Rebuilding the American Dream

As the housing market rebounds, Shyam Reddy finds higher purpose in his work for America’s largest building products wholesaler, BlueLinx

As the son of immigrant parents, Shyam Reddy has long viewed owning a place of one’s own as essential to the American dream.

As a result, when the Atlanta-based lawyer took the reins as senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary for BlueLinx—one of the largest wholesale distributors of building products in the United States—his sense of purpose wasn’t far behind.

“BlueLinx is on the front lines of housing recovery,” Reddy says. “We’re helping people rebuild their lives after experiencing the greatest recession since the Great Depression; that’s incredibly important to me. At the same time, we’re participating in the resurgence of the manufacturing sector in America, which is really important not only because of the loss of US manufacturing jobs over the last decade, but also because manufacturing is the backbone of this country.”

This sense of idealism comes with a sound dose of pragmatism. With an invitation from CEO Mitchell B. Lewis—whom Reddy had previously worked with at Euramax International, the global building products company—Reddy joined BlueLinx in June 2015. Early on in his career, Reddy was faced with the challenge of working with the BlueLinx team to help solve the Fortune 1000 leader’s impending debt maturities.

“Since then, I’ve cast all my work through the lens of deleveraging our balance sheet through debt reduction and EBITDA improvement,” Reddy says.

Strategies to reduce debt and enhance profit margins have since helped BlueLinx lower its net debt substantially. In addition, just as US homeownership has rebounded from its fifty-year slump, BlueLinx’s strategic initiatives have contributed to some of the company’s highest quarterly net income numbers since its founding in 2004.

It goes without saying that Reddy’s role stretches far beyond the realms of legal. “If I were just responsible for the legal department, I wouldn’t feel as connected to the purpose that drives me. That causes me to jump out of bed every morning thinking about the ways all of us at BlueLinx are helping folks take part in the American Dream,” he says. “In my world, I straddle the lines of business and legal every day to make that happen.”

Reddy explains his responsibilities as “all demanding and challenging, yet exhilarating,” which also span risk management, IT, real estate, pricing, and sales excellence on behalf of a company that employs about 1,700 people at forty distribution and two sales centers nationwide. All of this is in addition to generating roughly $2 billion in annual revenue.

Reddy’s own background has paved the way for the multiple hats he now wears. After cutting his teeth at a full-service law firm, where he focused on mergers and acquisitions, private equity, and technology transactions, Reddy moved to government service. In March 2010, he was appointed by former President Barack Obama as the Southeast regional administrator of the US General Services Administration. The high-profile leadership role had plenty of high stakes: 1,000 employees, $1.2 billion in revenue, a $225 million budget, as well as about forty-four million square feet of owned and leased real estate, a 41,000-vehicle fleet, and an $8 billion supply chain.

“My opportunity in public service put me in a leadership position that forced significant trade-offs when making decisions for the benefit of our customers, suppliers, employees and, ultimately, the American people,” Reddy says. “When you’re practicing law, you’re helping the team execute on a business decision, as opposed to making the decision in the first place.”

At BlueLinx, the inevitable trade-offs have included making the tough, yet necessary calls to rationalize and optimize its legal spend. Such decisions are tempered by the sense of purpose that attracted Reddy to the job in the first place, namely, building a company and culture that “look a lot like America” and making a concerted effort to hire personnel who reflect the country’s diversity.

In finding impetus, all Reddy has to do is look to his own background. Quite simply, he feels “indebted.”

“I don’t believe success simply comes from pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” he says. “I truly believe that 5 percent of my accomplishments are attributable to my own efforts, with 95 percent attributable to the good luck I had to be born in this country and to the great advocates I’ve had over the years.”

These advocates include Reddy’s parents, both of whom are immigrants from India. Growing up in Dublin, Georgia, Reddy saw his father give up a corporate job as an electrical engineer to start a real estate business. His mother, meanwhile, left a private medical practice to work for the local community health center and provide medical care for those less fortunate. She augmented that work by starting a nonprofit that hosts public health fairs catering to those who have little to no access to healthcare.

This mix of entrepreneurialism and giving back to a country that has given so much to him guides Reddy to this day as an advocate for others.

Since joining BlueLinx, Reddy has hired a diverse legal team—something he acknowledges can only boost corporate performance.

“Having a team made up of people with the same backgrounds is going to lead to more myopic views regarding leadership, management, problem-solving, execution—you name it,” explains Reddy, who’s opened his pool of applicants to include mothers returning to the workforce, among others.

“I’m a big believer in collective intelligence, whether it be based on personal life experience, economic status, gender, race, creed, ethnicity . . . all of that will lead to smarter teams.”

Business results have followed. A subsequent shift to an in-house legal team—at last count, two lawyers, plus one director of contracts and one director of risk management—has, in turn, helped compress timelines to close out business deals resulting in a “leaner, more efficient company,” he says. Plus, insourcing frees up Reddy to be able to focus more on business and avoid any potential compromise to attorney-client privilege.

“That’s a struggle, I think, that a lot of GCs have to deal with in today’s world, where they’re getting more and more business and functional responsibilities,” Reddy says. “That’s one of the reasons why I built out a legal team. When my in-house counsel is involved, there’s never any question about whether their advice is subject to attorney-client privilege.”

With a streamlined legal team and clear delineation of roles, Reddy is working on a number of initiatives. These include efforts to enhance gross margin, operationalize sales excellence, initiate real estate monetization efforts, strengthen IT security, and streamline contracting programs.

That work, day in and day out, sustains Reddy.

“As someone who’s living out the American dream, I think it’s incumbent upon fortunate individuals to contribute to the economic fabric of America, while helping others live out the American dream to the fullest. For me, this environment suits that relentless pursuit of making a difference and that insatiable hunger for a professional challenge,” Reddy says.