The Shoe Fits

For Catherine Ross, general counsel work is all about knowing who you work for, and at fashion pioneer ALDO, she gets to dive into the intricacies of a topic she’s already passionate about: footwear

“A general counsel is only as good as their knowledge of their company. The best way to learn about your company is to listen to the people who are the backbone of your company: people in operations and older employees. You need to break the wall between legal and operations. It’s always nice to exchange ideas with other lawyers, but if you’re always with people who think like you, you will never be able to grow, develop new points of view, or new problem-solving skills.” —Catherine Ross, General Counsel.

Some people decide to be lawyers in college, when they realize they enjoy a healthy debate. Others enter the profession after a few unsatisfying years in the general workforce, going back to school to switch directions. Others, though, just seem to know and treat it as a given—sometimes from an incredibly early age.

Catherine Ross is in this third category. The general counsel for The ALDO Group Inc. grew up in a family of lawyers, and she can still recall a relative asking her if she was going to be a lawyer like her father. She said yes, but she clarified that she would be a “real lawyer.”

The group’s flagship brand has more than 1,600 stores in 80 countries. It offers fashionable footwear and accessories to a diverse customer base at prices that make it easier to keep up with seasonal styles.

The family footwear destination has 30 stores across Canada and features a wide selection of brand-name merchandise at great prices.

This is the ultimate destination for the consistent urban trendsetter between ages 16 and 28. Little Burgundy features the most cutting-edge styles from aspirational and commercial brands alike, including Vans, Toms, Herschel, Converse, Hunter, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Jeffrey Campbell.

The little sister of the group of brands, catering primarily to 15- to 25-year-old consumers at more than 200 stores in 20 countries, offers an assorted range of trend-driven styles that are easy on the pocketbook.

“I watched too much L.A. Law,” Ross says with a laugh. “I associated being a litigator with being a ‘real’ lawyer, and in Québec it’s even more dramatic because we wear large robes in court. I would see my father in his office looking over contracts, and as a kid, I didn’t associate that with ‘real’ law. Now I do the same thing he did, so it’s funny to think about how I didn’t associate this with real work—because it definitely is.”

The ALDO Group operates across all corners of the footwear and accessories market with four signature brands: ALDO (its flagship), Call It Spring, Little Burgundy, and Globo. ALDO is known as “shoe heaven” for women across the globe, and as a major fashion fan, Ross considers her position a dream job, one where reading Vogue is a form of research. This is fortunate, for one of the main tenets of Ross’s personal legal philosophy is the importance of deep industry knowledge.

Before joining ALDO in July 2008, Ross spent time at a private practice and in the legal department of a multinational company. The latter position was difficult to adapt to, but it was crucial to the lawyer Ross has become.

“There was a big learning curve,” she says. “When you make such a big move, you need to be prepared to take on different roles within the company. I worked on a big contract negotiation in Europe, and it was unlike anything I’d ever done before. That experience helped me become a corporate lawyer, but more than that, it helped me develop the leadership skills and the strategic approach I use every day at ALDO.”

What impressed Ross most about ALDO when she first joined—more than the personal phone call she received from Aldo Bensadoun himself, the man behind the empire—was the quality of legal services the company performs and the fact that integrity and respect aren’t just meaningless taglines there. Ross says it was immediately clear to her that ALDO values its customers and employees.

According to Ross, the characteristics required to be a great general counsel are not just strong legal skills; you also need to have the desire to learn about the specific ins and outs of your company. Without an understanding of the company’s goals, you can’t have an understanding of the risks on the horizon when attempting to meet those goals, which means you are in no position to give an accurate legal opinion.

At ALDO, Ross has become a bit of a jill-of-all-trades, her and her team handling legal matters for the marketing, privacy, trademark, IT, and other departments. It requires a lot of juggling. “In today’s world, companies are looking for lawyers with good general skills and good judgment,” Ross says. “If something is very specialized and requires specific expertise, we can get help from our external counsel. Working with so many departments can be challenging, but more than anything, it makes the job very interesting.”

ALDO By the Numbers: 4 different brands; 1,600+ stores worldwide; presence in 80 countries; distribution centres in 7 countries; 4 corporate offices on 3 continents; and 200 million+ customers each year.

Ross’s team consists of an additional two lawyers, and to be an effective leader, she has to work to recognize their strengths and play to those strengths. “The goal is to make them better at what they do,” she says. “If a person is good at something and they’re recognized for it, they take more ownership over their work. I honestly try to do this every day; I make a conscious effort to help my team become better at what they do and continue to improve what they’re already good at.”

To Ross, it’s important to break down the wall between the legal department and the operations side of the business. A challenge for her is when people outside of her department present her with contracts, asking for her opinion without first going over the contracts themselves. The assumption is that Ross will tell them what they need to know—and she will—but it’s important to her that those outside the legal department work to understand the legal information they’re presented with so that they can have more ownership over the deals that result from the contracts. She’s not expecting operations people to become legal experts overnight, but she does want them to feel more comfortable delving into things they’re not accustomed to. Really, it’s about empowering those on the operations side.

The opposite is also true: ALDO wants its legal team to delve into the business side of the company, and Ross couldn’t be happier about it, because she understands how successful the company can be as a whole if everyone is working together.

“My legal team has a direct line to ALDO’s management; I have direct access to the president,” Ross says. “It’s a great feeling to know that you’re all building the company together and working towards common goals. This is fashion, so we’ve all had to learn how to be flexible in this fast-paced market. When you operate as one cohesive unit, it’s a win-win for everyone.”  _a