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Coca-Cola Hires Top Ford Lawyer, Spurring In-House Shake-Up (2)

July 20, 2020, 1:36 PM; Updated: July 21, 2020, 9:50 PM

The Coca-Cola Co. and Ford Motor Co. announced new law department leaders Monday after the beverage company snagged the automaker’s top in-house attorney.

Bradley Gayton, general counsel at Ford since early 2016, will join Coca-Cola as senior vice president and general counsel Sept 1. He succeeds Bernhard Goepelt, who retired from the Atlanta-based soft drink giant in February.

“I am looking forward to the new challenges and growth that awaits me in this new role,” Gayton said in a company statement touting his hire. “I have long admired Coca-Cola for its heritage, relevance, and vision and am eager to bring my experience and perspective to an unmatched leadership team and storied brand.”

John Mellen, a longtime associate general counsel at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford, will take over Aug. 1 as general counsel from Gayton. Ford said that Mellen, a 39-year veteran at the automaker, will overlap with Gayton for about a month as legal chief as the latter transitions out of that role by Aug. 31.

“John Mellen has been invaluable in advancing and protecting Ford as associate general counsel,” said a statement from Ford president and CEO Jim Hackett. “His wisdom and relationships will help sustain our ambition to build trust and generate superior value for customers and other stakeholders.”

Gayton, 57, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about his new in-house job. In messages posted to his LinkedIn profile, Gayton said that “after an incredibly rewarding 29 years” at Ford he had decided to take on “an exciting new challenge” at Coca-Cola.

“I have as much passion for the business today as I did when I started as a 2L summer clerk,” Gayton said about Ford, which gave him the additional title of chief administrative officer in 2017. “It’s an honor to have made a difference at such an iconic and important global company.”

Coca-Cola was on a “short list” of companies that he considered leaving Ford for, Gayton wrote on LinkedIn, adding that he’s looking forward to “bringing my experience and perspective” to his new employer.

Ford’s In-House Focus

In 2015, while serving as an assistant general counsel and corporate secretary at Ford, Gayton spoke with Bloomberg News about his preference for colorful shirts and driving a BMW motorcycle to work.

Gayton was promoted the following year to general counsel, succeeding longtime legal chief David Leitch, who retired from Ford and subsequently became global general counsel at Bank of America Corp.

In late March, Ford’s Hackett notified all employees that the company would freeze hiring and join dozens of other companies in cutting the pay of 300 senior management members between 20% and 50% in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gayton was never among Ford’s five highest-paid employees since becoming general counsel four years ago, according to annual proxy statements filed by the automaker. Bloomberg data shows that Gayton currently owns $1.64 million in Ford stock.

Mellen, Gayton’s successor as general counsel, spent the past decade as associate general counsel for global litigation and regulatory matters at Ford. A Ford spokesman said assistant general counsel Thomas Falahee, who has spent more than a dozen years in-house at the company, will replace Mellen as its head of global litigation.

Ford said in a statement announcing Mellen’s promotion that a successor for Gayton’s other executive responsibilities, such as corporate services, real estate, safety engineering, security, and sustainability, will be announced at a later date.

Within the past five years, Ford has turned to now-defunct LeClairRyan, Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, and Gordon & Rees to handle more than 50% of its U.S. litigation caseload, according to Bloomberg Law data. Other top litigation law firms for Ford during that time frame are Snell & Wilmer; King & Spalding; Bowman and Brooke; Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth; and Dykema Gossett.

Coca-Cola’s New Day

At Coca-Cola, Gayton will assume leadership of an in-house legal team that for most of the past decade has been headed by the German-born Goepelt, who joined the company in 1992, a year after Gayton was hired by Ford.

At Coca-Cola, Gayton assumes leadership of an in-house legal team that for most of the past decade has been headed by the German-born Goepelt, who joined the company in 1992, a year after Gayton was hired by Ford. Coca-Cola previously told Bloomberg Law that it would consider in-house and external candidates during what amounted to a months-long search for Goepelt’s successor.

Goepelt became general counsel at Coca-Cola in late 2011 when he was tapped to take over from Geoffrey Kelly, an Australian elevated into the company’s top in-house role in 2005 following the resignation of former legal chief Deval Patrick, who went on to serve two terms as governor of Massachusetts.

Coca-Cola cited Gayton’s expertise in global trade taxation and customs, as well as his commitment to diversity and inclusion, equal justice, and pro bono work in announcing his hire.

“Bradley brings a remarkable breadth of experience and business knowledge,” said a statement from Coca-Cola chairman and CEO James Quincey. “He’s had an outstanding career at Ford, and his global perspective will be very valuable as a new member of the executive leadership team.”

An analysis by Bloomberg Law shows that Littler Mendelson, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, and Alston & Bird have represented Coca-Cola on over 30% of its U.S. litigation work within the past five years. Other firms advising Coca-Cola in court during that time include Goldberg Segalla; McGuireWoods; Reed Smith; Shook, Hardy & Bacon; and King & Spalding.

(Adds comment from Ford spokesman about Mellen's replacement in the 13th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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