Vice President, Legal, Human Resources and Communications for North American region, Bunge
Like many attorneys, Gregory Billhartz knew from an early age what field he wanted to pursue.
Unlike those attorneys, though, that field was accounting.
After earning a degree from the University of Illinois, Billhartz became a CPA and began working for Cooper & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). That’s when a mentor suggested that the New Baden, Illinois, native pursue an advanced degree.
Rather than work toward an MBA or an LLM, however, Billhartz opted for a JD degree.
“I saw a little bit of the allure [of being an in-house counsel] as an accountant,” Billhartz said. “I had a bit of a thought that these people are cool. They’re on the front end of important transactions and working with leadership on strategy teams. I didn’t want to be on the back end, learning how to account for it on the books. I wanted to be a part of the team that put together the strategic direction of a company.”
So while working weeks of 50-plus hours as a CPA during the day, Billhartz attended Saint Louis University School of Law at night. He graduated three and a half years later.
At that time, Billhartz was doing some consulting and working with larger clients at Coopers & Lybrand, and he enjoyed the challenge of doubling his schedule.
“I have a strong learning orientation. I’m motivated by learning new things, so for me it was motivating,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could manage 50-plus hours as a CPA and go through law school at night.”
Now as vice president for legal, human resources and communications for the North American region at Bunge, Billhartz said there’s probably not a day when his accounting expertise hasn’t helped him in his legal work — from deciding how and whether to settle litigation or looking at a company’s economic risks to simply forming company strategy. His accounting background also helped him to land more responsibilities at his first full-time legal job at what was then Bryan Cave, he said.
“I was a little bit of a unique kid. I had five years of practical business experience, had a CPA and business background,” Billhartz said. “I didn’t bypass the usual first-year associate stuff, but I think it was a good mix of first-year lawyer stuff and some advanced work because of my background.”
After spending a few years at Bryan Cave and roughly four years at Arch Coal as assistant general counsel and assistant secretary, Billhartz moved to Ralcorp, where he got to sink his teeth into the work of an in-house counsel.
In his four years at Ralcorp, he led the legal team in regulatory, food labeling and environmental compliance and also led compliance and leadership strategy. Midway through his tenure, he took over human resources. At Ralcorp, Billhartz said he completed 10 acquisitions, helped to spin Post Cereal into its own company and won a large case against Frito Lay in a trademark suit involving bowl-shaped chips.
Billhartz, a father of three who has been involved with a number of nonprofit organizations, worked in leadership roles at Maschhoff Family Foods for several years before early 2018, when he began his current role at Bunge.
“It’s been interesting,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done a little bit of everything — family-owned businesses, private equity-owned businesses and now a public business. What motivates me is seeing a lot of things and applying them to new circumstances.”