says, since the company formed its own legal department, is that, “We now do a lot more preventative work, better minimizing of our liability before issues come up … . I’m really proud of the way we work with all the departments to make that happen.”

For example, Corwin says, the legal department recently conducted a four-hour training session, focused on the legalities of employee relations, for every manager and supervisor nationwide — about 500 to 750 people.

That training grew out of a California law mandating two hours of sexual-harassment prevention training for all managers and supervisors in that state. “We just took that nationwide and added in other areas of employee grievance,” Corwin says.

The legal team also has recently conducted contract training sessions for plant managers and informational sessions focusing on FDA issues for the marketing department, he says.

Coscia handles most of the contract work, she says, which forms a large percentage of the overall legal workload. In Texas, for instance, each distributor is an independent businessperson, each requiring a separate contract.

With Grupo Bimbo based in Mexico, she says, immigration issues also take a good deal of her time, such as obtaining temporary work visas for employees or facilitating permanent employee transfers between countries. Coscia, who retains her Venezuelan citizenship, became a U.S. citizen in 1993, just as she started law school.

She says she is laid back, but quickly adds, “I also have very high expectations … . I don’t like to micromanage, but you better have your work done by the time you tell me. Working in-house is very fast-paced — I just laugh now when I think about how my law-firm friends said my life would be so much easier in-house.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life. It’s not like you can close your office door, stop taking calls and hide from your clients. They’re right outside my office all the time, waiting for me, and I had better be there for them.”