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Swata Gandhi – DAP Products Inc.
A few years ago, Swata Gandhi was in flux, looking for the next job but unsure of what it should be. She was experienced in large law firm practice, having spent a combined 8 years at Ballard Spahr and Venable LLP, and eight years in legal departments at companies that included the 10th-largest private company in the nation, U.S. Foods, and was looking for her own niche.
Gandhi was considering setting out on her own, starting a business to provide legal services to startup companies who often forego legal advice because of cost, when a colleague told her about DAP Products Inc., an American company producing sealants, adhesives and caulk that traces its roots all the way back to 1864.
Since joining the DAP team in 2014 as vice president and general counsel Gandhi has worked to modernize the company’s legal department, building out new programs and processes to create efficiencies and working to formalize its relationship with other departments as a business partner. She worked with sales people to develop materials that were more accurate, reducing the risk of lawsuits and worked with media relations to shape the image of DAP, reviewing text and videos to ensure that the company is consistent in its message.
Drawing from experience in past jobs, Gandhi oversaw the creation of a formal compliance program and the creation of a patent review committee, and continues to help DAP with new marketing initiatives, including an increased use of social media. With a wide scope of influence and deep interest in all aspects of the business, Gandhi represents a newer, more modern model of the general counsel’s role.
“This job has me involved in almost every department of the organization, from marketing to reviewing labels and press releases, human resources and sales; I love the aspect of being involved in all of those areas. It gives me the ability to give the best advice and align with the business objectives,” says Gandhi.
A compliance overhaul
Gandhi began her legal career at Ballard Spahr shortly after earning her J.D. from American University in 1996. She then practiced law at Venable LLP where she specialized in mergers and acquisitions as well as software licensing and joint development agreements on behalf of software and technology clients. Over the years, Gandhi also gained experience in education law, which she credits with indirectly increasing her sense of regulatory requirements.
“I think a good portion of the work I do requires me to be more of a generalist, so having a diverse background helps me come into a new environment and not be as fearful about handling new issues,” she says.
While Gandhi originally pursued a career in law in hopes of being a human rights attorney, she’s come to enjoy the corporate side of the profession. “There can be frustration in human rights and it can move very slowly, but when I went to my first law firm and worked in the real estate department, I found that I really liked putting together all the pieces and getting a deal done,” she says.
Joining U.S. Foods one year after a very public accounting scandal, Gandhi completed a crash course in compliance during her tenure at the foodservice giant. The company created a full-time compliance department in response to the scandal, an experience that Gandhi would draw on years later when DAP looked to form its own such department. “Like many companies we had some policies that related to compliance, so part of it was about putting all of those policies together in one place,” she says.
Today Gandhi serves as DAP’s first chief compliance officer, a challenge that she describes as a great opportunity for growth as both a lawyer and business professional. “The most important part is ongoing education and training. For example, people might not understand their role in maintaining confidentiality or not signing certain types of contracts before they’re reviewed by our parent company,” she says. “You think people know these things, but it’s really important to make sure they’re trained on a regular basis.”
In her role as general counsel at DAP, Gandhi also often finds herself dealing with legal issues surrounding intellectual property, licensing and patents. Drawing on her professional background with technology companies such as Metastorm and Connections Education, Gandhi was able to confidentially offer legal advice on myriad issues from day one. “That level of experience really helped us start to focus on our IP portfolio,” she says.
As a company that manufactures caulks, sealants, adhesives and foams, DAP faces a fairly predictable set of legal challenges. “When you boil it right down, DAP sells chemicals. People will come and suggest they’ve been injured by the products, so we see our share of product liability cases,” she says.
Such cases present a unique challenge for Gandhi and her modest legal department. “It’s so hard to make sure you get heard because the lawsuits are very broad and the courts don’t require very much for the complaint to go forward. You can get lumped in with 50 or 60 other defendants and end up spending a lot of money in discovery and depositions just trying to figure out what products they claimed they used,” says Gandhi.
Gaining greater understanding
Gandhi’s role at DAP also includes properly communicating public safety guidelines for its products and their ingredients. When the United Nations adopted the newest version of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) in 2015, DAP’s Environmental and Regulatory Group, who report to Gandhi, worked to ensure that all of DAP’s products met the stringent new labeling requirements. “We had to update all the safety data sheets to comply, it was a monumental undertaking for such a small team,” she says.
Gandhi finds the balance between properly communicating safety and building trust with customers as one of the most consistent challenges in her job with DAP. “You have to learn what applies and when and think about whether you’re going overboard on warnings; you want to make sure customers are well-informed but not scared,” she says.
Coming from a background in law firms, Gandhi has relished the opportunity to gain a better understanding of how a business such as DAP operates on even the most basic level. She has spent ample time building relationships with the company’s sales team and annually visits every one of its manufacturing facilities. “In law firms you don’t always understand the business fully so you can’t be the best adviser in terms of managing risk. At DAP I’ve had the chance to understand the whole process from idea to product creation to testing and going to market,” she explains.
In the last year Gandhi has worked to increase her involvement with a number of local charitable organizations. She serves as board chair for a Baltimore after school and summer program called Higher Achievement and is involved with the Center for Urban Families, another local nonprofit that provides families with job training and counseling. “DAP has always had a commitment to the communities we live and work in. We believe it is our responsibility to help others succeed, in fact, it is part of our Mission Statement,” says Gandhi.
An avid runner with four marathons and several half-marathons under her belt, Gandhi plans to get back into the hobby after a two year injury related hiatus, but that’s not the only former interest Gandhi will be resurrecting in the near future. As DAP continues to grow, Gandhi is eager to once again exercise her mergers and acquisitions skillset. “I’m really looking forward to getting involved in those again because I think over time you become much more knowledgeable about that the company’s business which is vital for M&A work,” she says.
With a wealth of industry experience and a passion for learning about all aspects of the business, Swata Gandhi will continue to provide the legal advice necessary to help DAP Products succeed as one of the country’s premier manufacturers of sealants, adhesives and caulk.