Q: You have an interesting background for someone in this field. What were you doing before gravitating into turnaround and restructuring work?
Baxter-Labut: I was a customs and immigration officer for seven years with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
Q: How did that come about?
Baxter-Labut: When an opportunity presents itself, I always take it, even if I am not necessarily sure where it will lead me. While completing my undergraduate degree in science, an opportunity presented itself. Shortly before I finished my first year of university, my mom ran into a friend from high school, who told her about the CBSA’s summer program for students to work as student border officers. I had never considered a summer job in law enforcement, but I decided to apply and was selected for the program.
I worked at the Ambassador Bridge—connecting Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, it’s the busiest port in North America—for several summers while I finished my undergraduate degree. I enjoyed my time with CBSA as a student and, upon graduation, decided to apply to be an officer. However, it took a while before I was finally recruited to attend the CBSA college in Rigaud, Quebec.
In the meantime, another opportunity presented itself. My dad had a colleague who was a professor at the University of Windsor at the Odette School of Business. He told my dad about a program at the school that allowed people who had already completed a four-year degree to enroll in the business school’s two-year program to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
It was unclear when I would be recruited for the CBSA, and a motto in my family is “you can never be over-educated.” So, I enrolled for business school. During my time at Odette, I became involved in a group formerly known as SIFE—Students in Free Enterprise. We competed in both regional and national competitions showcasing how our community outreach projects and business ventures were making a real impact in Canada and beyond.
One year into the business program, CBSA called with a start date. I took it and moved to Quebec to complete the training program. Upon graduation I was placed at the Bluewater Bridge in Sarnia—not where I necessarily thought I would be placed or where I wanted to be, but I went.
Q: What led you from there into the law?
Baxter-Labut: While in Sarnia, a co-worker often talked about writing the LSAT. One night, in the middle of a slow midnight shift, he showed me one of his study books. I thought to myself, “I could do that.” I started studying for the LSAT—nothing hardcore, as I had a full-time job. By the time I wrote the LSAT, I had already worked at two different ports in the Sarnia area and obtained a transfer back to Windsor.
I wrote the LSAT and ended up with a respectable score, so I decided to apply to a couple law schools in Canada. I applied to two different schools and was accepted to both. I was ready to move across the country, but then I went on a date with my now-husband, Philip. I suppose you could say it was love at first sight.
My husband works for the U.S. Department of Defense, so his job will always be in America. I looked at what it would take to practice law in America with a Canadian law degree, and it just made more sense to obtain a law degree in America.
By the time I realized this, all the deadlines to apply to law schools in Michigan had passed. A close friend who had recently graduated from Wayne State University Law School put me in contact with some of the administration who the friend thought might be willing to entertain a late applicant. I was accepted to Wayne and moved to Michigan in 2014.
Q: Once you decided to become a lawyer, how did you end up gravitating into bankruptcy and restructuring?
Baxter-Labut: It was also one of those things where life pushed me in that direction. What really solidified my interest in it was the experience my husband and I had when we bought our first home, which was being sold in a bankruptcy case. It was an opportunity we could not pass up. However, the sale of the home was not as straightforward as we expected due to a second mortgage that we were not previously made aware of. The second mortgage holder was threatening to not release his lien unless he was paid in full.
When we appeared in front of Bankruptcy Judge Thomas J. Tucker to learn the fate of our acquisition, the terms and concepts were absolutely foreign to us. Fortunately, everything worked out in our favor, and we purchased the home without any liens on the property.
The next semester I enrolled in WSU’s bankruptcy course. Throughout the semester, I gained a better understanding of what happened in that courtroom with Judge Tucker. I found the bankruptcy process fascinating, and I knew that, upon graduation, I had to find a way to practice bankruptcy.
But when I graduated, a different opportunity was made available to me. I represented financial institutions in general commercial loan transactions and real estate transactions, including single lender, syndicated, and second lien loan transactions.
I loved secured transactions, so commercial lending was great—for a while—but I still felt compelled to focus on bankruptcy. An opportunity presented itself to join Miller Canfield’s bankruptcy, restructuring and insolvency group. I could not pass up the chance to go back to Bankruptcy Court and (this time) know what was going on!
Q: It’s held your interest over time, so it seems like it’s where you’re meant to be.
Baxter-Labut: It is. It offers a lot of room for creativity in how to structure a particular loan transaction to a distressed company or even in helping suppliers and OEMs in their relationship and structuring some interesting financial arrangements. That part keeps you on your toes. I like working on those bigger concepts, but then you have to work out the details to get there.
Q: How’s the business environment in Detroit? We’ve heard the predictions that work for TMA members will increase in the second half of the year. Has the auto industry been impacted more than other industries by the supply chain shortages and other factors related to the pandemic?
Baxter-Labut: I have seen more on the workout side, where perhaps a loan has gone to the special assets group with a lender. There have been companies in distress, but I’ve not seen them so distressed that it results in bankruptcy. Perhaps we’re still waiting for some of that PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money to run out, and then maybe we’ll see more on the bankruptcy side. But there has been a pickup in restructurings and a lot more interest even in dissolving entities.
Q: What have been some of your favorite or most gratifying engagements along the way?
Baxter-Labut: There was a larger company that I helped wind down. They operated in Michigan, Ohio, and South Carolina. That was not an outcome that the owners wanted, but I found that helping them through the process of winding down was gratifying. We were able to pay off what we could and negotiate with suppliers or their customers. It may not sound that interesting, but I enjoyed that deal. Maybe it was because the people were so nice to work with.
Another one, without naming names, is helping Tier 1 suppliers who have had issues reaching deals with customers or trying to save jobs. Settling the assets has also been a lot more prevalent these past couple of years. We’ve seen a lot of distressed suppliers, so now we’re meeting with the OEM to figure out whether we can still be a supplier. Maybe we can come up with some unique financing terms or restructure a transaction in which the OEM makes a loan to the supplier.
I also represented the creditor, a large secured lender, in a Subchapter V case. Subchapter V was useful in allowing this nonprofit—it was a church—to confirm a plan that helped make sure my client was repaid in full. It was a unique experience because we had not dealt with Subchapter V before.
Q: What key milestones in your career have helped make you the professional you are today?
Baxter-Labut: During that Subchapter V case, I realized bankruptcy allowed me to use skills I had acquired in my long and winding road to becoming a lawyer. My experience drafting commercial loan documents meant I was already very familiar with the terms in the creditor’s loan documents and the protections they were intended to afford the creditor. My experience with the CBSA made me well suited to conduct examination of the debtor and depositions of sometimes not-so-cooperative witnesses. My time at the University of Windsor allowed me to understand and negotiate business-related concepts.
The key to my success has been having fantastic mentors and sponsors who give me the confidence to take on new opportunities and the support to make sure I succeed. They have provided me with the opportunity to be very active in the restructuring world.
In just the last two years I have represented receivers in state court, helped craft deal structures to help distressed automotive suppliers, represented unsecured creditor committees (I prepared and pitched the committee, too), participated in bankruptcy litigation and appeals, been actively involved in distressed transaction and loan enforcement, and published an article in the Michigan Business Law Journal (Vol. 41, Issue 1, Spring 2021, “Reclamation is [Mostly] Dead, but Has It Been Reincarnated?”)
I even have had the opportunity to maintain the relationships I made when I was drafting commercial lending documents. I also have expanded my knowledge and expertise to include small business administration lending and import-export loan transactions.
Taking opportunities has given me experience in the entire life cycle of a business—from lending to dissolution/bankruptcy.
Q: You’ve been a TMA member for about three years. What role has that played in your career?
Baxter-Labut: TMA has connected me with a lot of professionals in the industry. I had the opportunity to present on a panel with women who were part of TMA’s Network of Women (TMA NOW). The title of the seminar was “Why Women Leave Restructuring.” TMA afforded me the opportunity to connect with other people in the industry, other women in the industry, and to maybe influence a little bit of change in the industry, particularly with that seminar, presenting a perspective and some ideas that people don’t think about as much as they could or should.
Q: What advice would you have for someone who was new to the industry or was thinking about getting into it?
Baxter-Labut: I would say that it’s beneficial to remain open-minded, to hopefully find some mentors or sponsors you can go to for advice and to answer questions, because there’s always going to be something that you don’t know, something that is new. That’s what I really like about the industry. I haven’t had two deals that were exactly the same yet. I find that this field doesn’t leave you a lot of time to be bored, because no two workouts have ever been the same in my experience.
Being creative, I think, will take you far, too, because there’s room to solve problems in different ways. You get to flex that creativity muscle more than maybe you would in other professions.
Q: What are you passionate about outside the office?
Baxter-Labut: Being a mom. My 3-year-old son, Hilton, keeps us on our toes and on the go. Keeping up also means I know a LOT about superheroes! He just started to play soccer, so that’s super cool to watch.
Q: What did you like to do for fun before you became a mother?
Baxter-Labut: I played the piano and the violin. Before my son came along, I’d taken to doing some art projects.
Q: Keeping up with a toddler can be exhausting.
Baxter-Labut: And try doing all that in a pandemic, and it’s really been rough.
Q: What might people who only know you professionally be most surprised to learn about you?
Baxter-Labut: That I am Canadian, although sometimes my accent gives this away. Of course, people are surprised to learn that I am a former customs officer. I’m also a qualified marksman. With the CBSA,
I had to qualify to carry a firearm, a Baretta PX4 Storm at the time. I’m also fluent in French.