Ask Meredith Mendes how she became COO and executive director of Jenner & Block, a Chicago-based law firm with more than five hundred lawyers in four US cities and London, and you might be surprised by the answer.
“I literally answered an ad in the newspaper,” she says.
True though that may be, it also oversimplifies a career and background steeped in a New York upbringing with a father who exposed his daughter to commercial real estate and the stock market early on. Although she says she loved these experiences, she concedes it didn’t occur to her to go to business school. Instead, she completed undergraduate work at Brown University and opted for law school at Harvard, Mendes says, “as a default.”
After graduation, she worked in a Boston law firm and then headed to Chicago. In Chicago, she worked for financial institutions doing deals and banking work, and then decided to pursue her MBA, accepting a position in investment banking at First Chicago Capital Markets, which would later become part of JP Morgan Chase.
“I became an investment banker and went to business school at the University of Chicago,” she recalls. “I started when I was pregnant with my first daughter and finished while I was pregnant with my second.” She then acquired her CPA license based on the advice of a banking client who mentioned it would be helpful for corporate advancement.
While working days and completing her schoolwork on nights and weekends, a client told her that the company he worked for, Medline Industries, was looking for a CFO and recommended she apply. She was hired, and after a few years working there and also serving on the board of directors she took a job at a pre-IPO computer value-added reseller.
One year into it, and two intense SAP/ERP system implementations later, a recruiter sought her out for the global CFO position at public relations giant Edelman. At Edelman, she was confronted with the task of reviving the company after a failed PeopleSoft conversion. She stabilized the company, retired $21 million of debt in her first year, and successfully reimplemented PeopleSoft.
At Edelman, she was confronted with the task of reviving the company after a failed PeopleSoft conversion. She stabilized the company, retired $21 million of debt in her first year, and successfully reimplemented PeopleSoft.
While at Edelman, she also implemented numerous other financial- and business-intelligence tools to help manage the business, and completed ten acquisitions on four continents. After six years, she was told she needed to move to New York.
With three daughters still in school, Mendes says it wasn’t an option to uproot the family or rejoin what she calls “the New York grind.” So she opened up the newspaper and saw that Jenner & Block was hiring. Armed with legal and business training, Mendes landed the role and immediately proved to be a versatile asset for the firm.
Upon arrival, she opened the firm’s New York City office, subsequently orchestrated moves into newly constructed buildings for the Washington, DC, office and Chicago headquarters, and later opened new offices in Los Angeles and London. She has implemented systems, matter-management tools, and created process improvements while also leading the firm’s team, introducing many of the innovations impacting the legal industry.
“I manage finance, accounting, tax, real estate, HR, IT, and project management, among other areas,” she says. “And at this point, I have a deep knowledge of managing the business of professional service organizations and the trends impacting them. I also have a long history of involvement with commercial office space and retail real estate. I think my financial and operations experience in all these fields—law, investment banking, commercial real estate, manufacturing and professional services—helps me approach things differently and solve problems in an agile, interdisciplinary way.”
“My financial and operations experience in all these fields—law, investment banking, commercial real estate, manufacturing and professional services—helps me approach things differently and solve problems in an agile, interdisciplinary way.”
“Lawyers can sometimes allow their concern with legal risks to hamper their business judgment. As a lawyer who was an investment banker, CFO, and now COO, I understand the regulatory and legal concerns, and I weigh those risks in light of the overriding business and financial goals,” Mendes says.
That versatility also extends to her experience serving on various boards. Mendes is a member of Inland Residential Properties Trust, a multifamily properties REIT; Kronos Worldwide, a titanium dioxide manufacturer; and NL Industries, a holding company for Kronos and CompX International, a manufacturer of specialty locks and marine components.
She is also a trustee of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, a member of the University of Chicago Women’s Board, a National Association of Corporate Directors Board Leadership Fellow, and was recently invited to the Latino Corporate Directors Association, which has a mission to move the needle on Hispanic representation on various boards.
“One of the lessons I’ve learned is to get involved in outside organizations,” she says of taking part in LCDA. “It’s so important that I get out of the office, meet other businesspeople, try to help others, and serve as a mentor. I want to help others navigate what it took me a while to figure out.”
What advice would you give to Hispanic executives aspiring to corporate board positions?
“You have to do your homework, and you have to be prepared. You also have to be selfless and think about what you can do that will make a broader impact and help other people.”
In establishing a career that was built not necessarily by design, Mendes says she’s learned these important lessons along the way that she wants to pass on to her daughters and other young women coming up in business.
“I’m a total workaholic,” she says. “I wish I’d spent less time working in the office after hours and tried early in my career to get involved in different organizations to meet more people and learn what I could do to help others. There are opportunities I could have had, but I was always so busy working.”
Still, the lessons learned in the workplace have helped foster a greater drive to help others. Although she notes a difference in the way she manages her workload at Jenner & Block and the service she can provide to any board on which she serves, the same versatility that helps her in business also proves to be a strength in the boardroom.
“There are huge exceptions, but I find that in their careers, people generally put themselves ahead of others,” Mendes says. “I try not to take it personally, but people are understandably interested in their own goals and advancement, and that’s something very different from board work. I love board work because I get to meet experts in other industries and collaborate, and ultimately, board members have a common fiduciary goal of maximizing shareholder value.”
“There are huge exceptions, but I find that in their careers, people generally put themselves ahead of others. People are understandably interested in their own goals and advancement, and that’s something very different from board work. … Board members have a common fiduciary goal of maximizing shareholder value.”
Nevertheless, Mendes says her own path to board membership hasn’t always been easy. Working at a law firm often makes others automatically think she’s a practicing lawyer, as opposed to the COO whose business and strategic acumen help run the business. Disavowing people of the notion that she would serve on a board in a legal capacity is something Mendes says she often has to do.
“Yes, my legal background informs my perspective, but it’s my strong financial and business acumen as well as a wealth of experience in multiple industries that are most valuable to a board. I’m there to provide financial, real estate, IT, and other operational oversight and strategic advice,” she says.
Even though she’s opened herself to the outside experiences she laments missing when younger, Mendes is still a self-confessed workaholic. Fortunately, it’s to the benefit of both Jenner & Block and any board on which she serves.
“In the office, I try to exceed customer expectations,” she says. “I turn things around as fast as possible and deliver more than people ask for. When I do my board work, I really study. I connect with management and try to use my experiences to raise questions people might not have considered and help with oversight. I’m always trying to learn as much as I can. In that way, my professional work and board involvement are similar.
“As a member of management, you’re trying to get people to row together, prioritize the same goals, develop people and execute under pressure,” she says. “As a board member, execution is not my role company management has to worry about that. At the board level, there’s a lot of interplay with some really smart financial and business people from different industries coming together for a strategic purpose. At the heart of board work, it’s all about understanding the multiple stakeholders, collaboration, and coming up with the right strategy to maximize value.”