Career ladder: Kelley, 63, graduated second in her class at the University of Kentucky School of Law. She spent 15 years in private practice in Louisville, including serving as outside general counsel to Churchill Downs Inc. She was senior counsel at The Limited Inc., a retailer that includes Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret, before joining Kmart Corp. in Troy in 2001 as executive vice president and general counsel, and she handled the company's bankruptcy reorganization. She went on to be senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Charlotte, N.C.-based Family Dollar Stores Inc. before joining Meijer Inc. in 2009.
Power metrics: Family-owned Meijer is the 19th-largest U.S. private company, with revenue of nearly $16 billion, according to Forbes.com. The Grand Rapids area-based chain, founded in 1934, has more than 220 stores in six Midwestern states and more than 72,000 employees. Kelley oversees management of Meijer's legal, public affairs, communications, compliance, and quality assurance functions.
Secret weapon: She considers that to be an ability to stay calm in crises situations, and to stay focused on essential tasks — whether it's bankruptcy, SEC investigations, management restructuring or significant litigation. "In these instances, it is essential that leadership remains calm and ensures that the essential crises and/or operational functions are appropriately managed. We have been very fortunate that these skills have not been needed at Meijer, but I do lead our Crisis Management Team."
Big wins: Kelley considers effectively managing through each crises at various companies, such as Kmart's bankruptcy, to be her biggest accomplishment.
Why in-house/corporate legal work? "When I was in private practice, about half of my practice was spent working for Churchill Downs as outside counsel. What I loved about that was the ability to be engaged in looking at the business holistically, and see how the pieces all fit together. I wasn't just responding to legal or contractual matters. Once I moved in-house, I never wanted to go back to a law firm."
What advice do you have for women when it comes to success in general? "Be engaged in every position you have and learn as much as you can. Hurt your head — think about what you are doing and how to make things better, not just maintain the status quo. Establish relationships. You need to have collaborative trusting colleagues in order to thrive. Put the company's interest before your personal interest; it's time to leave if you can't do that."
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