Building on a Solid Foundation

Alisha Cieslak created the legal function at family-run Gordon Food Service. First, she needed to build a department infrastructure consistent with the company’s culture and values.

Alisha Cieslak, General Counsel, Gordon Food Service

When Gordon Food Service hired Alisha Cieslak to create the company’s legal department, the company was already operating in a dozen states and across Canada with more than $10 billion dollars in annual transactions.

Still, company leaders worried about sending the wrong message about why an in-house department was being created. “We have a very special culture founded on what we call ‘cornerstone values,’” Cieslak says. “We seek to cocreate value with our business partners. A solid relationship that creates mutual benefit helps us work through any issues that arise, without immediately resorting to traditional legal options.” The company wanted a legal department, but one with an approach that aligned with these values.

This wasn’t a new concern for Cieslak. Before joining Gordon Food Service in 2014, Cieslak helped build another legal department for her then-employer, Benteler Group, an international, family-owned German automotive and steel firm, at its North American headquarters north of Detroit, Michigan.

Still, the Gordon Food Service opportunity came with increased responsibilities. Cieslak serves as corporate secretary and leads a six-person staff. She worked on the acquisition of several specialty companies, as well as the construction of four distribution centers in just a few years.

Gordon Food Service is a food distributor, with trucks and warehouses serving tens of thousands of customers. This is a very different industry than Cieslak’s previous experience, so to be successful in her new role, she needed to understand the business and its market. In the humble fashion of its owners, Cieslak went to work—on a truck. Several times per year, members of the North American senior leadership team take a shift working with one of their 17,000 employees. What Cieslak learned about company operations informs her in her role as the company’s top attorney.

Cornerstone Values
The following values influence every decision made at Gordon Food Service to ensure employees can properly measure success.

1. Customer is King: the company ensures quality service by making sure the customer always comes first.

2. Integrity: Employees of GFS know that trust and honesty are the bed rock of any solid relationship

3. Philosophy of Sharing: only by collaborating and exchanging ideas can workers benefit the company as well as the customers.

4. Rewards for Performance: a job well done is always rewarded.

5. Networking Organization: GFS fosters strong relationships in order to promote collaboration and innovation.

6. Everyone is Important: the success of the company is contingent on each employee excelling at their work and honing their talents.

Source: Gordon Food Service

“I have seen what it’s like to wake up at four in the morning and continuously load and unload the truck,” she says. She learned this while shadowing drivers delivering food to hotels, schools, restaurants, and other customers. “I even insisted on helping carry product into the customer’s kitchen, but our driver only let me carry a box of foam cups,” she says. She observed the careful measures involved in the transportation of food—prudent driving, taking temperatures of the product at load points, recording data, and working to satisfy the complex regulatory requirements surrounding the storage, handling, and transportation of food. “Our loading docks and trucks are refrigerated to ensure integrity in the cold chain,” she says.

Similarly, an understanding of the tasks managed by sales reps who interact with their customers is useful in designing contract processes and systems. Her team developed an automated tool that receives input from sales staff on pricing, delivery dates, delivery addresses, and other data that, through Google add-ons and custom scripting, creates a contract from a preapproved template copy. The contract is then immediately emailed in PDF format to the sales rep who initiated the request. This process replaced a multiday, back and forth process that was unwieldy and inefficient. “One of our cornerstone values is, ‘the customer is king.’ We want our customers to feel that it’s easy to do business with us,” she says. “This greatly improved our customer onboarding process and internal client satisfaction measures of one of our most important stakeholder groups.”

Perhaps another reason Cieslak understands her business well is that she herself is a foodie. “Sure, it brings my work to life,” says Cieslak, whose great-grandfather was a chef and whose mother operates an artisan chocolate company. “We often negotiate with the very restaurants where I eat, and sample ingredients my family ultimately consumes at home. Food is extremely personal to me.”

“As a lawyer, I think part of my job is to be an advocate and educate people about all that we do to ensure quality and safety in our food chain.”

And as a consumer, she closely monitors what other consumers think and say about the food industry. “Most people aren’t fully aware of the stringent controls around food,” she says. “As a lawyer, I think part of my job is to be an advocate and educate people about all that we do to ensure quality and safety in our food chain.”