While growing up in the Texas Panhandle, Michael J. Veitenheimer was a fan of the TV series “Perry Mason.” Actor Raymond Burr played Mason, a criminal-defense lawyer who specialized in getting his wrongfully accused clients cleared of murder charges by finding the real murderers.
“Since I was 6 years old, according to my mother, all I ever wanted to do is be a lawyer and try lawsuits,” says Veitenheimer, vice president and general counsel of Michaels Stores Inc. in Irving. The TV show ran from 1957 to 1966. “I would be glued to the TV watching Perry Mason,” he says. “I was a huge Perry Mason fan.”
Like Mason, Veitenheimer enjoys a challenge; he became the head of a corporate legal department when he was just three years out of law school. After earning a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law in Austin in 1981, Veitenheimer joined Fort Worth’s McLean, Sanders, Price, Head & Ellis doing litigation, real estate and general corporate work. When he was a third-year associate, Veitenheimer left the firm to become general counsel to its then-largest client, Tandy Brands Inc., where he established the Fort Worth company’s first legal department.
“I was 27 years old at the time and not sure that was what I really wanted to do,” Veitenheimer recalls. “After a lot of internal debate, I decided I would give it a shot for two years, and, if at the end of two years, if I was missing litigation, I figured I could always go back. I never considered going back. I love the in-house practice. I’ve been at it about 26 years.”
Veitenheimer had been Tandy Brands’ top lawyer for about eight years when, in 1991, the company split its two operations into separate companies — The Bombay Co. Inc. and Tandy Brands Accessories. Veitenheimer became general counsel and secretary of The Bombay Co. in Fort Worth. He was Bombay’s senior vice president, law and human resources, secretary and general counsel when the company filed for bankruptcy and liquidated in 2007. He served on the three-person committee that managed the company’s bankruptcy filings and liquidation.
“That was a painful process because I had been involved with Bombay since the beginning, almost literally, from a few stores in New Orleans to a chain of more than 500 at its height, then to see it all come crashing down,” he says.
Veitenheimer says Bombay declined when it tried to compete with other retailers by importing larger pieces of furniture and opening larger stores. “That turned out to be a strategy the company could not finance at the sales level,” he says.
Veitenheimer says, luckily, Michaels Stores Inc., the arts and crafts giant, was looking for a new GC in 2007. Michaels had adopted a new strategic initiative to increase the amount of products it imported directly from overseas manufacturers, he says.
“At the time only a small percentage of inventory was directly sourced by Michaels in Asia,” says Veitenheimer. “Bombay had been importing about 95 percent of its goods and had operations all over the globe. Michaels was looking for someone with that global background and a general broad GC background. They [Michaels] gave me time to wind down what I needed to at Bombay, and I started here in January 2008. It’s been a terrific opportunity for me. It is a considerably larger company, larger legal staff and a solid business.”
Veitenheimer says Michaels has five in-house lawyers including himself. The company operates more than 1,100 Michaels Stores and 150 Aaron Brothers stores (which provide framing and art supplies) in the United States and Canada and has 35,000 to 40,000 employees. Michaels Stores was publicly held until 2006 when it was taken private by investment firms Bain Capital Partners of Boston and the Blackstone Group of New York City.
“We do the bulk of our legal work inside except for litigation,” Veitenheimer says. In-house lawyers handle labor and employment issues, such as claims of wrongful discharge or discrimination; corporate and securities matters; regulatory matters including import and trade issues; and intellectual property. Veitenheimer says he is out of town two or three times a month for depositions, mediations or court hearings.
For outside counsel Veitenheimer says the company uses Dallas-based Haynes and Boone, Thompson & Knight, and Jackson Walker; Cleveland-based Jones Day; Ropes & Gray in Boston; and Atlanta-based Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.
Stephen R. Woods, a shareholder in Ogletree, Deakins in Greenville, S.C., says Veitenheimer is one of the most “hands on” GCs he works with. “He likes to meet, preferably in person, with anybody who is handling any matter for him,” Woods says. Ogletree, Deakins handles a large percentage of Michaels’ labor and employment litigation.
“At a minimum, he wants to get them on the phone initially and go through a thorough discussion of their perspective on the case, plans for litigation and their credentials to handle that kind of matter.”
For example, Woods says Veitenheimer likes to be present for plaintiffs’ depositions. “He will write a note or will say to me or my colleagues, ‘How about this, have we addressed this?’ ” Woods says that such candid, constructive feedback is immediate and helpful.
Fred W. Fulton, a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight who has worked with Veitenheimer on corporate securities and benefits matters for about 10 years, recalls negotiating a credit agreement for The Bombay Co. during which Fulton and his colleagues relied on Veitenheimer’s knowledge about tracking assets transported from Asia to the United States.
“It was pretty technical stuff,” Fulton says. “Even though the finance lawyers were doing a lot of the heavy lifting on the agreement, there was no way for outside counsel to get that level of familiarity.”
Veitenheimer grew up in Wichita Falls as one of six children. “I still don’t know how my parents did it,” Veitenheimer says. “Dad managed a hardware store, and mom stayed at home. They put us through Catholic grade school and high school. I remain amazed at how they managed.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1978 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he majored in prelaw and was student government president. In addition to law, politics was his other passion.
Veitenheimer says the summer before he entered law school he worked on Phil Gramm’s first campaign for public office, when Gramm ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat representing Texas’ 6th Congressional District.
“I have not been involved in a political campaign in a long time,” Veitenheimer says. “Early on I thought I might want to be more involved in politics, but in order to get elected you have to take money from people you don’t want to take money from. Politics is no longer a burning desire on my part.”
Veitenheimer suspects his early interest in politics is one of the reasons he enjoys the government-relations aspects of his work. He is a former chairman of the Furniture Retailers of America and current chairman of the Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based free trade group.
“There are always government issues to be dealt with; trade issues and anti-dumping issues with the [U.S.] Department of Commerce,” he says.
Does he shop at Michaels?
“I don’t consider myself a crafty person, but what I have come to learn is that there is something for everyone at Michaels,” he says. “You don’t have to be a hobbyist or craftsman or jewelry maker or yarn stitcher.”