Managing a Team of Misfit Toys

General counsel Joe Blasko of James Hardie Industries credits the outside-the-box thinking and hard work of his compliance team with the company’s ability to manage operations on three different continents

With offices in the US, Ireland, and its founding country of Australia, building materials company James Hardie Industries has to navigate a wide swath of compliance concerns and regulations. That responsibility falls on the assured shoulders of general counsel and chief compliance officer Joe Blasko, whose approach to handling the various regional incompatibilities has involved building and maintaining a strong, qualified legal and compliance team that can handle any compatibility or operational issue that comes their way.

Blasko ascended to his current role by maintaining flexibility with his career goals. He initially studied international relations at Georgetown University and planned for a career in the foreign service before deciding instead to continue his education with a law degree at Case Western Reserve University. He thought he’d be going back to Washington, DC, after law school to join a large global firm, but instead the Columbus, Ohio-based firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease made a strong impression on him. So, Blasko traded the nation’s capital for his state capital.

Joe Blasko James Hardie Industries
Joe Blasko, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, James Hardie Industries Photo: James Hardie Building Products Inc.

“I had fantastic mentors and the culture was phenomenal,” Blasko says. While at Vorys, he supplemented his work in the environmental, energy, and public utilities practice group with work in toxic torts litigation, ultimately landing at Scotts Miracle-Gro before moving on to become general counsel at Liebert Corporation, then a large subsidiary of St. Louis-based, Emerson Electric Co. It was at Emerson that Blasko was able to reengage on the global stage, managing Liebert’s broad multinational legal group. He eventually made his way to James Hardie in 2011.

Blasko maintains his flexible approach today. “Never fight against the current of change,” he tells new lawyers that he mentors. “Always look forward and navigate your way through the current.”

There were times when Blasko thought his career path was set, but “as the legal landscape changed around me, I shifted and ultimately became a generalist,” he says, adding that if he hadn’t been as open to change, “I would not be where I am today.”

As general counsel for James Hardie, Blasko leads a team navigating through what he describes as the “Bermuda Triangle of corporate governance.” Though the company is today headquartered in Ireland, it keeps its primary listing on the Australian Stock Exchange while also listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and maintaining a strong business presence in the US.

Rules regarding frequency of reports, executive compensation, disclosure obligations, and more vary between countries. For instance, the ASX’s principle-based model mandates immediate, continuous disclosure obligations whereas the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and NYSE are less prescriptive in terms of the timing for disclosures. But the SEC and NYSE are far more granular in terms of what actually needs to be disclosed. Even scheduling board meetings is more complicated because all of the company’s strategic decisions are made in Ireland and its board members are located in in six different countries on three continents.

These concerns and more are foremost on Blasko’s mind when establishing the company’s various legal controls. “Even for what would be considered basic matters” such as the approval of company results, Blasko explains, “the coordination and juggling is not easy to do.”

To address all these complexities, Blasko has built and maintained a compliance team that can handle the challenges of each jurisdiction and manage them in an effective way. When he first arrived in 2011, he conducted a six-month assessment of the legal team to determine its strengths. “Our CEO provided me with the luxury of time to understand the business, which allowed for a better evaluation,” he says. “Ultimately, I didn’t come in to clean house,” but he did determine where there was a need for new personnel.

This meant finding an Irish national to serve as the company’s corporate secretary, expanding the responsibilities for his team leader in Australia, and identifying a team leader for Europe, following the largest acquisition in the company’s 130-year history. “It’s important to be patient, evaluate input from others, and not rush into something,” Blasko says, outlining his leadership philosophy, but he adds that it’s also key to challenge the status quo rather than simply “doing something the same way it’s always been done.”

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.”

To streamline his team’s processes and practices, Blasko worked to identify gaps, not just in the legal department but the business as a whole. “I firmly believed that we were handling the basics—the blocking and tackling—very well,” he says. “I am blessed in that I have some exceptionally talented lawyers that support our business. But, I found myself inquiring whether there were things we should be doing as a company that our team was best situated to handle.”

In particular, he saw opportunities to relocate the management of the company’s insurance program from Australia to the US and asked an individual with a production background, a strong interest, and good project-management skills to manage it. Likewise, he identified the need to establish a government-relations function, identifying the same former production manager as well as a former technical manager to manage this function from both a plant and market perspective, respectively.

“Since we’re domiciled in Ireland and primarily listed in Australia, we may not be as widely known as another US company of similar size,” Blasko says. “It just means that we must work that much harder to establish those relationships.”

Alongside strategic placement of the right people in the right places, Blasko has also focused on the professional development of his employees. The former technical manager now managing the government-relations function worked in R&D for ten years while he attended law school at night and obtained his JD. Blasko supported his transition to the legal department and notes that his R&D experience has made him invaluable when it comes to reviewing marketing literature, providing technical revisions, and serving as the company’s 30(b)(6) corporate representative in litigation matters.

The legal department is lean, but because of its members’ diverse skill sets and their desire to wear multiple hats and take on new challenges, it appears much larger than it is. Blasko recognizes that his team “hits well above its weight” and affectionately refers to it as a “team of misfit toys.” His value as a leader has been recognizing what each member brings to the table, no matter how unconventional.

Blasko is proud of the way his group has evolved over time, how they rally together in support of each other and the business, and how he has identified people with skills that match the company’s needs. “We’re not in a heavily regulated industry,” he says, “so we’re always trying to balance a strong legal and regulatory skill set with being a responsive and nimble business partner.”

Though Blasko runs James Hardie’s legal and compliance department, he won’t accept all the credit for his team’s successes. The team puts together an annual report for the board each year and the first thing Blasko does is point to the names of the report’s authors in the right-hand corner of the cover.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says, “which elevates me in the eyes of the company, but it’s my team who deserve so much of the credit.”

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Arthur Cox:

“Joe is an innovative leader with extensive industry knowledge. He has strategically built a strong international corporate governance capability within his team. It is always a pleasure to work with Joe and James Hardie.”

Brian O’Gorman, Managing Partner

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Greenberg Traurig, LLP:

“Greenberg Traurig is proud of its seamless collaboration with James Hardie Industries and Joe Blasko. We congratulate Joe on all of his achievements and look forward to working together in the coming years.”

Peter G. Rush, Shareholder

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Husch Blackwell LLP:

“It’s a pleasure to work as an industry partner with Joe. He’s an innovative thinker, with an exceptional ability to build teams and streamline.”

Joe Orlet, Partner