PUBLISHED:May 09, 2011

Dean's Roundtable series: Colin W. Brown '74 shares insights from successful corporate career

Colin W. Brown ’74, the president and CEO of JM Family Enterprises, was the featured speaker in the Dean’s Roundtable series on March 17. Brown spoke to a small group of students about his transition from practicing law to running a large and diversified automotive business; ranked by Forbes as the 33rd largest privately held company in the United States and one of Toyota’s top U.S. dealers, JM Family Enterprises’ operations include sales, financing, insurance, and marketing operations, among others.

“I went to law school never having met a lawyer in my life and I didn’t know what I was going do to after I graduated,” Brown said. After clerking in New York, he joined Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, where he got exposure to a number of practice areas. “When I first started they didn’t put you in practice-area boxes,” he said. That experience, along with connections facilitated by Professor Otto Stolz, his mentor at Duke Law, helped him secure subsequent positions at the Cannon Mills Company, as senior vice president and general counsel and then at Fuqua Industries, Inc, as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. He left each position after corporate takeovers.

When his efforts to raise capital for a new company were unsuccessful, Brown re-entered the job market. “I found I was really attracted to going in-house — I like to be part of a team and see the results.” Brown joined JM Family Enterprises in 1992 as vice-president and general counsel and became CEO in 2003.

Stepping into the shoes of the charismatic and beloved company founder James M. Moran was somewhat daunting, he admitted. “I think I was regarded by my peers as being fair and open-minded without a secret agenda, and was able to use the analytical skills we’re taught in law school and combine them with common sense, fairness and neutrality.”

Brown has used these skills to lead the company through various challenges. “Two-and-a-half years ago when everything froze, we were looking at the abyss,” he recalled. “It wasn’t just a recession, it was a depression. By the end of 2008, our car sales dropped 40 percent and we had to lay off over 700 associates. We were able to continue to fund loans because of our reputation, but we had to pay through the nose to do it. We did our homework, due diligence, and verification on every loan. Now we are back to where we were three years ago. Our culture is stronger than it has ever been.” Indeed, JM Family Enterprises routinely makes Fortune’s list of “Best 100 Companies to Work For.”

In the last year, Brown has also successfully navigated Toyota’s sudden acceleration issue. “We had to deal with the media hysteria and all the consequences of that,” he said. “The whole thing turned out to be a non-issue.” The latest challenge, he said, may be Toyota production slowdowns in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

The Dean’s Roundtable series brings distinguished alumni together with small groups of students who share similar — and often non-traditional — career goals. The March 18 event was co-hosted by Dean David F. Levi and James Cox, the Brainerd Currie Professor of Law.