ALM Properties, Inc.
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The National Law Journal
You might say that The Burton Corp. is to snowboarding what Google Inc. is to Internet searches. Company founder Jake Burton Carpenter may not have been the first person to ever strap a surfer-style board to both feet and careen down a mountain, but he started a company that almost single-handedly commercialized snowboarding and transformed the winter sports industry.
Founded in 1977, the privately owned Burlington, Vt.-based Burton has about 900 employees. Besides snowboards, its products include Channel Islands surfboards, Anon Optics snow goggles, Gravis Footwear and apparel line Analog. Its revenues totaled about $700 million, according to published accounts in 2011. Vice president and general counsel Jaimesen Heins declined to detail financial information about the company.
Burton encourages its employees to snowboard, and gives every one a season pass to the winter sports resort in nearby Stowe, Vt.
If snowfall reaches two feet in a 24-hour period, the entire company is given a "pow-day" to hit the slopes. In the winter, many staffers start and end their work day late to make time for a couple of hours on the mountain in the morning.
Heins, 39, was named Burton's general counsel in May after spending nearly eight years as a lawyer at the company. Two other lawyers and a paralegal are on staff, and together they handle global legal matters for a company that has offices in Tokyo; Sydney, Australia; and Innsbruck, Austria. Their duties include corporate and transactional, intellectual property, real estate, products liability, regulatory compliance and media law work.
"We're all very much corporate generalists," Heins said. "If we're looking at an in-house candidate, we're looking at someone with experience in a brand in the consumer products space. For us, the Burton trademark and brand is really the crown jewel of the company."
Burton maintains several key relationships with outside counsel. Boston's Wolf Greenfield handles intellectual property matters, including patent prosecution, trademarks and litigation. Connecticut-based Halloran & Sage deals with general corporate matters, and the New York office of Loeb & Loeb handles media and entertainment law for the company's snowboarding and outdoor video productions.
Given the nature of snowboarding, Burton's legal department often has some personal injury lawsuits pending. The company's helmet and bindings are typically the subject of such suits. For help in these matters, it has turned to local Vermont firms, including Langrock Sperry & Wool, Gravel & Shea and Downs Rachlin Martin.
Burton pays firms on an hourly-rate or fixed-fee basis, Heins said. "We've been pushing in the direction of fixed fees and capped arrangements," he said. "There isn't a fixed formula. We're very much encouraging our outside counsel to think creatively and understand the bigger picture, and be a partner with us."
With two small children, Heins said he doesn't get to spend as much time on the slopes as some of his co-workers. Still, he takes advantage of Burton's suggestion to start the day at the mountain, and goes snowboarding about 25 times a year. "Obviously, work takes priority," he said.
The firm clearly has a relaxed corporate culture. Heins often goes to work dressed in a baseball cap, jeans and T-shirt. Burton's also known for its liberal policy on employees bringing their dogs to work — on any given day about 50 of them roam the halls of its headquarters.
The work changes from day to day. "It could be dealing with regional general managers, focusing on a litigation matter, doing a large sponsorship or meetings with our sustainability group," he said. "It's very varied, and every day is a little different, which I love."
Regulatory compliance has been a growing element of the company's legal responsibilities, and it's assisted in the work by Greenberg Traurig's Washington office. Laws including California's Proposition 65 require companies to keep their products free of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals or else provide warning labels for consumers. The European Union and other jurisdictions have their own safety regulations. "The biggest hurdle is trying to figure out what's in your product," given the company's global supply chain, Heins said.
The legal team is handling more transactions and contract matters as Burton seeks to streamline. It recently sold its Alien Workshop and Habitat skateboard brands and trimmed three of its snowboard lines that were cannibalizing sales from the Burton brand. It moved its Gravis shoe-brand headquarters from Costa Mesa, Calif., to Tokyo. The moves required unwinding contracts with graphic designers, consultants and pro athlete endorsers.
"It was a hard decision but the right one, just to focus on the core snow and surfboard brands we're looking to execute on," Heins said.
It is involved in one or two patent infringement suits annually, as in 2011 when helmet maker Bern Unlimited LLC sued Burton and two other companies for allegedly infringing a patent for a small-brimmed helmet. That same year, Burton sued snowboard maker INCA Empire Co. after INCA threatened it with litigation over its snowboard design patents.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1999, Heins went to work as a corporate associate in the New York office of Hughes Hubbard & Reed. While there, he helped handle transactions and finance for clients including Continental Airlines Inc., Honeywell International Inc. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. "It was a tremendous experience for me, but I think I knew a large private firm wasn't my long-term track," he said.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he and his wife began to think of leaving New York. After a two-year stint as a project manager at home builder Toll Brothers Inc., Heins and his wife moved to Burlington in 2005 and he soon found a job at Burton as an associate general counsel. Heins doesn't regret his path. "I never look back," he said.
Raised in Bellport, N.Y., a Long Island beach town about 60 miles from New York City, Heins is married and has two children, ages 4 and 1.
He is a member of the planning commission for Shelburne, Vt., and a board member of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. He is the director of the Brooke Heins Memorial Scholarship Fund, established in memory of his deceased sister.
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
Private Empire: Exxon Mobil and American Power, by Steve Coll; Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.
— Jason McLure