In July 2020, railcar leasing and repair company American Railcar Industries (ARI) announced an ambitious rebranding initiative, changing its businesses’ names to AITX and American Industrial Transport. The move came amid the company’s refocusing itself as a premier provider of leasing and repair services in the wake of its acquisition by ITE Management in 2018 and the sale of its manufacturing business to Greenbrier in 2019.
For Yevgeny Fundler, senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary of AITX, the rebranding was a tremendous challenge. It forced him to call on his decades of experience as in-house counsel for multiple Carl Icahn-affiliated companies, including—since 2000—ARI (now AITX).
A political refugee who fled the Soviet Union in 1988 to escape persecution, Fundler came to the US with little more than $99 and a suitcase. After scraping by as a box boy at Trader Joe’s and taking on various smaller jobs, he built his own law firm from the ground up. His firm represented entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley at the height of the ’90s dot-com bubble. Now, Fundler’s the legal voice of a company whose history can be traced back more than one hundred years—and one of the architects of an exciting new rebranding.
“Rebranding is easier to understand from a business perspective,” Fundler admits. “But from a legal perspective, there are a lot of pitfalls and things you have to take care of.” Together with the company’s marketing lead, Matt Liszt, and a host of other stakeholders, Fundler was involved with the rebranding from the beginning (rare for legal counsel), contributing on both the legal and logistic fronts.
The first obstacles Fundler had to overcome were the intellectual property issues related to the rebranding, including securing the trademark for AITX. He began by engaging trademark legal counsel to do extensive research on potential brands. This was no easy feat, considering he didn’t have much marketing experience. “With Matt [Liszt] not being in St. Louis, he kind of relied on me,” says Fundler, who leads IP strategy and execution.
Picking the right name involved extensive internal discussions with all the key players, followed by presentations on several brands that Fundler brought to the board of directors for approval. “Both the board and the management wanted to avoid having a brand imposed on the company, without the employees having any stake or the ability to say, ‘We don’t like it,’” he explains.
Of those options, the board picked American Industrial Transport (AITX), which Fundler says was a nod to the company’s uniquely American heritage of more than a century. “It’s one of the most respected [railcar companies] in the country, with a lot of experience,” he notes. “Let’s not change the brand too much.”
According to Liszt, what makes Fundler’s role in this initiative unique is that while he initially came in from a legal perspective to highlight issues with trademark and transactions, he ultimately took an active part in driving decisions forward. “Sometimes, to marketing people, general counsel can feel like obstacles,” he explains. “But Yevgeny’s just the opposite.”
Fundler proactively educated the team from the onset, allowing Liszt to work strategically from the marketing end with full knowledge of the legal challenges they would have to work through. “He was a champion to everybody that helped drive the initiative through,” Liszt enthuses.
“Both the board and the management wanted to avoid having a brand imposed on the company, without the employees having any stake or the ability to say, ‘We don’t like it.’”
The rebranding process started in in fall 2019, after ITE Management sold ARI’s manufacturing business to Greenbrier. But it wasn’t until spring 2020 that the company fully implemented the rebranding—just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to complicate their plans in ways few could anticipate. “There was no ability to get together with a team. We couldn’t get into a conference room and explain to team members what was going on,” Fundler notes.
Thus, like so many other companies during the pandemic, they had to move online, finding ways to communicate these processes without in-person interpersonal interactions with suppliers or customers. Rather than shrink away from the challenge, Fundler and Liszt took advantage of the opportunity to show leadership how to make themselves as visible to their customers as possible with focused, specific marketing strategies.
Fundler considers himself a businessperson first and a lawyer second. Rather than bog his colleagues down with legal restrictions, he likes to teach them ways to mitigate risk and educate them about the legal pitfalls they might run into. “You have to be a problem-solver,” he says.
Throughout his law career, from law firm founder to in-house counsel for large businesses like AITX, Fundler has built an appreciation for the best ways to grow a company—without taking on too much legal risk. ARI’s rebranding into AITX is a good example of the real-life applications of that philosophy.