Case Studies

How Formica Established Risk Reduction Through Data Retention

Customer Profile

Formica Group is a leading provider of branded, designed surfacing solutions for commercial and residential customers worldwide. As the world’s largest manufacturer of High Pressure Laminate (HPL). It’s international network of design, manufacturing, distribution, and sales operations maintains the recognition of Formica® as a global brand.

A few years ago, global companies began to take a closer look at their data retention practices, often because they had to; the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would become the most far-reaching regulation of consumer privacy information to date, and with it came heavy retention requirements. A couple years later, the state of California would pass its own law, the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), which enacts similar retention requirements concerning sensitive consumer data.

But even before the advent of these privacy rules, data retention had considerable importance concerning litigation and data breaches. Donna Heil, a corporate paralegal for Formica Corporation, learned this early in her tenure with Formica. Heil says there was a major event that shifted the company’s thinking about the importance of establishing a data retention regime: a commercial lawsuit with a potential seven-figure discovery cost.

Despite Formica’s efforts to narrow the scope, it was still quite expensive. Heil says that while Formica had a risk management process in place with their other subsidiaries, this event triggered her CEO to approach the former General Counsel about putting a new and consistent program in place for the company’s North American, Asian, and European regions.

Heil then went about adding “risk management” to her burgeoning day-to-day workload.

“It was right about the time I started with Formica that Exterro came on board and we put in place a lot of our Risk Management tools,” Heil recalls, which took shape by combining a few major compliance goals with related technology solutions:

  • A comprehensive, up-to-date data inventory/map in Exterro Data Inventory

  • Establishing and enforcing retention policies and schedules through Exterro Data Retention

  • Managing an automated, end-to-end legal hold process with Exterro Legal Hold

How a Small Legal Department Created Big Savings 

As a corporate paralegal working for a Legal department without many employees, Heil wears many hats.

“As far as what I do, I would say the best way to define that is to say what I don’t do,” says Heil (she doesn’t work on intellectual property—but that’s about it). Her department consists of the general counsel, an intellectual property paralegal, a corporate paralegal (herself), and a legal admin. Due to headcount restraints, Heil says it’s common to find her doing everything from redlining contracts to drafting resolutions for subsidiaries. And while the initial lawsuit she was onboard for was her first experience facing the issue of over-retained data, she eventually returned to that project as part of her work with the business’s new Risk Management policies.

“After facing the potential for expansive and expensive discovery challenges, our goal was to revive our record retention policy that was ancient,” says Heil. “I took that project on in 2015 with the help of Exterro, and we performed a data mapping exercise to see how long departments and people were keeping things, where they were keeping them and why they were keeping them. It really wasn’t a data map for compliance reasons—it was a data map for ‘what do we have out there?’”

Heil says at the time, Formica was not much different from many other companies that, out of an abundance of caution, simply saved too much paper. There was no single point person in any department charged with maintaining the lifecycle of data or physical documents, leading it to compile over the years and grow into a bubble of risk.

Deflating the Risk Bubble Before it Pops  

When Heil was tasked with finding a solution, she turned to Exterro, citing the platform’s ease-of-use and dashboard analytics, along with Exterro’s client focus and competitive pricing.

“Exterro was willing to work with Formica to get to know our culture, processes and needs and tailor their services to our company needs,” says Heil. “Exterro’s partnership with the ACC was also a factor in our decision, as the ACC is a reliable resource for corporate legal departments and a go-to resource for up-to-date corporate legal issues. Formica saw this partnership as a good fit for our business.”

These days, each department has a retention enforcement coordinator at Formica. Heil says that while Exterro managed the process, she was able to align the company’s retention policies with what was outlined in the newly-built retention schedule and get everyone on the same page.

“And we did a clean-out day in 2015 that was massive,” says Heil. “We literally had tons of recyclable paper. We were able to eliminate about 40% of outside storage fees. There was a risk benefit as well as a cost savings.”

Formica extended the clean-out to include electronic documents as well, and was able to reduce their cloud storage significantly by instituting automatic deletion from servers.

“Exterro was very helpful with baseline rules for deletion and benchmarking what other organizations of our size were doing,” says Heil, who adds that each year they now host a Document Clean-Out Day—supported by senior management—that creates a fun environment and helps maintain compliance. “We have managed to make this a fun day by providing a pizza lunch and some swag prizes for random contests like ‘oldest document,’ or ‘department with the most paper disposed.’”

Well-Prepared for the Launch of the GDPR & California Privacy Laws

When the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) launched in 2018, Heil knew that Formica would need to put into place new compliance rules that could help with that set of rules, as well as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which was still in the process of coming to life. Heil says that gathering additional buyin for GDPR and CCPA compliance was not quite as easy as it was for the data retention project a few years prior.

“When we did the new data retention policy, it was dollars that senior management saw,” says Heil. “When we came to GDPR and the CCPA, they weren’t quite as quick to jump on board with that. They said, ‘Formica is not Google, Formica is not Twitter or Facebook. Our risk is low.’”

Heil said they had to educate their teams—and in particular, management—regarding the compliance rules and the dollars-andcents consequences of non-compliance. Heil says she used an outside law firm to outline the initial compliance process, and engaged Exterro once more to assist in updating their firm’s data map.

“Because we had coordinators in place and more of a buttoned-up process, we were able to get the information more quickly and not compromise the integrity of the information,” says Heil. “So when GDPR experts came along and we had to have certain reporting, Exterro had the tools for us to be able to get that information.” To date, Formica hasn’t had a GDPR violation. That bodes well for compliance with the CPRA, which launches in 2023, and codifies data retention rules.

Technology Benefits Going Forward: Formica Sees Increased Efficiencies and Cost Savings

Heil says that Exterro offers Formica the ability to automate a lot of their legal processes—many of which would be unsustainable if performed manually. Formica is better equipped than ever before to ensure efficiency and cost savings in two key areas: Legal holds and better data management through retention enforcement.

“The litigation hold leaves a lot of room for error,” says Heil. “And when I say error, I’m talking about my own error: We’re a small department and a lot of things cross my desk. I could very easily see a lit hold sliding by if that process weren’t automated. Now we know what has to be done, and we enter it one time and we’re compliant—and if I have litigation, I’m much more confident that the documents are being held correctly. Automating was real helpful for us. ”

But there’s little doubt where Formica sees the greatest benefit: the data retention schedule.

“We ask Exterro to look at our schedules on an ongoing basis, just to make sure there are no changes to requirements, or if the industry is doing something different with certain record types,” says Heil. “That has helped because we have one place to go and look at the schedule now. If someone calls legal and wants to know how long to keep a certain record, we can go to the Exterro dashboard and get that answer quickly. That’s been not only a risk benefit, but also a cost savings benefit.”

Heil’s experience, along with Formica, is typical: a small legal department as part of a larger business need automation and productivity tools to deliver top-notch results for the entire company. She says that others in her position—employed at businesses with too much data and too much risk on their hands— would likely pay more to engage outside counsel for similar services, and that she now has a permanent solution to the data management obstacles that her department faced.

“We have seen a cost savings in storage from our retention and data mapping processes that we would otherwise not have seen, and not been able to conduct on the same level internally,” says Heil. “Exterro allows us to see all of our data on one dashboard and make changes as the organization grows and evolves.”

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