Strategic Talent Acquisition in a Pinch

Kevin Feeney prioritizes putting the right people in the right place with a new team at Air Liquide

Finding the right people for your team is never easy, especially when you have to do it quickly. It’s a challenge Kevin Feeney knows well: half of the 12 attorneys and two of the contract managers serving Air Liquide’s US operations have been with the company for less than two years, most of them less than 12 months.

Houston-based American Air Liquide Holdings is part of the Paris-based Air Liquide. Its US subsidiary offers industrial and medical gases and related services to customers in a variety of industries, and it has 5,000 employees working out of 200 locations with more than 140 industrial gas plants.

Due primarily to growth and some turnover over the past two years, Feeney, who’s been general counsel of Air Liquide’s US operations for 10 years, found himself down quite a few employees. He knew building out the department would be a challenge because finding the right people takes time and effort, but Feeney knew exactly what he was looking for. “The baseline is we wanted really intelligent people because in this day and age you have to be sharp to keep track of everything that’s going on,” Feeney says. Also on Feeney’s priority list: training at a good firm, good judgment, assertiveness, and interest in learning about a business. “We want people who can identify the problem, then provide the solution.”

After hiring the best people, Feeney insisted that they be on-boarded successfully, an effort the entire department has embraced. “It’s more than providing orientation regarding the company structure and culture,” he says. “New employees need to understand early on what our business is about, so we get them out to the plants to see where the work takes place. We explain the issues that are most important. We teach them to be reactive and proactive with the business. Then we stretch them to the best of their capabilities. I don’t micromanage employees; I give them as much opportunity as they want to take.”

However, one of the reasons attorneys move to in-house roles is to find a better work-life balance. “They don’t want to work the long hours of the firms,” Feeney says. The question was, how do you keep intelligent people engaged and challenged, but in a way that doesn’t require them to work 80 hours a week? Feeney’s solution was to give people more work rather than less but have an open discussion with them, letting them know that it’s not a sign of weakness to go to their managers and say they need help. “When someone tells me he or she is buried, I look for ways to reallocate the workload within the department, leverage outside counsel or contract lawyers, or simply reprioritize,” he says.

Also key to Feeney’s management philosophy is to make sure his team is broadening their horizons. “I encourage those following in my footsteps to never say ‘no,’” he says. “Any time there’s an opportunity to do something different, take advantage. Even when you’re working on a project, you don’t have to define yourself as just having the role of the lawyer; you can act as the quasi-project manager, be the communicator who ensures everyone is on the same page, etc. You learn a lot about the company when you do that.”

Feeney, for his part, walks the talk. He began his career as a tax accountant with a Big Four firm, Deloitte (Deloitte Haskins & Sells at the time), but law school was always his calling, and after receiving a JD from the University of Texas in 1990, he joined a boutique litigation firm, Beirne, Maynard & Parsons. He was only there five years when Air Liquide called. “I really liked what I was doing at Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, but in-house jobs are fairly hard to find, especially for litigators, so I thought I’d try it, and in the worst case, learn a lot from a client perspective, then come back out and be a better lawyer from the outside,” Feeney says. As it turns out, he never looked back. He was promoted from manager of litigation to assistant general counsel in 2000 and to general counsel in 2004. Today, he handles transactional work as well as litigation work and considers himself a jack-of-all-trades, which he enjoys. “Every day’s different, and every day’s a challenge,” he says.

Today, Air Liquide’s US legal team has 20 members, including a director of litigation and a regulatory specialist with the remainder aligned along Air Liquide’s business lines. “It’s not easy to work in this industry because we serve many different types of customers—manufacturers of almost everything, be it glass, paper, petrochemicals, or electronics, as well as serving the health-care industry,” he says. “So to do the job well you need to develop a knowledge of many different industries.” You also need to be willing to stay busy. “Our business is doing well right now,” Feeney says. “There’s not any one big project, but shale gas is driving the growth of many of our customers, particularly along the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast, and we’re trying to help the business capture these opportunities.”

Despite the challenges Feeney faces, he’s confident that he has a well-developed team, and he’s more proud of that than of any individual project or initiative. “I have a great team of really good attorneys,” he says. “The team’s competency, and the fact that we’re solution-based and prompt in our responses, has helped us to earn the respect of the business.”