Ivan Fong: From GC of Homeland Security to 3M

In early spring, with the coronavirus pandemic gaining strength, 3M Company and its general counsel, Ivan Fong, JD ’87, were facing an unprecedented challenge.

The nation’s largest maker of N95 respirators had responded early and rapidly to the COVID-19 outbreak in January and was producing more respirators than ever before. Amid skyrocketing global demand in April, President Trump signed an emergency order directing the company to prioritize orders from FEMA and tweeted that 3M would have a “big price to pay!”

Days later, 3M had averted a crisis and Trump was singing the company’s praises about an agreement that owed much to Fong and his role as a trusted adviser to 3M’s management and board. 

The episode shows the steady and effective manner that has been Fong’s calling card in a long and illustrious career in the public and private sectors. Broad-minded and respectful of others and their ideas, he is also quietly persuasive and unflappable in a crisis.

“Ivan is preternaturally calm,” says Jamie Gorelick, a Washington lawyer and former deputy U.S. attorney general in the Clinton administration who has known Fong for years.  “He was the perfect person to be helping 3M.”

Ivan Fong: From Homeland Security to 3M
Illustration by Stuart Bradford

“When you adhere to clear and strong values, I think everything flows from that,” Fong says, adding that the most important thing to him about 3M was its strong commitment to ethics and integrity. That made the company’s response to the pandemic “quite easy and natural for us.”

Fong has long had an affinity for complex problem-solving, born of being the son of government scientists and honed as a chemical engineering student at MIT.

Robert Weisberg, JD ’79, the Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr., Professor of Law, remembers Fong coming up to him after a criminal procedure class with an “incredibly elegant” graphic he had drawn summarizing the myriad twists and turns of the Miranda doctrine.   

“He was not trying to show off. He was just trying to get it right in his own mind,” Weisberg says. “Ivan is an incredibly generous guy who’s great at teamwork and who can be an intellectual and institutional leader without bringing attention to himself.”

“You would not have immediately picked him out to be the person who would take the hard-charging role of president of the law review,” says Robert Rivkin, JD ’87, a classmate who is now United Airlines general counsel. “But Ivan was a terrific leader and law review president.  He is empathetic. He is brilliant. He leads in a quiet and friendly way.” 

A Fulbright scholarship at Oxford and a clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, LLB ’52 (BA ’50), at the U.S. Supreme Court followed law school. Judge Sandra Ikuta, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who clerked with Fong, vividly recalls seeing his resume for the first time and thinking “uh, oh, this person is going to be insufferable.” 

“And then when I met him, he was the kindest, most wonderful person,” she says, “and has remained that way to this day.” 

Fong became a partner at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and a deputy to then Associate Attorney General Ray Fisher, LLB ’66, [who was subsequently appointed by Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit] during the Clinton administration. A five-year turn at General Electric was a career turning point that showed him the virtues of in-house corporate work.

Large organizations looking for legal help soon called. Fong became the top lawyer at Cardinal Health. He then decided to return to government service in 2009, when he was appointed and Senate-confirmed to be the general counsel of the sprawling U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It was like being a firefighter for the country,” says Leezie Kim, a Phoenix lawyer who served as a Fong deputy. “Ivan had the perfect demeanor.”

Months into the job, Fong was dealing with the aviation security fallout of a Nigerian-born terrorist attempting to bring down a U.S. passenger jet with explosives in his underwear. The earthquake in Haiti and the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster followed in quick succession.

“Ivan was very good at having relationships with people who wanted to be disagreeable,” says Audrey Anderson, a Nashville lawyer who worked with Fong at DHS. “His attitude always was ‘Let’s find a way to work together. The big things we agree on.’ ”

He joined 3M in 2012, attracted to the legal challenges of working for an international company; its technology focus played to his engineering background. (He sends boxes of 3M products as holiday gifts.)

Based on its experience with other viruses, Fong says, 3M knew early in January that it would have to ramp up respirator production. His 500-person legal department was tasked with exploring ways to remove trade restrictions and keeping employees safe. 

“I don’t think Ivan has a boat, but to use a boating metaphor, he has a great, great rudder.”

– Jamie Gorelick
Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General in the Clinton administration who has known Fong for years

On April 2, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act requiring 3M to prioritize federal orders for N95 respirators. The administration also demanded that 3M cease exporting U.S.-made respirators to Canada and Latin America.

In a response that Fong helped craft, 3M defended its export policies on humanitarian grounds and warned that ceasing exports would cause other countries to retaliate, only exacerbating shortages. 

Days of intensive discussions followed. Fong provided counsel at virtual board meetings and negotiated details of an agreement across the table from officials of an agency he had come to know at DHS.

Under the agreement, 3M was cleared to import over 166 million respirators (later extended to over 228 million) to support healthcare workers in the U.S., while retaining the ability to serve its foreign markets. The company is on track to deliver two billion respirators worldwide by the end of the year, nearly one billion to front line healthcare workers and other critical personnel in the United States. And the administration recognized the value of the agreement.

“We’re very proud now to be dealing with 3M,” the president tweeted a few days after his initial tweet.

Separately, Fong’s legal department sprang into action to help fight fraud, price-gouging, and counterfeiting by unscrupulous players in the marketplace. 3M has since filed almost two dozen lawsuits against various price-gougers and fraudsters.

Working from home since March, Fong has instituted a new wellness program to support his legal staff. They also stay in touch through regular virtual coffee hours.

Despite the pandemic, he has retained a passion for diversity and public service: 3M lawyers have logged thousands of hours of volunteer pro bono legal work; the company has funded public interest legal fellowships serving veteran and immigrant populations. It all reflects a steadfast commitment to doing the right thing and being an ethical lawyer.

“I don’t think Ivan has a boat,” says Gorelick, “but to use a boating metaphor, he has a great, great rudder.”  SL

Rick Schmitt is an attorney and former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.