On the Strong Side of the Tracks

Advice from an attorney who transitioned from legal technology adviser to general counsel in railcar manufacturing

After years of litigation experience in private practice and a wide range of in-house responsibilities at Motorola, Georgia Vlamis jumped into a new arena at FreightCar America, where she is now general counsel.

While the move from technology to heavy manufacturing might seem jarring, Vlamis has found a natural symmetry between the two. This is largely due to FreightCar’s near-term objectives and the range of her experience at Motorola.

At its peak, Motorola employed more than 150,000 people and posted revenue of more than $45 billion. This provided plenty of opportunities for Vlamis to rotate positions and gain exposure to a diverse number of markets and industries.

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Georgia Vlamis became the vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary of FreightCar America in 2015, after working in different divisions at Motorola since 1995.

During her tenure at Motorola, Vlamis provided legal support to, among others, the automotive, two-way radio, computer, mobile computing, and battery divisions. As a result, she gained valuable experience in areas such as international markets, intellectual property protection, and compliance.

These are strengths she is now able to apply in her role in the railcar industry. For example, she concluded a settlement of a longstanding retiree medical benefit litigation and has lent her international and compliance expertise to advising the company on its plans for international growth.

After her initial litigation responsibilities at Motorola, Vlamis was appointed legal director for several of the company’s business units. That role—which she refers to as having been the “mini-GC”—required her to act as the lead lawyer who advised on all legal issues, coordinated with other in-house counsel, and filtered and summarized advice and the status of all activities to the general manager.

In hindsight, she acknowledges that it gave her a taste of her current job, where she operates with a much smaller staff and is involved in many aspects of the business—from human resources, manufacturing, and patents, to executive committee decisions on business strategy, information technology, and benefit plans.

FreightCar Through the Years

1923: Original company (formed 1901) becomes part of Bethlehem Steel and is known as the Freight Car Division

1974: Mass production reaches fifty cars per day

2004: Parent company officially changes name to FreightCar America, Inc.

2005: Company goes public

2006: Produces 100,000th aluminum-bodied railcar

2013: FreightCar diversifies into new railcars

While some of this has been a trial by fire—such as the board meeting on her first day of work that she thought was a “meet and greet,” but where she was expected to record the minutes—she has quickly learned to leverage her generalist background. “My voice here is not limited to my official function,” Vlamis says. “It’s a very collaborative environment in which I’ve been brought in on many things right from the beginning. It’s very much a ‘make it or break it together’ attitude when it comes to decision-making.”

She knows that one of the company’s concerns before she was hired was whether she could adapt to FreightCar’s much smaller environment, compared to Motorola. But she built credibility by solving issues, and she’s taken on opportunities to demonstrate her skill set, such as conducting proper due diligence on sales representatives in foreign countries.

She has also been able to draw on international experience while helping FreightCar navigate legal issues related to its newly created China sourcing office.

“You should never underestimate the power of your network. The experiences my Motorola relationships have helped me accumulate and the resources they provide have been invaluable in meeting my new challenges,” Vlamis says.

As she helps FreightCar develop strategies for the near future, Vlamis has targeted several areas she believes are critical to its success. The company is working toward market diversification, and she wants to raise awareness internally about compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

She is also leading development of data policies, cybersecurity practices, and incident response plans that help mitigate risks to employee data and proprietary information.

Vlamis is pleased by how receptive her new colleagues have been regarding her legal advice. “So far, I haven’t encountered any challenges in getting clients to listen to my advice,” she says. “They understand that I am looking out for them.”

When asked if she has any advice for others making a similar kind of professional transition, she has a number of recommendations.

“My voice here is not limited to my official function.”

First, get to know the business well beyond its legal concerns by reviewing financial information and strategy plans. This builds a foundation for a much more well-rounded perspective from which to advise all areas of the business.

“A comprehensive view of the organization shows that you ‘speak the language’ and demonstrates that you understand company priorities and objectives,”
Vlamis says.

In addition to the fresh perspective she brings to the table at FreightCar, she has found it to be equally important to stay open to receiving information.

She points out, “As a legal advisor, you can sometimes come in with a new point of view and raise issues that the businesspeople might have overlooked.

“On the flip side,” she adds, “you also have to appreciate outside viewpoints in your own work that help provide new perspectives. By staying open and flexible, you get much better legal results in the end.