From managing a factory line to being GC of Potbelly, Matt Revord discusses his unique career

Evers-Legal-Executive-Search-Matt-Revord-QA-March-2017Born in Evanston, Ill., raised in downstate Indiana and Illinois, then back up to the Chicago area—Matt Revord is a Midwesterner through and through. So it seems fitting that he would be the general counsel of one of the most respected and recognized brands to come out of Chicago. But it took hard work and a few twists and turns before Revord landed at the helm of the legal department of Potbelly Sandwich Works.

In fact, Revord didn’t grow up knowing that one day he would be a lawyer. In high school, a friend’s father—noting Revord’s cunning argumentative skills—mentioned on several occasions that he should consider a career in law. The idea was appealing to Revord, but after graduating from Notre Dame, he couldn’t quite commit. Revord decided to take a year to work, think about his next move and save some money. His job opportunities were diverse, to say the least: a large insurance company, the CIA or a General Motor’s (GM) factory.

For Revord, the decision was easy. The GM position was in management and it paid the most money—so he grabbed it. But after a year supervising a staff of 60 at the company’s Central Foundry Division in Ohio, which he refers to as a “great experience,” Revord could afford to pursue a graduate degree, and he was confident about his next step. He headed to the University of Illinois College of Law.

Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?

I was lucky to have a couple of choices, but I chose to work at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis. I loved Kirkland. It was a great firm and remains a great firm. Kirkland gave enormous opportunities for young associates to do challenging litigation.

I did litigation for three-and-a-half years, and then I figured out I like strategizing and building things. While there is a great amount of strategy in litigation, it was rarely about how to build and grow something. I spent time with my corporate peers and what they were doing sounded more like what I wanted to do. So I approached the leadership team and asked if I could move to the corporate side. They said no one had done that in 25 years, but it’s my life and career. If I was good at it, great. If I was bad, they would fire me. That sounded like a fair deal so I moved to the corporate group and loved it.

I was given the opportunity to work with lots of great clients and lawyers. I found transactional work more to my liking because the pace of the work was quicker and the opportunities to have a lot of responsibility at an earlier age were greater. I had a great time, learned rapidly and am incredibly grateful that Kirkland gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted.

How did you end up going in-house?

I was at Kirkland for seven years. But I had kids and was spending a lot of time in the NY office. I wasn’t seeing a lot of my family. So, at just the right time, a head hunter called up with an in-house M&A job that sounded very good to me.

It was a new position at Waste Management (WM), which was headquartered in Chicago. I liked the opportunity at WM, so I somewhat reluctantly said goodbye to Kirkland, and took the WM job that got me closer to the business side.

Unfortunately, I joined WM at a very poor time. It had made some bad acquisitions. I was there for a year and saw the writing on the wall and left to go to Sears, where I did M&A work for three years. It was a really great experience.

Then, Sears got into a bad place. And a friend of mine from Kirkland, who had recently taken a position at True North Communications, asked me to come work with her. I initially said no because I liked what I was doing at Sears. But I also knew I needed to grow my skill set if I ever wanted to be a GC. At Kirkland, I had acquired private equity, M&A and litigation experience. At WM, I added in-house M&A to my skills. At Sears, I was doing litigation, contracts with suppliers, and M&A but I wasn’t getting international transactional work or securities work. So my friend at True North offered to  give me securities work as well as international work. I thought that sounded like fun. So I went to True North and worked there for a couple years until it got taken over in a large merger.

Then I landed at Brunswick Corp. as Deputy GC. I was there for six years, and then, when the Brunswick CEO left to become CEO of 3M, I was considering leaving. And at that time, I happened to get a call from Potbelly asking if I wanted to be GC.

I loved Potbelly and have always loved Potbelly. Next to being the GC of the Chicago Cubs, it seemed like the most fun someone could have with a company in Chicago. So in January 2007, I left Brunswick and joined Potbelly.

How did Potbelly know about you?

There was a lawyer named Jon Ballis I had previously worked with when he was at Sidley and I was at True North. He also represented Potbelly, which had been doing a GC search for over a year. Jon told Potbelly to call me. They did, and hired me about six days later.

When I joined, we had around 130 stores in 11 states and we were privately held. Today, we have 450 stores in 35 states, about 8,000 employees, and additional franchise locations in Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London and Toronto.  We took Potbelly public in 2013 (Nasdaq “PBPB”).

You’ve spent a long time in-house. What attracted you to in-house counsel positions?

When I came out of law school, I didn’t know much about law firms or being in-house. I assumed all law school grads went to firms like Kirkland and became litigators.

It was after I was there for a while and looked around to see what my peers and clients were doing, and what I particularly enjoyed, that I figured out that being a GC is what I wanted to do.

As a third-year associate, I started to map out the skill set I needed and what I had to do to get there. That is what led me to move from company to company—gaining the new skill sets. Being in-house, I enjoy being a part of the senior management team. It took years, but I could see it on the horizon if I worked hard and made my bosses look good.

How has your role evolved over the years?

A great deal. When I first came here, the legal role was very much viewed as reviewing leases and contracts and handle any litigation we might have. As my experience in the restaurant industry grew and my relationships with my fellow senior executives grew, my role also evolved and broadened.

Aylwin Lewis, a new CEO, joined in 2008 and is a great coach and supporter of his team. He worked to raise our game. He gave me opportunities to do things beyond just legal, like the international development piece and franchising. So I spend a lot of time on international development and domestic franchising, as well.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

Managing a high-growth environment within a low-resource environment. Any in-house counsel has the paradigm shift. At a law firm, you’re the revenue producer. You are the business. When you are in-house, you’re a revenue consumer. No one likes having you there. They tolerate you as a necessary evil, but not as someone who is helping drive revenue and profits. As Potbelly grew substantially, I was still the only lawyer. My work more than doubled as the store count went up.

When we went public in October 2013, we had just hired a second lawyer to help deal with the burgeoning workload. So the biggest challenge was making sure the legal services were delivered effectively in a very cost sensitive environment.

What do you love most about your job at Potbelly?

Potbelly is a fantastic brand. We stand for fun. Peace, love and Potbelly is our motto. Our people are great. We make our customers happy with fantastic food at a great price. It’s a fun place to work overall. There are a lot of nice people working in our shops and in our Support Center (headquarters).  We think that we are bringing a bit of happiness to our customers every day.

What do you love about being a lawyer?

I like the opportunities to persuade. I like the opportunity to convince people that my point of view or our company’s point of view is good for us and good for them. That’s why I like being a corporate lawyer over being a litigator. Because you can try to get a win-win outcome. Overall, the goal should be that both parties are not unhappy with the deal and hopefully quite happy. You can’t do that in litigation.

I like that being a lawyer means sometimes compromise is a good thing. I like being able to see both sides and trying to come up with a resolution that works for everyone. That can be very gratifying.

How do you go about adding talent to your team?

It’s a small department, and it’s really important. I have one paralegal and an Assistant GC. For me, it was a matter of being very patient while looking for people who would fit here. Our paralegal knew me from Sears. She called me one day and asked if she could come work at Potbelly. She is a great fit and a great paralegal.

When hiring for the No. 2 lawyer positon, my CEO and I care a lot about diversity and driving it throughout our support center. We’re proud of the diversity we have throughout this company. For me, it was a matter of looking for a candidate that met our requirements for excellence and met our desire for continuing efforts of diversity. The woman I hired –Robyn Martin —  is great, and I’m lucky to have her. But it was a matter of being patient to find the right fit for our culture.

Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.

Tom Kuhns, who is now the GC of Kirkland, was a great mentor. I learned a lot from Tom when I was at Kirkland about work ethic and how to approach problems, how to lead a team that was working intensely hard but having fun doing it.

Roger Taylor, who I knew from Kirkland, was also a great teacher. He was a long time litigator and went on to become president of Knox College. Roger was a very good litigator and problem solver and good with clients. I learned a lot from him.

Mike Levin, my GC at Sears. He was an excellent mentor. He was extremely smart and I learned the value of hiring good people. He made it his mission to hire the best people he could find and supporting his lawyers 100 percent.

Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs? If so, how were they beneficial to you?

Yes. Potbelly’s CEO is a huge proponent of active and continuous learning. In the nine years he’s been here, we are assigned probably three management books a year;  the senior leadership team then discusses the books and how we can utilize those lessons at Potbelly.

We also have a formal mentoring process. We on the senior team will formally mentor an employee for a year. We meet monthly, talk about development opportunities and ways to help them. We give them books to read. We believe this process is important to bringing up the next level of employees at Potbelly as we continue our very high growth rate.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?

Think ahead in five to 10 year increments about where you want to be and how you get to that spot. Think about what skill sets those positions require and what skill sets you need to acquire.

The majority of GCs from public companies do not come from a litigation background. The majority are corporate, securities and M&A type people who are more familiar with the business side. If you want to be GC, I suggest getting lots of experiences and developing expertise in areas that are important to being in-house counsel.

Finally, and most importantly, what is your favorite Potbelly’s meal?

Italian on multigrain with a cup of chili on the side—followed by an oatmeal chocolate cookie.

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