A Manufacturing Exec Earns Her Wings (Portland Business Journal, December 2018)
Photo by CERISSA LINDAY
Emi Donis has spent much of her career working for aerospace manufacturers, including at Precision Castparts, where she spent 12 years before joining Senior Aerospace SSP. Her love for the industry has inspired her work in developing career pathways into manufacturing for area high school kids.
Read the story below and here.
It would be easy to suspect that Emi Donis intentionally followed in the footsteps of her father, an airline mechanic turned Harvard Law School graduate turned airline executive.
Donis is a lawyer who spent 12 years as deputy general counsel at aerospace parts manufacturer Precision Castparts before becoming general counsel in July 2017 at Senior Aerospace SSP. Based in Burbank, SSP designs and manufacturers aerospace components for customers worldwide.
It turns out, Donis’ journey to a career in law is a bit more complicated.
We talked to Donis about her professional journey, and her passion for creating pathways to manufacturing careers for Portland-area high school students.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Did you go into law because your father was a lawyer? Actually, I didn’t want to be a lawyer because my dad was a lawyer. I was a business major, but over time people who knew me said “You should be a lawyer because you love to argue.” I went the law school route later in college. My dad actually never practiced law. He was kicked out of high school and went into the military and eventually went to Harvard Law School.
That’s quite a journey. How did that happen? My dad met my mom in Japan when he was in the military. He came out of the military and was a mechanic for Flying Tiger Line, which was the world’s largest cargo carrier. He got a two-year degree at El Camino College in California, then a four-year degree at (California State University Dominguez Hills). He got into Harvard Law School. He had no connections but he was accepted, so he hauled all of us across the country to Boston.
The whole family? He and my mom separated when I was 5. My sister went with my mom and my brother and I went with my dad to Boston. As soon as he graduated, we moved back to California. He really hated the East Coast. He went back to Flying Tiger and was a mechanic. He went into human resources to apply for a marketing job. The HR person said she didn’t think he was qualified. He said “Just let me fill out the application.” They saw Harvard on there and he got the job. He worked in marketing, and then he was VP of international affairs. When Flying Tiger was bought by FedEx, his boss, the CEO, the general counsel and my dad got recruited to United Airlines.
In some ways you have followed in your dad’s footsteps. Not only did you go to law school, you are also working in the field of aviation. How did his experience influence your career? It was probably a combination of being a business major in college and having a close relationship with my dad. With him having been in the C-suite world, he mentored me a lot on corporate politics. When I joined PCC (Precision Castparts Corp.), before he passed away, he would mentor me. Unlike my dad, I did work at law firms, three before I went in-house at PCC for 12 years. I would never go back to working for a law firm.
Why not? I just love working with business people. Business people are very results oriented and results focused. I’m more that way than a lawyer who is fascinated with the intricacies of the law. Lawyers focus more on the legal process, less on the results. They also tend to be risk adverse. Part of that is you’re always worried about the big M: legal Malpractice. That can lead you to give more conservative advice. Being in-house, I don’t worry about malpractice. If you’re going to be successful, you have to take risks, prudent risks. You do get a lot of variety in a law firm. The downside is you’re always an outsider. When you’re in-house, you only have one client, but you have relationships and you can do your job so much better.
Of course enjoying being in-house has a lot to do with the company you’re working for, right? When I left PCC, my first in-house job, I realized what I was going to miss the most were the relationships. When you’re outside counsel you don’t have the opportunity to build those relationships with clients. The other thing is, when you’re an in-house attorney, you are very much appreciated if you do your job well, because your job is to solve problems. You’re not charging by the hour. You’re solving problems that help move the business forward rather than battling lawsuits.
Your in-house jobs have been with manufacturers. Why are you drawn to that industry? I like that we’re making airplane parts. We’re not making shoelaces. Everyone flies. It’s important to our everyday life. I also like salt-of-the-earth people, and these are salt-of-the-earth people making important parts that make airplanes fly. I started my legal career working
for brokerage companies and doing litigation and arbitration. It was all about money. I kind of got bored.
You are also an advocate for creating alternative career pathways for young people, including by serving on the board of the education and equity-focused nonprofit All Hands Raised. How did that come about? It’s been nine years. Being at PCC, I was a logical person to be involved. Being on that board I’ve learned that, depending on which Portland high school we’re talking about, 40 to 60 percent of kids are not going to college. And all you hear in high school is about going to college. That means we’re ignoring 40 to 60 percent of kids. At the same time, trade education has gone away and manufacturing has taken on a negative image. It’s not the sexy career like tech or financial services. The reality is there’s a lot of manufacturing going on in this country and they are desperate — that’s not an overstatement — for good workers. I deal with it everyday in my job.
Title: General counsel, Senior Aerospace SSP
Previous: Deputy general counsel, Precision Castparts Corp.
Philanthropy: Board member, YWCA of Greater Portland and All Hand Raised, where she is involved in the manufacturing career path collaborative
Family: Husband Brett Donis, kids Luke and Sierra
Hometown: Redondo Beach
Season tickets: Timbers, Ducks
Favorite getaway: Hawaii
Favorite Portland restaurant: Le Pigeon