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April 10, 2024 Feature

An Interview with Maria Garton

Maria Garton has been general counsel at Signature Aviation since August 2018, where she leads a team of attorneys and legal professionals. Garton advises Signature Aviation’s executive team on strategic and transactional matters, and is corporate secretary to the board of directors. She leads all mergers and acquisitions from a legal perspective, and fields all contractual, transactional, litigation, and regulatory matters.

A&SL: Your legal career has spanned private practice to in-house counsel; tell us about that journey.

I started out working in project finance at Dewey Ballantine in New York and then at Hogan Lovells in DC. I liked the transactional work and the international aspects of the deals I worked on. While at Hogan, I was asked to go on secondment for six months to a sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala Development Company, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). They had just started an aerospace investment fund and needed a transactional lawyer for six months who could help them put contracts in place. I did not know what to expect and somewhat reluctantly accepted the assignment.

As it turned out, I loved the experience. It was fast-paced and exciting because there is a lot of investment happening in the aerospace industry there. Companies spring up everywhere. And the UAE is a very international place. Close to 90 percent of the people living in the UAE are expats. So it makes for a very eclectic environment where people are accepting of different ways of doing things and constantly learning from each other. As I was working on aerospace contracts, I was learning about the industry from engineers, safety professionals, procurement specialists and others from countries like Austria, Australia, Malaysia, and the UK.

When Mubadala asked me to stay on as general counsel of a new composite aerostructures manufacturing company they were starting up, Strata Manufacturing, which would be making parts for Airbus and Boeing aircraft, I said, “Yes.” It was such a great opportunity at the time for me as a young lawyer. I was learning so much and really felt I was making a difference, not only by doing meaningful legal work and learning about an industry that was new to me at the time, but also by helping to expand the investments of the UAE and train young UAE nationals so they could launch their own careers in their home country. When I first started working with Strata, they had not yet built a facility and were working out of a villa with about 30 people. By the time I left five years later, it had 600 employees and was churning out hundreds of aircraft parts and shipping them to Europe and the US to be put on aircraft being used by airlines across the world, including, at the time, Etihad Airways’ new A380 aircraft.

My time at Strata was also rewarding because I was able establish the legal function and help put best practices in place to minimize risk for the company right from the get-go. Beyond the basic legal work, I was often the first one called to fix problems, including several out of left field, whether it was a fight that broke out in the parking lot or a question from the Crown Prince’s office about our operations.

On a personal note, my husband and I welcomed our two children while in the UAE. After about five years in Abu Dhabi, we decided it was time to get back to the US. We moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where I began working at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. That’s where they make the F-16 and F-35 fighter jets. It was a big change to go to a large, US publicly traded government contractor from a small startup in the UAE, and again, I learned a lot. I was focused on global transactions and compliance at Lockheed Martin. That meant I was helping negotiate contracts to sell Lockheed’s goods and services to foreign ally governments. I had to be heavily focused on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the UK Bribery Act and other compliance issues. Another big part of the role was to ensure export control considerations were factored into our sales activities. It was very different work but helped me to see another side of the aerospace industry.

AS&L: How did you come to head the legal office for a leading organization of fixed-based operations at airports around the world?

I got the call for BBA Aviation (now Signature Aviation) in the summer of 2018 when I was at Lockheed. At the time the company was publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange and had several aerospace/aviation subsidiaries. The move to Signature was a great step for me, as I was able to apply some of my international experience and join a really dynamic leadership team. Signature also gave me the opportunity to head up a global legal team, with lawyers and other legal professionals handling thousands of contracts and legal issues for hundreds of locations around the world.

AS&L: You led Signature through a significant transition that must have involved a great deal of legal issues. What was that like?

Signature has changed quite a lot since I first joined it. Signature has a long history, starting out as an automotive conglomerate in the UK in the early 1900s. It gradually moved into the aviation space by making not only a number of investments in FBOs (fixed based operators), but also aircraft parts manufacturing, landing gear manufacturing, ground handling and MRO work. Over time, Signature sold many of its various holdings. For example, when I joined Signature, in addition to the FBO business, it owned Ontic, a legacy aircraft parts manufacturer, and Dallas Airmotive and H+S Aviation, both engine repair and overhaul companies. We sold Ontic in 2019 and Dallas Airmotive and H+S Aviation in 2021. We kept the FBO and fueling (EPIC Fuels) businesses, as well as Signature TECHNICAir.

In June 2021, Signature was purchased jointly by three private equity investors, Blackstone, Global Infrastructure Partners and Cascade. The take-private transaction was impactful, as it inspired new priorities, ways of working, and investment opportunities. And the process of going from a public company to a private company was of course a heavy lift from a legal perspective. We led the response to the due diligence review conducted by our investors, carefully managing what was disclosed because, under the UK take-private rules, everything divulged to our potential buyers at the time could have been made public if the transaction did not go through. We also supported the regulatory approvals from a competition and foreign direct investment perspective. Thankfully we had a fantastic legal team working on it, both inside the company and outside, and we were able to complete it smoothly, even while in the throes of COVID restrictions. I certainly learned a ton, as did my team.

A&SL: How are you and your office able to handle the legal issues across continents and time zones?

The legal department includes not only legal, but also government affairs, insurance, and environmental, and as you can imagine, issues pop up at all hours and from all over the world. We have a lean team of lawyers and other professionals, and we do everything we can to step in for each other and help each other address issues in a timely manner. Most of our team sits in Orlando, Florida, but we have a few others in DC, Texas, and Arizona, as well as a small legal team of two in London. While we handle almost all of our day-to-day contract drafting and negotiations in-house, we also rely on outside counsel to help provide the best support to our internal clients, especially for very specialized matters like litigation and M&A.

A&SL: How do you and your team stay in touch?

I believe communication is crucial to a strong working team. That is why, no matter where we are working from, we have regular check-ins and frequent opportunities to collaborate and help each other navigate issues. We have weekly all-hands calls with our team of 15, where we catch up on our team objectives and key results (OKRs) and generally update each other on major things going on. We also have calls or meetings with subsets of our group, so the corporate and commercial teams can trade ideas, while the litigation team can also catch up, and so forth. Finally, I also have regular one-on-ones with my direct reports and encourage them to do the same with their directs. The way I see it, in-house legal teams can provide the best support to their internal clients if they are plugged into what is happening and see things coming early. I try to do everything I can to relay information internally so we are on the same page, and I encourage my team to do the same.

A&SL: When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer and what kind of career did you envision? How did that work out?

I was not one of those people who always knew they wanted to be a lawyer. I grew up speaking Spanish because my mom is from Spain, and I also moved around quite a bit growing up (to five different cities in Texas, followed by St. Louis, Costa Rica, and Northern Virginia). All of that inspired me to want to work internationally and, if possible, use my language skills in my career. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, and after finishing high school in Northern Virgina, I attended the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia, where I was focused on marketing and international business. While in that program, I was required to take a class in commercial law, where I fell in love with the law. I had a fantastic professor who was very practical in explaining how basic legal concepts worked in business.

After my commercial law class, I decided that I wanted to go to law school. I think what really intrigued me was getting a glimpse into the framework underpinning how business is carried out. I like to understand how things work, and I pictured myself adding value to a company by helping it navigate the rules and regulations that apply to businesses. I figured there were also plenty of opportunities to help an international company understand and comply with various different laws and regulations in various jurisdictions. I set my aims at working in-house and attended Columbia Law School for my JD because of their strong corporate law program.

A&SL: Was aviation on your radar, so to speak?

Aviation was not on my radar. I fell into it because of Mubadala and its investment in the aerospace sector. But now that I’m in it, it feels like a natural fit. It’s such an interesting industry for lawyers because it’s highly regulated, so it gives us a lot of opportunity to help our clients succeed. It is also by definition international and allows us the opportunity to traverse borders and connect with others in other parts of the world.

A&SL: What advice would you offer someone considering a career in law or aviation?

I think the key is to apply yourself fully to what you’re doing, but keep an open mind and always strive to treat others kindly and with respect. I could never have predicted my career path, but I was open to say “yes” to new opportunities and challenges when they came through. It was also important to establish and maintain a good reputation. The aviation industry, like many others, is a small one. You will run into people over and over. It’s crucial to have high integrity and treat others well; you never know when someone on the other side of a dispute may end up being a potential customer or even a potential employer to you. That means you advocate zealously for your client, but never be a jerk. I like to tell my team to “kill ‘em with kindness.” I find that much more effective than being unpleasant. Finally, I would say working for an organization that you align with culturally is critical to feeling fulfilled and engaged. At Signature, we embrace the shared values of “Deliver Safety & Excellence,” “Be One Team,” “Lead with Trust,” and “Shape the Future.” It makes for an environment in which each employee can contribute and feel appreciated, which is hugely important to me on a personal level.

A&SL: What was the last book you read, the last movie you saw, and the last trip you went on?

Since we’ve recently moved to Florida with Signature, I am reading A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith. A lot of people don’t realize that Florida has such a rich history, including having the oldest continuously occupied colonial settlement in the United States in St. Augustine.

My family loves to watch movies together. We are partial to eighties comedies and loved Overboard, Short Circuit, and of course, Airplane!

The last trip we went on was over Thanksgiving. My brother and his family, my sister and her family, and my family rented a house right outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, for a few days. It’s beautiful in that part of the country, especially during the fall, and it was really nice because the kids had space to run around outside.

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