Northwestern Roots

Weyerhaeuser's Kristy Harlan discusses her work with the company and shares how a personal connection to forestry underscores her efforts to take employee safety issues to the next level

Kristy Harlan; SVP, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary; Weyerhaeuser

Kristy Harlan grew up in the town of Montesano, Washington, about two hours southwest of Seattle. With a population of nearly 4,000, Montesano may be considered small geographically, but few know that it is home to the nation’s first tree farm, which was founded in 1941 and owned by Weyerhaeuser.

“When I first walked into the Weyerhaeuser boardroom for my initial meeting with the CEO, there was a picture of that tree farm hanging on the wall,” Harlan recalls. “My grandfather drove a log truck, and my dad had a long career as a logger and forester.”

Headquartered in Seattle, Weyerhaeuser is one of the largest private owners of timberlands in the United States and also manages publicly owned forests in Canada. With a family history in forestry, and growing up close by to the Washington-based company, Harlan finds herself right at home as Weyerhaeuser’s
general counsel.

“I’m comfortable speaking the language of this company,” she says. “When I hear some of the industry terms and concepts, I know what they’re talking about. And it also makes me tuned in to issues like employee safety that are so critically important to the legal team and to Weyerhaeuser as a whole.”

In a conversation with Modern Counsel, Harlan discusses her successful transition and shares how a personal connection to the industry underscores her efforts to take employee safety issues to the next level.

After more than a decade in private practice, you made the jump in-house when you stepped in as Weyerhaeuser’s general counsel in early 2017. Why?

I had done some work for Weyerhaeuser as a partner at K&L Gates, where I worked for eleven years. I like the projects, the company, and the people. Weyerhaeuser’s culture was really attractive to me, and since I did a joint JD/MBA program at the University of Houston, the chance to be more directly involved in business strategy was something that really excited me. On top of all of that, this is a Seattle company, and I’m originally from the
Pacific Northwest.

You mentioned how being in tune with the industry has helped you address several issues, one of which is employee safety. How is legal most directly involved in that?

This is an industry of inherent risks. We run logging operations,  saw mills, and other manufacturing facilities where managing those risks is a critical part of the jobs people do each day. Our legal department is responsible for the company’s overall compliance program. It’s our job to know the issues our employees face while also understanding the applicable laws in various jurisdictions.

How big of a job is that, and how do you manage it?

It’s big, and it’s important that we get it right. We have 10,000 employees and thirteen million acres of land spread all over the country. We have to stay on top of changes to the law, and we need the right policies and procedures in place to manage risk while staying compliant in every area. Additionally, legal runs an ethics and compliance hotline through which we field calls that may relate to safety, and we also help with incident investigation and resolution when something goes wrong.

Do you envision any major changes to these areas?

Weyerhaeuser was doing a lot of great things before I got here. In many ways, I view my job as taking something that’s already running well and finding the opportunity to make it even better. I know what it’s like to wait for people to come home safe from a shift in this industry, and my dad was actually injured on the job, so safety will always stay top of mind for me in a personal way.

As a new general counsel stepping in, how do you get up to speed in these areas and analyze what’s already in place?

I decided to tour our facilities and meet as many people as possible. It’s the only way I know to learn what actually is going on. We work in our corporate headquarters in Seattle, but a huge percentage of our workforce is out in the field. I encourage everyone in the legal department to get out there face-to-face, see the working conditions, ask questions, and find out what we can do to strengthen and protect this company while supporting our employees.

Have you encountered or uncovered anything significant?

Well, first of all, I see that we are doing the right things. Everywhere I go, I receive a safety briefing and protective gear right away. For me, the most valuable part of the visits has been in relationship building. I want people to see legal as their partners and advisors. I want them to know they can reach out to us in a proactive way. It takes time to raise that awareness and build that trust, and it’s not always easy to do that with a phone call or an e-mail.

What else is on your radar right now?

We’re thinking about how we can take operational excellence, which is another company focus, to the next level in the law department. It’s easier to quantify this in the business context, but we also want to push our legal team to simplify and streamline our processes while still providing consistency and continuity.

What have you uncovered so far?

We’re working on a state-by-state playbook of regulatory and compliance issues. We have operations all over the country. With thirteen million acres, there are so many jurisdictions involved in what we do. So, we’re compiling a master resource book that will act as a centralized knowledge base and cut out a lot of duplicated work.

Have you been able to import any ideas or best practices from the years you spent at various firms?

That’s one advantage I’m finding from my work experience. Most companies I worked with in private practice were public companies, so I’ve seen a lot of different strategies in action. That’s helped me bring a fresh perspective and some new ideas to Weyerhaeuser. For example, I’ve seen the proxy process done a lot of different ways, and that’s one area we’re looking to make some improvements in, so I’m certainly leveraging that previous experience right now.

What do you foresee then for Weyerhaeuser in the near future?

We’re taking a look at diversity and inclusion, which I strongly support, and we continue to make progress in this area. In fact, I’m the first female general counsel in our 117-year history. There are three women on our board and three women on our senior management team. My department is diverse in many categories. We’re also focused on sustainability, which is a core value for our company and the essence of our business model. And I’m really excited about the great work we’re doing to develop strong leaders at all levels of the company. There’s a lot of varied and interesting work I get to be a part of, but at the end of the day, it’s all about engaging our people to work together to achieve our
company vision.

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Miller Nash Graham & Dunn:

“Kristy’s vision and sincerity, not to mention her sense of humor and accessibility, make her the consummate team builder and leader. We are fortunate to work with her in pursuit of great results for Weyerhaeuser.”

—Diane Meyers, Partner

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Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC:

“Working with Kristy Harlan and her extraordinary team of in-house counsel is a real honor for Baker Donelson. The commitment to excellence exhibited by the legal department mirrors the overall caliber of the company itself. Weyerhaeuser’s commitment to diversity and sustainability is particularly impressive.”

—Nancy Scott Degan, New Orleans Office Managing Shareholder