Wayne Law alumna uplifts companies as an in-house ethics and compliance officer

Photo of Kim YapchaiKim Yapchai believes serving as an in-house ethics and compliance officer is a dynamic career that allows an attorney to help shape the entire culture of a company.

A 1993 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, Yapchai recently was hired by Fortune 500 company Tenneco as its chief ethics and compliance officer, a position to which she brought years of experience and accomplishments with other firms, including Whirlpool, Masco Corp. and Ford Motor Credit Co.

Since joining Tenneco a year ago, Yapchai has been part of the team working on the merger of Tenneco and Federal Mogul which will lead to the spinoff of a new public company. In addition, Tenneco recently acquired Öhlins Racing A.B., a Swedish technology company that develops premium suspension systems and components for automotive and motorsport industries. Her work now is to integrate the newcomers into Tenneco's program and culture of compliance.

Chicago-based Tenneco is one of the world's largest designers, manufacturers and marketers of various systems for vehicles, including clean air systems. Before she took the job, Yapchai carefully researched the company's culture and values, she said. Those values matter very much to her. She always tries to lead by example, and appreciates working with company leaders that do the same.

"The best part of my job is guiding employees to embrace values-based decision-making and training them on how to stay safe by following the law," she said. "The fun part of ethics and compliance for me is the creativity involved in the communication and training. It is important to be selective when choosing a company, because the scope and breadth of the role (as an ethics and compliance officer) can vary a lot from company to company."

How does one research a company's core values before taking a job?

"Many indicators are available to help you assess a company's culture," Yapchai said.

7 questions with Kim Yapchai

For instance, review a firm's ratings on Glassdoor.com, which uses employee feedback to extrapolate data; look at Great Place to Work® or World's Most Ethical Company® awards; and talk to company suppliers and any employees you may know, she suggested.

"Additionally, you can also research public information on lawsuits and regulatory fines," Yapchai said. "Finally, ask questions about the culture and decision-making during the interview so you can see how the interviewers respond both verbally and with body language."

She is business-oriented through and through, and has been since she took her first course in economics as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

"I found the topic to be intuitive for me, and I liked the mixture of analytics and theory combined with real world application," said Yapchai, who grew up in Clinton Township.

With a bachelor's degree in economics under her belt, she headed straight to Wayne State for law school.

"I decided to go to law school because I knew I wanted to be an in-house counsel to help companies achieve their business goals," she said. "One of the reasons I chose Wayne was because of its great reputation for preparing students to become excellent, practical-minded lawyers. That reputation is also why Ford Credit recruited directly at the law school for its summer clerks.

"My summer clerkship at Ford Credit led to a full-time position, and then I returned to Wayne Law to recruit other students. I am proud to say that one person I recruited, Marlene Martel, is now (executive vice president and) general counsel for Ford Credit."

Yapchai is an avid gardener, and she compares her job to her hobby.

"I enjoy building and transforming things," she said. "Whether I am planting a garden or changing a company culture, I dig through roots to achieve the desired environment that promotes growth. I know how to drive results in a way that improves employee engagement. I strive to create leaders, not followers, and I like to have fun along the way."

Photo: Kim Yapchi (click to download a high-resolution copy)

7 questions with Kim Yapchai

Q: What are some of your outstanding memories of law school at Wayne?

A: The people are what I remember most. Distinguished Professor Alan Schenk, (the late) Professor Stephen Schulman, Distinguished Professor Robert Sedler, and Distinguished Professor (Emeritus) John Dolan are legendary. I also met (fellow students) Cathleen Jansen, associate counsel at Trinity Health, and Janet Toronski, former head of Dealer Commercial Services at TD Bank, in my first year, and we are still close friends today. Joe Hart, president and CEO of Dale Carnegie & Associates, and I laugh at how much our lives have changed since we shared a desk together in our classes.

Q: What advice can you offer beginning law students interested in a career in ethics and compliance law?

A: I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves a challenge and enjoys being creative. Whether you are a recent graduate or have been licensed for several years, there are many opportunities. There are more positions open right now than there are qualified people to fill them.

Q: How has being a woman in what is still somewhat a man's world impacted your career?

A: The legal departments I have worked for have all had a significant amount of female lawyers. The industries, however, have not, which means most of the business people have been male. I've been fortunate throughout my career to work with and learn from both male and female mentors. I try to return that favor by mentoring others, both informally and as part of formal programs like Toastmaster International. I strive to be a role model and pay it back. My hope is that the next generation of women can achieve even more.

Q: What sort of kid were you? Describe yourself at age 12.

A: I fit the profile of a geek, fashioning a thick pair of glasses and celebrating my recently removed braces. I played clarinet and was first chair in the school band. I was also in a gifted learning program and hated to miss school. Not much has changed. I still love learning and attribute much of my success to having a growth mindset.

Q: Who are your role models and why?

A: My parents are my role models because of the courageous choices they have made in their lives. They both were the first people in their families to go to college. When my father came to Michigan to complete his medical residency, he was the first in his family to leave the Philippines. When they decided to get married, there was lot of racial tension in Detroit, and they did not know how society would react to their Asian-American marriage or their children. Their approach to life has taught me not to be afraid of change or adversity, and that both can be handled with grace.

Q: What are some of your favorite leisure time activities?

A: I enjoy gardening and traveling with friends and family. In the garden, I like the feel of the earth and typically don't use gardening gloves. When I travel, I like to immerse myself in new cultures and try different cuisine.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job was in a family-owned Italian bakery. Being surrounded by the smell of fresh bread, doughnuts, cookies, pizzas and especially cannoli pastries while I worked was wonderful. Fortunately, I had a fast metabolism at that age. In addition to enjoying the food, I learned the importance of excellent customer service and gained an introduction to consumer behavior and skills to run a successful small business.

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