Imagine walking down the street in a metropolitan area—say New York City, for example. If you happen to see a fire hydrant, chances are that Mueller Water Products manufactured it. As one of the leading manufacturers of products used in water distribution in North America, Mueller is most likely responsible for the infrastructure that transmits the water to that fire hydrant too.
It’s true that a good portion of Mueller’s products go unseen, since they are subterranean or tucked behind walls. But Steve Heinrichs, Mueller’s chief legal and compliance officer, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary, is working to make sure that Mueller’s work doesn’t go unnoticed.
Heinrichs is fascinated by the manufacturing industry. Admittedly, he is drawn to the honesty and necessity of it. “I love working for a company that makes physical things,” he says of Mueller. “Someone once explained to me that in heavy manufacturing, we develop ‘physical artifacts,’ and the water that comes into people’s homes, in all likelihood, has come in contact with these products or artifacts that our people have made. I love that! There’s something really special about that,” he enthuses.
He also appreciates how Mueller’s manufacturing plays an integral part in supporting small-town economies. “Almost all of manufacturing in America is done within small communities, so we have become a part of the communities our plants are in,” he says. “We support a whole host of ancillary businesses along the way, and I like being in a job that connects me like that.”
The Journey In-House
Beyond his personal ties to and interest in manufacturing, Heinrichs’s prior roles in legal for manufacturing giants have solidified his expertise working within this space. Before arriving at Mueller, Heinrichs started his legal career in private practice—but shortly thereafter transitioned in-house. “I was looking to get in-house because I felt like it was a good combination of my skills,” he explains. “I was always interested in the business side of the law. Some people think there’s a downside to having just one client, but I really like that aspect. In a multinational manufacturing environment, the array of issues and distinct ‘client’ interests, even within one company, is interesting and challenging.”
The appealing versatility of an in-house role and a desire not to be pigeonholed only strengthened his resolve to make a change. He started his in-house journey with American Commercial Lines, a marine transportation and manufacturing company.
“I really learned and cut my teeth in that environment,” Heinrichs says. “I did a lot of things that I had never done before, from labor and employment to intellectual property to environmental matters. I also got more experience in areas I was more familiar with, like corporate M&A and litigation. It was really a great lead into being a good in-house lawyer, which means having a broad base of experience.”
Though he only spent five years with American Commercial Lines, the experience he garnered with the company was worth a lifetime in the legal space. During Heinrichs’s tenure there, American Commercial Lines transferred equity twice and refinanced multiple times, which made for an immense and varied legal workload. “It was an incredibly busy and sometimes difficult time, but it was also an amazing experience,” he recalls.
“Almost all of manufacturing in America is done within small communities, so we have become a part of the communities our plants are in.”
As Heinrichs notes, this position and the next, with a company called Mariner Health Care, collectively increased his corporate finance skills, which would play a large factor in both his future work and his interest in publicly traded companies. “I prefer to be in the publicly traded context,” he says. “I started taking calls after I had monetized my time at Mariner, and that’s when I got my first general counsel gig.”
Heinrichs was hired by Kimberly-Clark Corporation as the chief legal officer of their paper and pulp division but was soon reshuffled into a role as general counsel of a spin-off division called Neenah Paper. “There were just a handful of us, including our CEO, CFO, and myself, in a makeshift office, and we set up everything: corporate, payroll, policies, you name it,” he recounts. “We IPOd the business in 2004 and became an independently traded, New York Stock Exchange company.
“It was that year that I first held a top seat with a public company, and that was a super job,” he continues. “It truly reinforced my skill set and interest in rationalizing portfolios and strategic organization.”
After fifteen years with Neenah, Heinrichs made the decision to take his wealth of experiences in both manufacturing and corporate finance to Mueller.
An Eye on International Expansion
Now, at Mueller, Heinrichs is responsible for running the legal function for Mueller’s global organization, from traditional corporate practices in mergers and acquisitions to international law to various trade compliance matters. He is in charge of the “soup to nuts” legal function, as he puts it.
“Steve is one of those rare people who is able to seamlessly blend the boundaries between law and business, which makes him extremely valuable from the M&A perspective,” enthuses King & Spalding partner Cal Smith. “He has just as firm a grip on traditional legal issues as he does on the issues underlying a target’s P&L. It gives him tremendous credibility, both internally and externally.”
Though Mueller is primarily focused on the North American market, Heinrichs is hopeful that his prior experiences will help diversify Mueller’s portfolio and grow their global presence. “In terms of manufacturing, we have more than ten plants here in the United States and Canada. We have warehouses and operations in China as well as the West Bank and Tel Aviv in Israel. We have a relatively broad global presence,” Heinrichs explains.
Still, he hopes to grow Mueller internationally, with a focus on international manufacturing and serving local markets in new geographies. “Growing our business globally isn’t just shipping our products around the world,” he says. ”It’s actual physical participation in those key geographies and having a branded and specified position with municipalities and governments.”
“Growing our business globally isn’t just shipping our products around the world. It’s actual physical participation in those key geographies and having a branded and specified position with municipalities and governments.”
To enhance its portfolio, Heinrichs speculates that Mueller could look into adjacent categories. “We’re not in wastewater, for example. We are a clean drinking water and natural gas distribution company, so could we go into wastewater? Could we go more into industrial spaces or agriculture? Those are all categories of products that we may have expertise in making but do not currently make,” Heinrichs explains.
Though this move could help address the question of business diversification, Heinrichs still has to consider how Mueller can solve its geographic conundrum. “We really aren’t in Western Europe,” Heinrichs says. “That’s another large, developed economy with massive levels of infrastructure that date back to pre–World War I times. The global infrastructure is really old, and it’s a business with really good bones, so it’s a matter of finding a pathway to get into those markets.”
Heinrichs believes that operating in countries in Western Europe, like France or Germany, requires a local presence. “These countries are relatively provincial, and they already have companies doing the manufacturing for them,” he says. “As my German colleagues say, ‘Life is not a pony farm.’ It can be difficult to find actionable and attractive targets, and while developing this side of this business is something that is difficult, I do love it.”
Heinrichs asserts that Mueller’s historic focus has been on manufacturing, but he believes that with a small perspective shift, it can grow both its product offerings and the company globally. Luckily, Heinrichs is just the man for the job. “This is something that I both have a lot of experience in and, ultimately, what I love to do.”
“It has been an honor to partner with Mueller Water Products over the past ten years. Steve is a confident and innovative leader, committed to the pursuit of excellence for Mueller and his legal team.”
–Jeffrey Kuester, Partner
“Steve Heinrichs is one of the best deal lawyers in the country. He has the unique ability to drive the legal deal to completion while never losing sight of the big picture strategic business issues.”
–Mike Hobbs, Partner