A Household Name
With an affinity for language, mergers and acquisitions, Laura Stein globalizes the Clorox brand
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - January 2010 magazine
By Rose Nisker on December 7, 2009
After Laura Stein joined the Clorox Company as in-house counsel in the early 1990s, she often traveled to Latin America to negotiate acquisitions, such as the $75 million purchase of Puerto Rico’s Poett cleaning products line. On one such trip, the deal documents were drafted in Spanish and Portuguese—so she went ahead and translated them herself.
It wasn’t a first for Stein, who, throughout her two-decades-long career, has also conducted business in Italian and Mandarin while working in Europe and Asia. “I love the international aspect of my work,” she says. “But I have to admit, I spend a lot of my time abroad in conference rooms. I hope that doesn’t make me sound boring.”
On the contrary, Stein, now general counsel and senior vice president of Clorox, has an engaging nature and a personal style that fits the fashionable displays in the halls of the company’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters—a chic lineup of international logos and product boxes, including those of its new Green Works line.
Today Clorox’s 100-some consumer products, marketed in just as many countries, bring in more than $5.5 billion in annual sales. “Once you are involved in the brand and consumer product world, you start to know who makes everything and the differences in all the brands,” she says. With such a broad portfolio, her job requires an astute legal mind to keep track of all the countries, companies and laws that apply.
Fortunately, Stein was practically born contemplating the scales of justice. “Just about everybody I knew growing up was involved in the study or practice of law,” she says. Her father, Robert Stein—a retired dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, longtime law professor and current officer of the International Bar Association—was her biggest influence. He took his wife and three daughters on a trip to London when Stein was in her early teens, and introduced them to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and most important, the Magna Carta. “I remember standing in front of it with my father, and watching him become so moved,” she says. “He reflected on how important the rule of law was for so many societies across time and around the world.”
Two years later, Stein traveled to Italy as a high school exchange student. “I lived with a family in a little town on the Adriatic coast where not many people spoke English,” she says. “I was completely immersed in Italian. I like to talk, so basically I had to learn the language.”
Her next venture would be in East Asia. While an undergraduate at Dartmouth, her father, then a dean, brought the first Chinese law professor to the University of Minnesota and put her in touch with him. “The visiting professor encouraged me to learn Mandarin and said the opportunities in China are going to be amazing,” she says. “I did, and he was right.” After graduating in 1984, Stein moved to Beijing and worked for the China Daily newspaper.
“I remember riding my bike through the sea of bicycles in Beijing,” she says. “I would get stared at a lot, and when I would open my mouth and speak the language, people were completely shocked.”
Shortly after she returned from Beijing, she began her legal studies at Harvard Law School. “My whole life I was sure I wanted to be a lawyer—until that first week of law school when I started legal methods and civil procedure,” she laughs. “Luckily, by the second week I was sure again.”
Upon graduating in 1987, she joined Morrison & Foerster, where she practiced corporate law. “It was a very good fit for me culturally,” says Stein, who spent time in both the San Francisco and Hong Kong offices, focusing on SEC and M&A work.
“Laura was an extraordinarily talented associate,” says Keith Wetmore, now chair and managing partner at the firm. “Even then she was an incredibly strong technical lawyer with high emotional intelligence skills and the ability to manage conflicting constituencies.”
When Clorox requested a Morrison associate to help with an international acquisition, Stein’s superiors nominated her for the job. “Before I knew it,” she says, “I was acting as in-house lawyer for Clorox, working closely with the general counsel and traveling to Latin America.”
Around that time, her husband, a geochemist, applied for post-doctoral work at Dartmouth, so she took the opportunity to return to her alma mater for a master’s in business. After completing her thesis on the regulation of the Japanese stock market, she resumed her international transaction work for Clorox—this time in-house.
Somewhere amidst all the traveling, she had two children, only 20 months apart. “That period of time is a bit of a blur,” she recalls shaking her head. “Fortunately, I have a very supportive spouse, and we both have always made sure our kids know that they’re the priority.”
A promotion within the legal ranks initially gave her pause: “I was thinking, ‘I like all the international stuff,’” she says. “‘I want to just keep doing my deals.’” By that time, she had closed 40-some international transactions. “A friend of mine said, ‘Are you really going to learn more if you do 150 transactions? Wouldn’t it be better to do some different things?’”
Stein took the advice and assumed new domestic legal responsibilities, which included managing Clorox’s regulatory and advertising portfolios. “I did the SEC work,” she says. “Thankfully, in my time we only had one SEC litigation and it went away quickly and peacefully.”
In late 1999, H.J. Heinz Co. offered Stein a post as senior vice president and general counsel. “When a recruiter called me about the job, I thought it was such a long shot, given the amount of time I had been out of law school,” she says. “But my work at Clorox had really prepared me for what they were looking for.” From the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters, she traveled internationally and domestically during the week, commuting home to California’s Bay Area on weekends.
When Clorox’s general counsel retired in 2005, Stein returned to the company to take the job. Today she oversees worldwide legal, ethics and compliance, corporate communications, crisis management, risk management and internal audit matters. She also serves on the executive committee, chairs the Clorox women’s employee resource group, and co-sponsors the company’s social responsibility and enterprise risk management programs, while working closely with Clorox’s board of directors on governance matters.
Recently, she worked on the $925 million acquisition of one of her favorite lines, Burt’s Bees—a transaction that expanded the company’s portfolio of eco-friendly products. While Clorox has had minor Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations in its recent records, its significant chemical violations are from years past. Even so, Stein is quick to point out that the Sierra Club endorsed Clorox’s new green cleaning line. “I have many friends, myself included, who would prefer to buy products with natural ingredients,” she says. “I’m in a book club, and many of the people were telling me how much they like our Brita water filters, but they were concerned with how to dispose of the used filters. Now we recycle them. That’s definitely a nice part of being in a leadership position.”
She still relishes the international aspects of her work and stays fluent in her many languages. In fact, she recently returned from a trip to Argentina where she was meeting with a Clorox women’s employee resource group. “Before I left for the trip, I made sure to listen to Spanish-language radio in the car so I could brush up,” she says with a laugh.
And a few months ago, Stein visited China again—but this time to visit her daughter, who is studying in Beijing. In that case, she didn’t even need to pack a phrase book.
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