Diversity Is Golden
John E. Page
Six years ago , John Page embarked on an exciting professional and personal odyssey . It entailed persuading his wife and sons to leave the East Coast for a new home in Southern California where Page accepted the position of corporate vice president and general counsel for Golden State Foods (GSF). While some family members were initially a little resistant to make the move, a promise of warm November days at the beach helped sway them. Not long before joining GSF, Page was unaware of the multibillion dollar food industry supplier, but the more he learned about the corporation, the more he liked it. Headquartered in Irvine, Cal., GSF has over 3,000 employees worldwide, and enjoys a multidecade relationship with McDonald’s, its biggest customer.
“I really do like our core business,” notes Page. “Primarily we process and distribute liquid products and beef to quick service restaurants, mostly for McDonald’s, but we also support other companies like Starbucks and Chick-fil-A. For me, being able to watch the product make its way to the marketplace and then to actually see people enjoying that product is a great thing. And to bring sustainability into the mix makes it even more gratifying.”
Before GSF, Page practiced as a commercial litigator for eight years prior to going in-house with Lucent Technologies and Avaya, Inc.
“My career has unfolded without the help of a master plan,” continues Page. “I guess it was around year four or five at the firm that an in-house career leading the legal function began to look attractive to me. It was then that I started exploring the probabilities of making that change.”
Page describes GSF as “value driven.” He explains, “That’s our filter—it’s how we make decisions, and it works.” An extension of the corporation’s values, the recently established GSF Foundation for kids is a national, nonprofit organization designed to help children and families in need in the areas where GSF associates live and work. The foundation partners with local and national charities nominated by GSF employees, benefiting a variety of organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Special Olympics, and the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Via 21 local employee-run committees, the foundation has raised more than $15 million and donated 100,000 volunteer service hours to nearly 300 children’s charities since its inception in 2002. Through the GSF Foundation, Page has personally prepared and served meals at local Ronald McDonald Houses, delivered donated shoes, clothes, and school supplies to kids in need, hosted ‘little brothers’ at theme parks and outings, and is currently chairing the company’s annual associate campaign to raise funds and awareness for the foundation and children’s needs.
Much of what the GSF Foundation achieves strikes a personal chord with Page. The youngest of five born to a single mother, Page grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. The family experienced evictions and was sometimes split up during periods of temporary homelessness. His father was not in the picture. Many of Page’s happier childhood memories— summer excursions and after school recreation—were the result of corporate- and city-funded programs.
“When I see corporation and firms that give, I’m always encouraged that goodness prevails,” says Page, an Association of Corporate Counsel board member. “Even though we talk a lot about billable hours and high legal salaries, and what we make, for many of us there’s a greater purpose.”
Entering law school, Page wanted to save the world. He figured that he might best accomplish this weighty task by becoming a civil rights or constitutional lawyer, but after his first year at the University of Pennsylvania, he began to see things differently. “When I discovered that someone was willing to pay me large sums of money and that I could make a big impact in the corporate world, my professional goals began to change, though the objective of doing more for others remained,” Page remembers. “I opted to follow a path that had not been open to a lot of African Americans and entered the corporate world. Without my job, and the resources it allows me, I don’t think I’d be able to contribute or give back as much as I’m able, either financially or time and talent.”
Among the qualities that he brings to GSF, Page rates “judgment” as perhaps the most valuable. “It comes from years of experience and knowing your surroundings and circumstances. It means driving to be the best and make right decisions,” he reports. “And minimizing risk while maximizing value.”
Page’s career-long involvement with the National Bar Association (NBA) started when he was in law school in the late 1980s. Over the years he has served as the vice president of the bar created especially for African American lawyers and been a member of its board of governors. He currently serves as chair of the NBA’s Finance and Fund-Raising Committee, and aspires to be the organization’s next president.
“Most associations focus almost exclusively on the infrastructure of the profession but unlike the rest, the NBA has equal concern about its members, professionally and personally. I know they’ll go to bat for me,” he attests. “The NBA advocates for those without a voice as well as for positions that allow minorities to be a permanent part of the profession in a measurable and meaningful way.”
“As a GC, it’s important not to focus singularly on law. You’ve got to be more than a stop sign,” advises Page. “It’s imperative to know how the company makes and loses its money, and what are its inherent risks. You gain the business people’s respect when you know these things as well as them.”
Page’s first paying job was at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn. He recalls dreading his manager’s regular bark: “Hey Page, can I get a sweep and a mop.” Today from the distance of many years and job promotions, Page sees things differently: “By cleaning the dining room, I was playing a role in ensuring that customers enjoyed their experience,” he says. “A good GC is not moored to his desk. They need to know both their customers and company on a global and granular level. At GSF, I do this by getting out and visiting our facilities and meeting our associates as well as the customers we support.”
While Page never set his sights on the food industry, joining its ranks was not a particularly bumpy transition. As with any job, he had to take time to ramp up on the learning curve, but aside from that, he believes, business is business. “Whether you’re selling widgets, burgers, or ketchup, many of the same principles apply,” observes Page. “Luckily many of the skills that I acquired in the telecom world—licensing, labor disputes, distribution models—were translatable to this position. There’s even some Intellectual Property-GSF develops some innovative things for behind-the- counter solutions. “The products and customers may change,” adds Page. “But the lawyering? Not so much, it’s a constant and consistent filter to support the business.”
While Page has no plans to leave the West Coast anytime soon, his travels are far from over. His future includes— in his words—“continuing to help corporations to help America by being better businesses and more socially responsible citizens.” There is no doubt that Page, a man who already has journeyed so far in life, will continue to make an impact. DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the November/December 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®