Alumni Spotlight: Chris Bellanca (1999-2006; New York)

June 3, 2022

Cleary Gottlieb alumni often reflect upon their time at the firm with fondness and gratitude.

Chris Bellanca (1999-2006; New York), Senior Vice President, Global Total Rewards at McDonald’s, shares some of his thoughts below.

When were you at Cleary, what practice group were you in and why did you choose Cleary/the group?

I didn’t take the typical path to law school. I was a biochemistry undergrad but ended up at Yale Law School after spending a summer in DC working on public policy. Cleary had a phenomenal reputation at Yale as being contemporary, pragmatic, and innovative. I was thrilled when I received my offer from Cleary, and when I joined in ‘99, I gravitated towards derivatives with Seth Grosshandler, because it allowed me to couple my statistical background with legal work. After a year, I took some time off to study theology, and when I came back, the ERISA group was booming and Seth asked if I’d be interested in joining their team. I immediately hit it off with Brick Susko and from then on the ERISA practice at Cleary was my home. Brick and Arthur Kohn were my mentors, and they meant the world to me.

Brick and Arthur always gave us a ton of responsibility and there was so much creativity and innovation involved in our work. Brick and Arthur, along with Bob Raymond, were constantly pushing the envelope. Within compensation and benefits, you have to know securities and tax laws, as well as state corporate laws and ERISA. To be able to work through those to develop creative solutions for clients was a great experience.

Tell us your path from Cleary to where you are now. What did you learn along the way? What do you appreciate most about each of these experiences?

I left Cleary in 2006. I wasn’t actively looking to leave, but I got a call from PepsiCo. There was a lot of scrutiny around executive compensation, and the general counsel, Larry Thompson, identified a need to add an in-house counsel with expertise in this area.

I was fortunate to also join PepsiCo as a new CEO, Indra Nooyi, was assuming the leadership role. It was a time of great transformation for the company, as we strived to become more of a global brand with a larger international presence. With my experience at Cleary, I felt I was able to make a real difference in furthering the strategy. Indra Nooyi’s vision was centered on performance with purpose, and she recognized that what we did for our community and our planet was just as important as our profits for shareholders. She was astute that consumer preferences were shifting away from indulgent beverages towards healthier products. And so, a large part of that focus was achieved through M&A, in trying to transform the portfolio in the nutrition space.

When I joined, I was the first attorney to regularly attend compensation committee meetings at PepsiCo. Up until then, they didn’t think they needed legal counsel in the room. Over time I proved my worth and built trust. I was pragmatic and solutions oriented (the Cleary model). I also worked very closely with the HR team on the Naked Juice acquisition, a joint venture with Sabra hummus, and various acquisitions of key bottler franchise organizations.

The HR integration of new bottlers was incredibly important to the success of the acquisitions. The head of HR asked me to join the HR team to lead the integrations of the compensation and benefit programs. That’s when I joined HR and stopped practicing law. I think what I like most about human resources and total rewards in particular is that it allows me to draw on my legal skills and also use my undergraduate training. I’m often tasked with solving problems that we’re facing from a human capital standpoint, and I approach the problem using the scientific method, experimenting, and analyzing data to arrive at the best outcome for employees.

What do you enjoy most about your current role at McDonald’s?

One big focus for us right now is centered around promoting diversity and inclusion within the McDonald’s system and finding ways from a rewards standpoint to enable and support that initiative. We want to have a system in place in terms of leadership that matches the diversity of the communities we serve.

We’ve developed team-based, quantitative metrics within our executive bonus plan that are tied to incremental progress towards our diversity objectives so that our senior leaders are held accountable. This is just an example of how we have been able to take one of our strategic objectives, around people, embedded in our executive compensation program, and have it really resonate with our investors. I feel really good about that, to be able to make a difference and push the envelope on this subject.

As part of the Global Total Rewards team, I’d imagine one of your goals is to enhance or come up with a global framework to benefit all McDonald’s employees. What legal issues have you faced with these new initiatives and what roadblocks have you come up against with getting these off the ground, especially during the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was actually at Marsh & McLennan leading the total rewards team and we prioritized the health and safety of our colleagues. Early in the crisis, we were one of the first companies to protect jobs during the thick of the pandemic and we made no pandemic-related pay cuts. In leading the total rewards team there, I was responsible for expanding our employee assistance program to cover 26 countries so that employees could get the mental health support they needed during the crisis. We also set up a special fund to support colleagues experiencing personal financial hardship stemming from the pandemic. Our efforts paid off with record colleague engagement scores across all of our businesses. I wouldn’t have been able to handle that situation without a legal background, without a keen understanding of what the issues were at the time, and how to best approach a solution.

I joined McDonald’s after my time at Marsh because I wanted to make a real difference at one of the largest employers in the world. The company has such a unique place in American culture and to be a part of this team is special from a personal standpoint, and to have an opportunity to optimize compensation structures at McDonald’s has been rewarding. Our shareholder engagement calls focus on a variety of global topics beyond profits, from ESG, human capital, diversity, to even plastic reduction in happy meals, for example.

What skill/substantive area of law/or personal experience did you learn at Cleary that has served you well after your time at the firm?

In general, Cleary taught me to be a very clear and concise writer. That’s an invaluable skill in my role, especially when I’m drafting the CD&A for the proxy statement or compensation committee memos or even communicating a new benefit program to our restaurant crew.

Another thing I learned at Cleary from Seth Grosshandler was to never miss an opportunity to say “thank you” to a client or coworker. Expressing gratitude for contributions is a big part of my job and it really goes a long way in building a more positive and inclusive culture.

Do you have any favorite memories from your time at Cleary?

I was fortunate because Brick and Arthur were great mentors. They gave us so much exposure to clients directly and would kind of throw us into the deep end where we’d either sink or swim. I remember we were representing a large, global company at a time when they were considering a takeover, and I attended the comp committee meeting with Arthur. It was my first comp meeting, and the pressure and level of discourse was unreal when they were considering adopting a change in control plan for senior executives. I remember them turning to me after the comp consultant had presented their proposals for the change in control plan and saying, “what would you do?” I thought how great is that, here I am, a newly minted attorney and I’m sitting in this comp committee meeting advising on decisions that are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so of course I got a huge thrill out of that.

What advice do you have for a young Cleary associate who may want to pursue a similar career path?

I was fortunate to have had incredible mentors like Brick, and the head of HR at PepsiCo. They believed in me before I believed in myself.

My path hasn’t been strategic, so if I had to do it again, I would tell myself to set a destination. Figure out where you’d like to be, what would make you happy and fulfilled, and focus on the critical experiences you need to get there.

Find a mentor and push for the experiences you need to get to your destination. If you’re feeling comfortable, and you go into work feeling too settled without challenge, you’ve been in the role too long. Push for the next experience!

What’s something I haven’t asked you about yet that you would like to share with the Cleary community?

Cleary taught me how to always seek and develop solutions internally and externally. The firm made me a pragmatic lawyer. When you go in-house, it’s not enough to just say “you can’t do that.” You have to find a solution, and make a positive, creative contribution. That Cleary posture, to remain both business and solutions oriented, that was engrained in me during my time at the firm and was so incredibly important, and I still rely on that acumen to this day.

Learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network here.