Nineteen years ago, when he accepted an offer to go from part-time to full-time at Clayton Homes and become the company’s only attorney—fresh out of law school, no less—Tom Hodges didn’t know what to expect. But, diving immediately into the details of a critical merger while simultaneously awaiting the birth of his first child probably didn’t make the short list—nor, likely, did eventually shouldering the implementation of the recent, game-changing Dodd-Frank Act, which changed the landscape of the homebuilding industry.
Nonetheless, Hodges will happily tell you he has “grown up” at Clayton, and in the nearly two decades since he first walked through the door, his team has expanded to 18, with Hodges
himself still serving as general counsel. Here, he speaks about the many milestones highlighting his path at the only employer he has ever known—or cares to know—in his legal career.
The founder of Clayton Homes, Jim Clayton—obviously he knew of you when you worked there before and during law school, but how did he come to offer you full-time employment?
When I went to law school, I just figured I’d get my degree and move on to a law firm, but Jim Clayton said, “Just stay with the company, part-time, and we’ll see where it goes from here.” But, during my second year in law school, both of their lawyers left. They asked about me coming back after school full-time as a lawyer, and I didn’t know anything, so I said, “Sure! This is great!” I accepted a full-time offer that summer, went back for my third year with a job already, took the bar in July, and started work in August.
What was that like for you?
It was almost completely baptism by fire. People saw I was a lawyer and assumed I knew everything, but I remember feeling like I didn’t have the first clue what I was doing. My average hours those first four to five years—I would have outbilled any associate at any law firm. I had to learn everything the first time through, every time.
So, it was sometime afterward that a full legal department began to take shape?
Yeah. After our merger with Berkshire Hathaway, I told Kevin [Clayton], “I love working here, but I can only cover, at best, 10 percent of what you need done. It’s not helping you, and it’s killing me.” And thank heavens, Kevin was like, “We’ll find a way to make this work.” We almost immediately started purchasing a big competitor, and they said, “Go through their legal department and find who you want to keep.” So, sure enough, I hired the first one, and we’ve been adding them slowly ever since. Anything that makes me successful and effective today is almost wholly borne out of that time period—the sheer crucible of having to learn it the way I did.
Acquisitions aside, what other things have stood out during your time with Clayton Homes?
Last year we celebrated 10 years [as a company merged] with Berkshire Hathaway, and it’s just been a great relationship. They’ve let us run the business, and I think we’ve been able to capitalize on that for them, which is sort of neat now that we’re through some of the economic crisis and some of the Dodd-Frank financial reform is still settling in with the whole world right now. But, even with the uncertainty that the regulation brings, [companies] are looking to expand to help build a moat around their business.
Well, that’s what you’re doing—because your moat is not just your financial security and protection, but it’s also your competitive advantage.
Clayton Homes also built a leadership-development program called Ignite. Can you share what that’s about?
Basically, our HR leaders began a discussion—and I’m oversimplifying it—but we found out [that] if you can develop people’s leadership and personality skills, you actually do a lot more for the company than just working on their technical skills. That started the genesis of Ignite, this three-part, nearly two-year program that is broken down in phases: discover, connect, and lead. So, you go from “leader to self” to “leader to other people” to “leader to team.” Each step builds on itself. From my perspective, the best thing [the program] does is it provides an outlet for people to grow in leadership in a way that is not primarily focused on their own good but, rather, the good of other people.
What other sorts of things are you looking forward to in the coming months at Clayton?
I’m curious about how the whole housing industry adapts to the regulatory reform of Dodd-Frank. It’s interesting to see people start with fear, concern, and apprehension a couple of years ago, then see that transition into an assertive, find-a-way-to-do-it sort of attitude, and also to see us adapt into reality; people aren’t letting it be an excuse but are instead using it as an opportunity.
We have new people who have taken on significant leadership roles during this critical transitional period, and it’s interesting to see how their influence is going to grow. I’m still pretty young, but in my role, I’ve seen some of these people for a long time and now I’m able to see their influence at a very senior level. It’ll be neat to see where that goes.