How to take over communications

Margaret “Peggy” Kelsey, Modine Manufacturing Company’s general counsel, is playing a crucial role in the 100-year-old company’s implementation of a new strategic platform

Law schools won’t let their students graduate without being able to write well, but few lawyers would feel comfortable taking over the corporate communications department in addition to managing a company’s legal needs. Margaret “Peggy” Kelsey is one of those few. Kelsey’s titles at Modine Manufacturing Company are vice president of legal and corporate communications, general counsel, and secretary to the board of directors.

In her three roles, Kelsey oversees the company’s legal, compliance, intellectual property, and corporate communications departments. She provides advice regarding legal and business matters, including M&A and business strategy, and she keeps the board up to date on all activities and regulatory issues and standards.

While it’s unusual for a general counsel to be deeply involved in corporate communications, it’s a role that Kelsey cherishes. In 2009, shortly after the recession hit, Modine disbanded its corporate communications department. After the economy improved, the department was reinsitated, and the company’s CEO asked Kelsey to oversee it.

Celebrating 100 Years

Part of Modine’s celebration will be to rethink its brand. Kelsey’s role in communications will be a major part of this endeavor.

“We wanted to refresh our brand. We realized we weren’t providing tools for our employees to speak about Modine with a common language. So several months ago, we started a process that involved interviews with employees across the organization, asking them common questions about, ‘Who is Modine?’ We were pleased that the responses were very consistent, and we wanted to put that in writing. In 2016, we will be expressing the Modine brand in a refreshed but familiar way.”

“It made sense to me because communicating has always been an integral part of my legal career,” she says. “Plus, I’m engaged in the strategy and understand where we want to go as a company. The last three years, I have done everything —launching a company newsletter, writing articles and designing the layout, redesigning the website, and planning for the 100th anniversary. Some days I do more of that than practice law.”

In her position as secretary of the board, her chief responsibilities are to organize governance activities, monitor trends, and ensure compliance.

“There has been quite a lot of focus on the corporate secretary position over the last few years, and responsibilities of the board have increased quite a bit, so the board looks to me to make sure they are aware of and compliant with the ever-changing requirements and best practices,” she says. “And, of course, there’s also the creating of agendas, taking minutes at meetings, and managing the corporate-governance structure and guidelines.”

Kelsey came to Modine after spending twelve years as a litigator, mostly arguing product liability matters on the defense side. Once she took on an in-house role, she had to switch to a corporate focus and learn areas of corporate law she’d never concerned herself with before, including securities and public-company governance and compliance. After obtaining her MBA, Kelsey was also responsible for corporate treasury, business development, and strategic planning.

“As a litigator, you’d better enjoy communicating and being somewhat good at that, because most of it is communicating orally and in writing and persuading someone that your position is the correct one,” she says. “I enjoy debating points and working with others logically on a cohesive argument. It’s a skill I use every day.”

She also oversees risk management and advises the board on strategic decisions. “The general counsel is in a great position to help lead the organization in its strategy,” she says. “We follow the Modine Operating System, which is a culture of improvement. It involves mentoring others, making improvements in processes—whether as simple as receiving and paying legal bills or as complex as contract management—but coming at it in the same way. I really enjoy being part of that. It allows me to be reflective, as well. It fits well with way I view life; I don’t spend a lot of time fretting.”

Since 1916, Modine has applied innovative thermal technology to meet customers’ needs, yielding state-of-the-art components, modules, and systems that give the world’s vehicle makers and commercial-equipment manufacturers a competitive edge in their markets and satisfy building owners’ needs for reliable, energy-efficient heating and cooling.

Recently, the company announced it was changing up its strategic direction with an initiative it defines as “strengthen, diversify, and grow.”

“We determined that Modine is in a position of relative strength both strategically and financially, and we wanted to set the direction for the company stepping into our 100th year and going forward,” Kelsey says. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we want to look like over the long term?’ The answer requires significant changes.”

To maximize Modine’s strength, the company needs to build the correct, strategic organizational culture. Modine has not been as consistent in structure or as product-focused as leadership wants. Going forward, the idea is that one side of the company will focus on power, train, and engine cooling—mostly for vehicular markets—and the other will focus on building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning products and markets.

“We think the geographic structure is suboptimizing our ability to move quickly on a global basis with the introduction of products to relative markets,” she says. “We’re going to move to a completely global, product-focused organization.”

To diversify, Modine plans to invest significant resources in its industrial segment to grow it in proportion to the whole. “As we look forward into the future, we want the industrial part of Modine to increase from its current position, which is about 15 to 20 percent  of the business, to 30 to 40 percent over the next couple of years,” Kelsey says. “By doing that, we will much better diversify our exposure to certain end markers and be a much more balanced company.”

The third part of the strategy, growth, is a natural result of the first two initiatives. With that revenue, the company wants to increase the size of Modine through acquisition. Modine plans to make at least $100 million in acquisition in the near term.

“My role in all of this was both as part of a small team of executives in setting this course and in communicating,” she says. “I was primarily responsible for internal communications. My focus is on sharing information with employees in the right way.”