The Environmental Encyclopedia
Honeywell’s Kate Adams learned a thing or two from those who came before her
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - May 2010 magazine
on April 12, 2010
Updated on March 30, 2011
Inspired by her father, who founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, Kate Adams helped build an environmental law and litigation practice at Sidley Austin in New York before joining Honeywell in 2003. Now general counsel and senior vice president of the Morristown, N.J., technology and manufacturing giant, she leads the company’s sustainability program.
Why did you choose law?
I’d thought that I would go to graduate school in comparative literature and become a professor. But I got a job right out of college [at Brown University] in the Bronx criminal court system working with repeat offenders. I was exposed to lawyers and working in the justice system and got really interested in that whole arena of the intersection between law and society. I thought, “Maybe I should do this. It’s not a professor of literature, but I will do a lot of writing.”
After law school you clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, then chief judge of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
One of the things that’s really striking about Judge Breyer is his practicality and intense desire to make the law work for people’s activities in the world in a way that is sensible. He hates a formalistic outcome that doesn’t allow people to conduct their affairs in a sensible, predictable way. It’s just an extraordinary experience to work with somebody who had the ability to think that way and articulate it in his writings.
Then you clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at the U.S. Supreme Court. What was that experience like?
She has a very strong personality but is willing to hear everyone’s views. She would have a mix of clerks with very different backgrounds and political perspectives. It was an intellectually stimulating environment. She was equally tough on all of us. I admire that about her—it was a great lesson.
What drew you to Honeywell in 2003?
By that time I had been a partner at Sidley for four or five years, and I was very happy and enjoying what I was doing. But I heard of this opportunity and knew I could really make an impact as head of litigation at Honeywell. There was a lot to do, but it was within my training and capabilities to do it and do it well.
How has your job changed since you were promoted last year?
It’s a big change. Before I had this role, I was the general counsel of our materials business, and before that, head of the litigation department. Now I oversee all law matters in the company: contracts, HR, environmental, M&A and intellectual property. I have the compliance organization globally, and HSE—health, safety and environmental compliance. I have the remediation group and the government relations group, as well as corporate licensing. And the corporate governance side. Those are all significant areas of expansion.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
You have a mix of things every day. You have things that are urgent and important. You also have longer-term strategic matters. It’s very easy to get sucked into the problem that is banging on your door today and not make time in your thinking and in your schedule to comprehensively address the things we need to worry about five years from now. How are we going to grow our business in emerging regions, or deal with new laws? What about [improving] our global government relations function? It’s that balance between making sure you don’t drop the ball on something immediate but keeping a long-term vision.
What’s the most exciting thing happening at the company right now?
We have an enormous portfolio of products and services aimed at helping people, companies, countries—you name it—reduce their carbon footprint in one way or another. I grew up in a family of environmental activists, but also have a very business-minded personality, so I’m able to bring two interests and passions together.
What are Honeywell’s growing sectors?
Fifty percent of Honeywell’s products and services are aimed at providing an energy-efficient, or low-carbon, benefit. We also have a business called UOP [Universal Oil Products], which has the technology to take forest and agricultural residuals, like bark or small branches, and turn it into fuel burned for industrial power, or upgrade it to fuel green cars and jets.
In each of Honeywell’s businesses, there are things that point toward the future, such as turbochargers, which are a way to reduce fuel consumption while maintaining performance.
Do you have memories of when your father, John Adams, founded the Natural Resources Defense Council?
I was young when my father founded NRDC. I remember it being an exciting time for him, becoming an advocate for something he cared deeply about. That was evident from the very beginning. It was, and continues to be, important to him to be doing something good for the world. My mother has always been a real partner to my father at NRDC. That partnership was always very impressive to us as children. She has written children’s books, a book on being a stepmother, and is a columnist at a local newspaper.
Prior to joining Honeywell, you were an adjunct professor at Columbia and NYU. What was it like teaching environmental law in NYC?
I had wonderful students—a diverse group from all over the world. It was great because I was exposed to the experiences of people who had grown up in other countries with different legal systems and different ways of thinking about the law.
How many patents does Honeywell typically file each year?
At the end of 2009, we had more than 29,000 patents and patents pending worldwide. We file roughly 1,000 new patent applications each year.
You are charged with protecting all of Honeywell’s intellectual property. Do you have to be an encyclopedia of sorts?
I think it would be a superhuman task for any individual to have a comprehensive appreciation of our technology, just given how vast our portfolio is and how technically complex many of these areas are. That said, you do need to have a working understanding of the businesses and the areas they are innovating in. With the help of subject matter experts, I certainly form my own opinions about the status of, say, a patent that’s being challenged and whether it’s a case with merit or not, and help direct legal strategy based on that assessment.
How much does your background in environmental law influence your role at the company?
Certainly at a big industrial company, some knowledge of environmental law is a very nice thing to have. Given that this is a point in time when energy and carbon-related issues are coming to the forefront, knowledge of these issues allows you to be more useful in helping the company understand how policy can affect our business—the vocabulary is familiar, the concepts are familiar.
You’re the GC of a $30.9 billion company. Is this what you wanted to be when you grew up?
No (laughs). I wanted to be a veterinarian for the longest time.