Big Ambitions at Small Companies

Michael Neuman has lent his legal insights to a number of growing companies over the years, and here he explains why he thrives in such challenging, ever-changing environments.

Michael Neuman, VP of Legal Affairs and Corporate Counsel, Marquee Brands Courtesy of Marquee Brands

Like a lot of young people, Michael Neuman took the first step of his career down a path that wasn’t exactly right for him. His first job out of law school was at a law firm specializing in litigation, but his heart wasn’t in it. “It was good experience, especially on the research and writing side, but I never felt like full-time litigation was my calling,” he says.

But, a year later, an acquaintance started a small bankruptcy-focused fund called TR Capital, and Neuman saw the opportunity to establish a career path more in line with his personality and interests. He became the company’s first hire and immediately recognized that bankruptcy and distressed debt were fast-paced and broadly relevant areas of law.

He has since spent time as an early hire at a number of growing companies, most recently Marquee Brands, a burgeoning brand-acquisition and licensing company where he’s now the vice president of legal affairs. Marquee’s current portfolio of brands includes Bruno Magli, Ben Sherman, Body Glove, and, most recently, Dakine, which it added in a deal that closed in late 2018. Also, notably, in 2017, Marquee purchased BCBGMAXAZRIA out of bankruptcy court in New York, allowing Neuman to continue developing his expertise in that area. Here, Neuman breaks down a few of the exciting aspects he enjoys about working for smaller companies, with all the pressure and uncertainty they entail.

An All-Hands-On-Deck Culture

Neuman appreciates that small companies tend to have decentralized reporting structures, without calcified roles, tedious protocols, or even daily routines. At TR Capital, Neuman had his hands in all sorts of projects, from helping businesspeople word their emails to revising and negotiating contracts.

“I was assisting in every role in the beginning, really,” he says. “I was buying the debt, working on the assignment contracts, collections, employee matters, and working closely with bankruptcy attorneys. It was an all-hands-on-deck mentality, which really appealed to me.”

As part of his multifaceted, collaborative role at TR Capital, Neuman tried to find ways to make business negotiations go through smoothly, rather than acting as the resident “no” person. He understood that his colleagues’ livelihoods were tied to their dealmaking, and he didn’t take his obligations to them and the company lightly. “I’m a big believer in rolling up my sleeves and finding a way,” he says.

These efforts were helped along by the collaborative and collegial work environment that took root at TR Capital. Neuman and his colleagues worked literally side by side at a large desk, most of them just a year or two out of college, and the vibrant deal-hungry energy sparked the nascent business in its early years.

“Everyone got along really well,” Neuman says. “I’m still friends with a number of people from there; we are still regularly in touch, even years later.”

More Chances to Sharpen Skills

Following a successful and educational stint at TR, Neuman accepted an offer from the CEO of a brand portfolio and licensing firm called Sequential Brands Group, joining as its fourth employee. Again, he jumped at the chance to help build a small company from scratch. He knew the firm’s small size would require him to deepen his knowledge of certain legal specializations, and he looked forward to the challenge.

“When I started at Sequential, it was my introduction to the world of trademarks, IP, licensing, and M&A,” Neuman says. “It was different, to constantly be at the forefront of a brand-new M&A deal. There was always something in the works, and that provided a certain rush and excitement.”

A transformative learning opportunity came when Andy Tarshis joined the company as general counsel, about two years after Neuman started. Given the small size of the legal team, Neuman had every opportunity to work closely under Tarshis, a well-known and seasoned general counsel, who nurtured Neuman’s professional growth. Thanks to Tarshis, Neuman added new layers to his understanding of license drafting, public company agreements, and trademark portfolios, which he never could have done if he’d been stuck in a routine at a large firm. “Under Andy’s tutelage, I was really able to get to the next level,” Neuman says.

Making Deals, Making Connections

After about four years at Sequential, Neuman arrived at his current role, charged with setting up and managing Marquee’s legal department. He had seen meteoric growth at Sequential, working on sixteen brand acquisitions (including the Martha Stewart, Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake, And1, Avia, Gaim, and Spri brands), so he had much to offer Marquee, then still in its nascent stages.

The first years of any business are a delicate time, including in the field of brand licensing, where numerous complex license agreements must be executed in short order to fuel growth but also must be handled delicately and carefully, Neuman was able to put his years of training to the test to help Marquee succeed. He says that no matter whether your counterparty is large or small, more than half of any negotiation is the “people factor.” If you can connect on a human level, the deal is likely to succeed, even if there are thorny legal points to work through.

Neuman says that “having a smile on your face, empathetically trying to view the matter from the prism of your counterparty,” and working creatively to find a workable solution is often not just the way to get a deal signed but the first crucial interaction in what can become a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Neuman says such long-term thinking is critical, and he credits his prior experiences with helping him hone these skills.

“It’s funny to me that a lot of times it starts off almost adversarial, and then we sit down and we’re friends,” Neuman says. “Hopefully, it’s the jumping off point for a great future relationship.”