Natalie A. Black believes she might be the only in-house lawyer who has ever taken apart an engine and put it back together again.
Black, of Kohler Co. in Kohler, Wis., says the company has a history of taking its lawyers and putting them into functional areas of the company. So, her engine disassembly and re-assembly as a new in-house attorney in 1981 “was a requirement by our then-senior vice president of our engine division.
“He felt strongly that, if I were going to support the business, I need to know the working end of it. I was lucky enough that they provided that kind of guidance and patience to teach me the business part. It made the legal work that much more rewarding, and I’d like to think that much more effective.”
Post-law school, Black practiced for a few years at Quarles & Brady LLP in Milwaukee before joining Kohler Co. as a real estate lawyer. The company was just starting to venture into the hospitality business with the American Club (now the only AAA five-diamond resort hotel in the Midwest).
Not long afterward, she drafted what she believes was Wisconsin’s first ground lease.
She was promoted to general counsel in 1983. It was a rapid ascent in the leadership chain, but Black says, “We were a much different company then. It was a simpler business. We were much smaller.”
The big growth, both organically and through acquisitions, came in the late 1980s and 1990s. That’s when Black transitioned into mergers and acquisitions, as well as more business planning and management.
In 1998, the company underwent a major reorganization and recapitalization, which ensured that the company would remain privately held for the foreseeable future. Black is proud to have played a role in that.
Today, Kohler Co. consists of four groups: kitchen and bath, interiors, global power, and hospitality and real estate. The company has more than 50 manufacturing locations worldwide and it employs more than 32,000 people on six continents.
Black remains Kohler Co.’s general counsel, but also oversees a wide variety of its other operations, including internal audit and communications, and indirectly supervises labor relations and human resources — all told, some 190 employees.
Nothing brings her more professional fulfillment than tackling a problem.
“My job is to not say no, but to find ways for the business people to do what they want to do,” she said.
“The easiest answer is always no. The harder job is to find out how creatively we can find a path to accomplishing those business goals. That’s the creative part of the law, and that’s what’s fun.”