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Cynthia Reeves | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Sarah Kerner

Assistant General Counsel, BKD LLP

Posted online

It’s been seven years since you’ve practiced law as you’ve been the city of Springfield’s director of economic development. Why return to the profession?
It did feel a little bit like it’s now or never getting back to true practice of law. I certainly used my law degree in my economic development role, but I thought that was important to get back into that role more formally.

A Harvard Law School report found the role of a general counsel has evolved from the legal watchdog to now being involved in strategy and risk management and at executive-level decision making. You start with BKD on May 2, but how do you foresee your role playing into that larger picture?
I also have not been in a general counsel role in a corporation before. I was assistant city attorney for many years, of course, but probably the closest thing would be when I worked for the (Springfield-Branson National Airport), and I would say that was true. My boss at BKD, Jennifer Hannah, is definitely in that role, very involved with the merger. I’m hoping that will be something I’ll get to help out with and learn a lot about as well. I was thinking how interesting it is coming in at this particular time in BKD’s history with the big merger. It’s kind of similar to starting work at the airport in the midst of the construction of the midfield terminal. So many things I feel like were very formative in my career were during that time of upheaval at the airport. And I’m hopeful that’ll be the case at BKD as well.

How did the opportunity to apply for this role come about?
Obviously, there’s lots of transitions going on at the city with my position. I was just talking about it with an acquaintance of mine who works at BKD while we were both at our children’s middle school archery tournament, and then a few weeks later he reached out again and said that there might be an opportunity. I sent him my resume.

On those changes with the city, Amanda Ohlensehlen was hired for the new Economic Vitality Department role. Is that something you were pursuing or were interested in taking on, and did that play a role in your decision to leave?
Yes and yes.

Were you supportive of the creation of the department, pulling out economic development on its own? Was that something you were involved in?
I wasn’t involved necessarily. That was an initiative from the city manager’s office. I think economic development can be effective in either way. I know part of it is to just raise the profile of the city as an economic development entity.

In the nearly seven years you served the city in that role, what are your main accomplishments and takeaways you’ll bring into your position at BKD?
The accomplishments, I would say like expansions at 3M and Kraft, just because they were pretty big additions of large number of jobs, extensive investment in existing facility. So for the, say, 900 people that work at Kraft, that’s protecting those people’s jobs for decades to come. When they put millions of dollars into the facility, they’re not going to turn around and leave it in five years. Vital Farms was a cool one; that’s the pasture-raised egg processor that’s out in the industrial park by the airport. We had not sold a lot in that industrial park in a very long time. Vital Farms was having trouble in another community, getting through permitting and getting the property under control. I feel like it speaks well of the (Springfield Regional Economic Partnership) that we were able to come together and say, yes, we’re here and we can do this; we’ll get it through. And then actually, I’m very excited about the Grant Avenue project. It’s so cool that we got that grant, and it’s going to be a really great pedestrian facility, but also the opportunity for development and improvement of our community through that I think is exciting.

With BKD and North Carolina-based Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP merging, the firm now has $1.4 billion in annual revenue and 5,400 employees. To have a firm like that with a base in Springfield, what does that do for the community?
It’s obviously very important, and I was very heartened to see that they’re planning to maintain their presence here and continuing to invest in Springfield. They appear to be really strong in allowing flexibility on remote/hybrid work, which is obviously going to continue to be important for attracting and retaining your workforce. From everything I’ve heard, they’re going to continue to improve their benefits package and all those things that just make it an employer of choice. In my previous role, we talked a lot about Springfield being such a high-poverty community and what can we do to try to improve our wages overall. We have to catch up. Having strong businesses like BKD in Springfield that do pay a competitive wage nationally, I think that’s extremely important.

Sarah Kerner can be reached at skerner@bkd.com.

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