Yvonne Winkler von Mohrenfels – Ashland
The necessary transformation is over at Ashland Inc. Now the company is focused on growing through innovation and sustainable acquisitions like the personal care line from German-based company Schülke & Mayr GmbH in 2021.
These personal care products are more in line with Ashland’s drive to a more environmentally sustainable portfolio, explains Yvonne Winkler von Mohrenfels, who’s soon to celebrate her 12th year on the legal staff, the last two as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary.
The eventful past two years include the company’s environmental, social and governance initiatives and transformation from a $6 billion company to a $2.4 billion one. Strategically, she says it made sense for Ashland to divest its petroleum-based Performance Adhesives division to Arkema for $1.65 billion and focus on what it sees as consumer-driven, sustainable products.
“When you shed all that’s not core, you shift focus,” the German-born Winkler tells Vanguard in April from her home near Ashland’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. “The adhesives business didn’t fit our core strategy and sustainability agenda.”
The company has multiple ways of pursuing its agenda, Ashland being a manufacturer of additives and specialty ingredients common in household products. Whether it’s medicine, shampoo, paint or food and beverages, chances are the product includes some Ashland ingredient, unfamiliar as the company’s name may be.
“That’s the beauty of Ashland,” Winkler says. “We’re a B2B company, but our ingredients allow us to help make products sustainable and green.”
Culture counts too
She’s also part of a team that values inclusion and diversity as part of the company’s culture.
“Inclusion and diversity matter to people,” she says, “and that includes all ranks.”
Her own promotion to Ashland’s first woman general counsel was part of that mindset and she’s intent on furthering it in her new virtual office. Opportunity presented itself when, with the company’s transformation, some senior male legal leaders departed, allowing the next generation to step up in Europe and China—and all being women.
“I’m focusing on developing diverse, and particularly, female leaders,” she says. “I’m proud of the high percentage of gender diversity on my global team and the ethnic diversity in the U.S.”
Winkler, and every other direct report to Chief Executive Officer Guillermo Novo, presents an inclusivity and diversity scorecard. Bylaws requiring board directors to retire at a certain age and succession planning underway, Winkler says diversity goals at the top should also be attainable. Still, overall progress for Ashland will probably be incremental.
In 2021, 72 percent of its global workforce was male, and Ashland’s committed to narrowing the gap to 64 percent by 2031. As far as overall inclusion goes, the company wasn’t doing badly in 2021, with 41 percent gender/ethnic diversity in the U.S. The hope is for a 50-50 split at the conclusion of the next decade.
To Winkler, communication is as much a priority as diversity, and it’s mostly virtual. She’s got 10 direct reports on her 38-member staff of 12 lawyers dispersed globally and assorted paralegals and administrators. When Novo hosts his quarterly town hall, she follows with her own. Then there are her “kaffeeklatsches,” for those who don’t report directly to her.
“I have always been about breaking down silos and closing communication gaps,” she says. “Communicating and connecting people is a very critical part of this job and also happens to be my passion.”
Through collaboration with IT, systems for e-billing and e-notarization have been implemented, and AdobeSign is business as usual. A new contract management system, initially onboarded for confidentiality agreements, will soon be used for other contracts, too.
So, she says, it’s really a new era for Ashland with all the changes and the business focusing on environmentally sustainable specialty additives and specialty ingredients. All in all, Winkler’s glad she’s made a career out of Ashland, for which she credits her predecessor, Peter Ganz, who had held the general counsel’s role for a decade.
Ganz had helped nurture Winkler’s growth after Ashland bought her former employer, ISP, in 2011. ISP had hired Winkler so she could apply her European law background toward building a bridge between the U.S. legal team and internal European business clients. Winkler having ascended to ISP associate general counsel, Ashland retained her for advising clients in the U.S., Europe, Middle East and Africa. Ganz, meanwhile, had his own ideas about her.
“Peter saw a future GC in me and therefore gave me more personnel responsibility over time, including an executive coach to help with the transition from individual contributor to manager in a culturally different (U.S. vs. Germany) environment,” Winkler says.
She still had to acquit herself in other roles for a decade, but having held in-house positions at four other companies, Winkler took well to Ashland, which she describes as a smaller version of her first employer, the German-based chemical company BASF.
From 1997 to 2000 in her native land, it was five years with Schering AG in Germany and four at its New Jersey affiliate. The Bayer Group—another German, BASF-sized multinational—acquired Schering in 2006. After Winkler passed the New York bar exam in 2008, she wanted back in the chemical industry and joined ISP one year later.
Good legal genes
As to what attracted her to law, she said it was in the genes—Winkler’s father being a law professor who had his daughter type his expert opinions on conflict-of-laws rules in family cases. She would mull hypotheticals such as a Turk marrying a Spaniard in Spain and divorcing in Germany.
The law still had to wait as she dabbled in banking and earned a degree in it. That gave way to her pursuing a legal education in Germany and France and, upon coming to the United States, at New York University School of Law.
Overseas, a labor law judgeship held appeal, but upon coming to New Jersey and meeting her future husband, computer scientist David Nave, the likelihood of a German judge presiding over a U.S. court seemed not at all.
But Winkler has no regrets. While she gets homesick occasionally, there’s been much to gain by living on this side of The Pond. Business and transactional law is where she’s made her mark and there’s so much more to do at Ashland, including getting ready for the new climate disclosure rules in the United States and European Union.
“Never a boring moment here,” Winkler says. “It’s always exciting and so much to learn. This is where work and fun merge.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer I 2023 Edition here.
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