A few months into her new job as corporate counsel for Harley-Davidson Motor Company in Milwaukee, Jennifer Kent discovered just how passionate people are about the place. It was Labor Day weekend in 2003 and the company was celebrating its 100th anniversary. “People were getting married and renewing their wedding vows in our parking lot,” says Kent, amazed. “It was a great introduction to the company.”
Kent, 35, who’d held her previous job as assistant U.S. attorney in Wisconsin for only six months, didn’t come looking for the job with Harley-Davidson. In fact she’d only been on a motorcycle once in her life. But between 1998 and 2002, while at Foley & Lardner, she worked with Harley-Davidson several times. She made such an impression that when the company had an opening she got the call.
Although wary at first — “I loved being in trial,” she says — she decided going in-house was too good an opportunity to pass up. She also loved being able to focus on one client. But what finally won her over, she says, was “talking to the people in my department and realizing the depth of experience they had.”
Her favorite part of the job is seeing how the business works, says Kent, who managed legal matters for the company’s North American sales and distribution network. “It’s really interesting to be involved in a project from day one and watch it evolve.”
The company culture doesn’t hurt either. “I get to wear jeans every day,” she says. “I hated wearing suits. If someone is walking around in a suit here, it doesn’t look right.” She adds, “I think this is the only company I could work for where people are tattooing the company logo on themselves.”
Although free motorcycles or leather jackets (or tattoos) aren’t among the company’s perks, Kent did buy a cream-colored leather jacket with orange lining and Harley-Davidson written on the side. “I get a lot of compliments on it,” she says.
Employees do get discounts on bikes, however, and a couple of years ago Kent and her husband were preparing to take the Harley-Davidson Rider’s Edge motorcycle training course; then she got pregnant. They haven’t found time to take the course since, with the demands of juggling two young children: a son, 2, and daughter, 6.
Her kids are now becoming motorcycle experts themselves. Kent recalls a trip to the grocery store with her daughter, then 4, where they pulled up alongside a motorcycle. “She looked at the motorcycle and said, ‘That’s a Harley-Davidson,’” says Kent. “Then she looked at [it] more closely and correctly said, ‘twin-cam engine.’ For the life of me, I don’t know how she knew it was a twin-cam engine, but I guess she must have been listening to me talk on the phone.”
Enthusiasm can have unintended consequences, of course. Kent’s passion for her in-house work so inspired her husband, attorney Kenneth Dortzbach, that he took an in-house position with Johnson Controls Inc., which relocated the family to Germany.
Fortunately, Kent, named senior corporate counsel in 2005, retained her title (if not her post) with a work-from-home position supporting Harley-Davidson’s European operations. “My bosses were great,” she says of the job they created for her as the company’s first in-house lawyer in Europe. She’ll also do more general legal work and travel to such cities as Paris, Zurich and Milan.
What will she miss most while in Europe? “Our families,” she says. “But both of our parents have already made plans to visit Germany before the end of the year.” As for work? “Not being around all my colleagues all day,” says Kent, who got a Harley-Davidson watch as a going-away gift and motorcycle-style sweatsuits for her kids — pink for her daughter and black with flames for her son. “We’re already joking about our next legal department meeting in Germany,” she says.