As the daughter of a Navy man, Debra Clements, Milliken’s vice president and senior general counsel, spent the majority of her young life on the move. From Florida and Texas to Massachusetts and New York, Clements was no stranger to the road before making the Upstate of South Carolina home.
“I was born in Miami, in a naval hospital, but my family moved around a lot because of my father’s work in the Navy,” Clements says. “We moved to many different areas until my father started a company in New York and we lived on Long Island for a while.”
After graduating from high school in New York, Clements went south to attend college.
“I went to the University of Florida for my undergraduate and graduate degrees and ended up staying there,” she says. “After college, I worked for a company called Harris Corporation as an engineer in software programming.”
After working as an engineer for several years, Clements returned to the University of Florida and completed law school in 1984.
Clements began practicing corporate law for the Harris Corporation and managed a variety of legal matters for the company, including transactions, litigation and strategy.
“For people who are engineers or in the sciences, the practice of law seems quite different, and it is,” she says. “Although engineers solve problems, lawyers solve different kinds of problems, and I find it very intellectually challenging.”
Following 16 years of corporate law at the Harris Corporation in Florida, Clements was offered an opportunity to practice commercial litigation for Roger Milliken.
“He was a great industrialist,” she says. “You don’t get to meet people like that very often. For a man of such great stature, he could hear the quiet voices. When I came to this company in 2000, it was Roger Milliken who sold the deal. It looked like a very exciting opportunity because the company had been operating primarily with patent lawyers and didn’t have commercial lawyers inside the company, so they wanted to broaden their practice group to include business law.”
Clements was brought in as vice president and general counsel and was later named senior general counsel after taking responsibility of the patent department.
“I started out on commercial work such as litigations, acquisitions and alliances,” she says. “Whenever the company would buy and sell goods, I would manage the transactions internally.”
Most recently, Clements was named corporate secretary and now works closely with Milliken’s board of directors.
“The commercial work I was doing in the beginning involved routine litigation,” she says. “Today it includes the company’s complete array of legal matters and the governance of the organization such as the board of directors and stockholders.”
Clements says she is now responsible for all of the company’s patents, trademarks and labor, and a legal department that includes a team of five lawyers, patent agents and paralegals.
“We cover a lot of ground,” she says. “We cover not only commercial disputes, but the acquisition of companies, strategic alliances and transactions. All companies that buy and sell manufacturing goods have to manage a variety of legal issues.”
Educating the workforce about the governing laws of the company while understanding U.S. law and those in the other jurisdictions in which the company operates are also responsibilities of the legal department, Clements said.
“I am there to help them when they have questions or need a sounding board, but I’ll roll up my sleeves and draft documents as well,” she says. “I really enjoy the challenge of the legal matters and helping the team work through them and formulate a strategy to solve the problem.”
In her 14 years with the company, Clements says she has developed a deeper interest in business ethics and social responsibility and has gained insight on how corporations behave in society.
“I have enjoyed getting involved in Milliken’s ethics and compliance because it has given me the opportunity to participate in the practice of corporate and social responsibility,” she says. “This company started from a position of integrity, and those items have to continue to move forward so the bar always rises.”
Clements says it is important to continue the discussion of a corporation’s responsibility in a capitalist system.
“If I were to give up practicing law, I could see myself in 10 years consulting corporations on ethical practices,” she says.
View more of Debra Clement's personal photo album.
Do you have any heroes or someone who inspired you?
What makes you excited about coming to work in the morning?
The challenge of the job excites me to come to work. Every day you know there will be something that needs your attention.
As a lawyer, I am the worry department. I worry about everything, I anticipate everything, and everything keeps me up at night. I live in a world where I worry about everything.
What is the worst piece of business advice you have ever been given?
There is no doubt you have to sift through all sorts of advice from people who don’t know what you know. You can get both good advice and bad advice, but it’s up to you to sort through it.
What would a co-worker say it’s like to work with you?
They see me as a consensus builder and that I am very inclusive. I try to solve problems by involving a lot of people, so we can reach a solution that is good for everyone.
What has been your best business decision?
My best decision would be coming here to Milliken because it has given me a great opportunity to take my career as far as I am willing to go.
How do you motivate?
If you help people to understand the purpose of what they are doing and the value it brings, they will become passionate about doing it.
What advice would you give a new boss?
Business is all about the people, because they are the greatest assets the company has. Learning how to lead them with integrity is the most important thing you can do, and it requires you to be honest and open with them. But if you do that, you can get the best they have to offer.
What was the most rewarding mistake you have ever made in business?
Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s in rolling with the punches and knowing how to manage through the mistakes that can make the difference.
What is the topic of concern or excitement in your industry, office or organization right now?
The innovation of the textile industry is truly exciting. The industry has transformed into a problem-solving industry rather than just textile manufactures of the old days.
What do you still have to learn about your business?
Learning is something you should always do; it is ongoing. You need to understand that nothing stays the same in business, it accelerates.
Who do you rely on as a mentor?
I learn things from everyone. I get both inspiration and wisdom from the people I work for and the people who work for me.
What are some common assumptions people make about you, your field and your company?
I don’t think people understand how much this company has changed. We went from a basic textile manufacturer to an innovative and problem-solving material science.
How have you celebrated success?
You are never done and you never think you have arrived. I think successful people don’t stop to celebrate the way they should because they are just working harder. You notice, but you don’t stop.
What is your favorite app on your phone or tablet?
Outside all of the essentials such as email, I enjoy the weather app, and my daughter is helping me understand iTunes and Pandora.
What is your worst habit?
From a business perspective, I am very deliberate. I want to think everything through with great detail when other people just want to come to quick conclusions and move on. As a lawyer, it takes time to consider all of the angles and variables.
What are you a snob about?
I am a snob about environmental things such as recycling. I want people to think about the environment but I am not in their face about it.
Are you a morning person or a night person?
I am a morning person. I get up at 5 a.m. and I go to bed by 10 p.m. every night.