Bill Abbott – MISUMI USA
Anti-dumping laws, meant to protect American producers from a flood of low-price foreign goods, have their place but can’t be one-size-fits-all. Only that seemed to be the case in 2018 when well-intentioned officials in Washington nearly caused a MISUMI USA-affiliated manufacturing plant to downsize.
As senior vice president and general counsel, Bill Abbott explains that the plant imports specialized steel plates from China necessary to fashion mold bases for the injection molding industry. An American steelmaker complained, claiming those plates should be assessed a 300 percent increase in duties.
“That could have put people out of work,” Abbott tells Vanguard in February from MISUMI’s U.S. headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois. “If we couldn’t get those plates, we’d have to import the entire mold bases in some cases rather than making them ourselves.”
Abbott, having sparse resources at the time, enlisted legal heavyweight Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP to assist. The firm and Abbott made their case to congressional delegations and other influential lawmakers and successfully secured an exemption. Five years later, that plant continues to churn out the mold bases.
“China had been dumping steel, but when the petition was written, it was so broad that it included restrictions on types of steel that aren’t even made in the U.S.,” Abbott says. “Even the U.S. steel companies agreed with us.”
Evolving employment law
There’s always something pending on the employment front, which Abbott says is one of his two busiest areas—the other being general commercial matters. Only the possible furlough of a plant’s workforce wasn’t what he typically tends to as legal boss to the American subsidiary of the Japanese parts supplier.
More often, it’s Abbott and his team dealing with employment law in the states where MISUMI’s subsidiaries are represented. Those subsidiaries having manufacturing and distribution centers in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Canada and Mexico, supporting seven companies, Abbott says it’s a challenge to comply with the new and evolving rules and regulations most everywhere.
“While real estate and commercial law don’t change that significantly, employment law does,” he says. “Then there’s privacy, which is evolving just as fast as employment law.”
That’s especially true as more jurisdictions want salary ranges included in job postings. Then there are the unpleasant matters, such as employee termination, discipline, and other employment matters with laws differing on location.
And while commercial law stays relatively constant, Abbott says there’s much more of it to deal with as MISUMI expands its North American presence. Among his initiatives has been overseeing the document-retention and information security policies that are crucial to compliance, as well as protecting sensitive data and information.
He’s also working with multinational insurance broker Gallagher to onboard new suppliers.
“We conducted an audit of our certificates of insurance and found that many didn’t contain evidence of what was required under our contracts with suppliers,” he says. “We were struggling trying to correct the issues ourselves when Gallagher mentioned that they provide a service where we could inexpensively outsource the work. “
It’s all part of Abbott being general counsel of MISUMI’s U.S. subsidiaries and how the role has grown since he joined in September 2015.
A legal builder at heart
A Chicago-Kent College of Law graduate, Abbott had spent 10 years as counsel to Omron. He was drawn to MISUMI USA, which expected him to assemble a legal department. Though MISUMI had been in the United States since the 1980s, it had only recently grown significantly by acquiring other companies and factories, and the brass reasoned there’d be cost-savings and efficiency with in-house legal.
Abbott was a one-man show for those first few years.
“The worst thing any legal department—or any cost center—can do is provide substandard service,” he says. “I’d handle what they gave me, but I wouldn’t look for more. But there became such a steady increase.”
The 150 or so matters Abbott initially handled by himself each year doubled and then tripled. Nowadays it’s over 500 matters annually with 200 each for employment law and commercial and the rest including real estate, bankruptcy, environmental, antitrust and what-not. Only with the help of his growing and top-notch legal staff does Abbott say he’s able to handle the load.
“We’ve spent much time trying to be proactive with all our risk-management activities,” he says. “Luckily we’ve had just a few sticky situations. Every couple years, we spend a couple days with each of our companies, ask about compliance and figure out how we can help steer them out of danger before it happens.”
He credits the young lawyers under his wing who, unlike Abbott, went in-house without logging their early years at the firms. Unconventional as his approach is, he says it’s been vindicated with Jessica Wilson, John Tate and Tyler Willison performing capably.
“We have been successful hiring new law school grads before they learn any bad habits so I can train them the way we think in-house,” Abbott says with a laugh.
Made for the job
But MISUMI USA has been a good fit for Abbott, who as a 19-year-old got to immerse in Asian culture largely through happenstance. Abbott, of the Mormon faith, felt obligated to perform a couple years’ missionary service and was sent to Hong Kong.
“I loved the people, the language, the culture, the food,” he says. “When I came back for college [Brigham Young University] I majored in Chinese and Asian studies and met my Chinese wife during my first week of school.”
Abbott initially intended to teach, but while assisting his wife in the green card chase that qualified her to work in Chicago, he landed a position with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service, first as an inspector at O’Hare International Airport and then in downtown Windy City as a supervisory adjudicator. He attended law classes at night, finally earning his degree in 2001 and practicing for four years with Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell, a Chicago firm with extensive Japanese clientele.
Years later, a MISUMI executive reached out to Abbott. Personally and professionally, he says life’s been fulfilling with three grown children and a fifth grandchild on the way.
With the worst of COVID-19 hopefully over, Abbott looks forward to resuming what had been regular business trips to Japan as well as the many leisure journeys. “Seventy countries so far,” he says. “Planning is half the fun, and this year we’ll do a rim-to-rim day hike across the Grand Canyon.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring II 2023 Edition here.
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