A little dab’ll do ya

As head of legal at Sara Lee, Howard Rubenstein’s remit encompasses standing up for and protecting a plethora of his company’s products. But cake isn’t one of them. Naomi Rovnick reports

Sara Lee UK head of legal Howard Rubenstein has something to tell you. It may come as a shock, but it is for your own good. The company he works for- and he is completely sure about this – does not sell cake.

“I tire of people always thinking that I work in a large cake shop,” he says. “I only employ lawyers who are aware of all our brands – none of which are cake.”

To be fair, law firms thinking of working with Sara Lee do have a good excuse to associate the company with cake. Sara Lee Corporation is a US company, of which the UK operation is a wholly-owned subsidiary. The parent corporation did sell “frozen baked goods” through its UK arm, but ceased this operation in June when the UK bakery business was sold off to Dublin-based Hibernia.

The UK operation now focuses on selling “branded apparel”, encompassing clothes, household and bodycare products, as well as tea and coffee. There is a huge selection of brands that many would not associate with the company: Douwe Egberts coffee, Playtex Bras and Brylcream are just a famous few in a long list of household names.

Rubenstein qualified in litigation at Paisner & Co (now Berwin Leighton Paisner) in 1994 and stayed there for three years. He says he liked it, but once he had come to realise that he had interests outside of private practice, he decided to move fast.

“I was interested in things other than lawyers and the law,” he says. “You only have one crack at a career, and after I’d decided private practice wasn’t for me I didn’t have any time to waste.”

Before Sara Lee, where he has been for two years, his first in-house job was at accountancy giant Ernst & Young. CMS Cameron McKenna advised him while he was at Ernst & Young, and he was so impressed with the firm that he invited it to work for Sara Lee when he moved.

The other firms on the UK panel are Clifford Chance, Bristows, Doyle Clayton, Warner Cranston and Stevens & Bolton. Clifford Chance has handled most of the corporate work, but healthy competition has now arisen between Clifford Chance and Camerons for Sara Lee’s major transactions.

Camerons won corporate work over Clifford Chance for the first time when Sara Lee disposed of its UK bakery business in June (The Lawyer, 11 June). But, stresses Rubenstein, Clifford Chance was not pushed aside, rejected, spurned… or any other nasty word that could become a headline in the legal press. He says he regards all of his panel firms equally and always chooses the right firm for the job.

Rubenstein conducts a panel review every year. Apart from Camerons and Warner Cranston, all the firms currently on the panel have been there since before Rubenstein started at Sara Lee. The company bought French textile manufacturer Courtauld Troyes Manufacture last year, and as Warner Cranston was Courtauld’s main law firm, it came onto the panel.

Rubenstein conducted his last panel review last winter. “All the key firms stayed on the panel,” he says. And for anyone wanting to work with Rubenstein in the future, he has one main piece of advice: bill carefully.

“I don’t like law firms that think that a clock should be ticking every time we talk,” he says. “We expect to pay for good advice, but I don’t choose law firms that bill for every two-minute phone-call.”

What Rubenstein does appreciate is external lawyers who know what Sara Lee does and what his job involves. He deals with licensing and branding issues and the company’s major corporate transactions, and he is often required to perform both functions simultaneously.

“People think being an in-house lawyer is a soft option. But not only do I have to manage corporate deals and work on sensitive licensing and employment issues, as well as being more flexible than lawyers in larger firms, I also have the additional responsibilities and bureaucracy that comes with working in-house,” he explains.

Rubenstein is also Sara Lee’s UK company secretary. This is a role he clearly relishes as it allows him to operate beyond the confines of the legal profession. As company secretary he sits on the company’s management board, which gives him a degree of influence over branding and strategy issues.

“I genuinely believe in our brands and the promise they offer to the consumer,” he eulogises, before sheepishly adding: “Sorry. This is what happens when you place a lawyer in a sales and marketing environment.”

With his talk of “brand promises” and consumers, Rubenstein does seem to prove that even lawyers can become fully-fledged graduates of ‘Nikeism’ and ‘Starbucksology’. But when asked to justify exactly what a ‘brand promise’ is, he goes a little quiet.

“It depends on the product, I suppose,” he decides after a long pause. “I’m not a marketing director. However, I think all of our brands promise the consumer a certain pleasurable experience.”

It is hard to see how this theory applies to Kiwi Shoe Polish, owned by Sara Lee. But then again, perhaps it is Rubenstein’s confidence in all the Sara Lee labels that makes him so good at his job.

Rubenstein is passionate about Sara Lee brands to such an extent because much of his role involves defending them. Sara Lee brands are threatened by two sets of manufacturers. On the one hand, there are manufacturers which copy Sara Lee products to confuse the consumer into believing they are a cheaper version of the real thing. The company has had problems with copycat versions of Kiwi Shoe Polish and Brylcream.

Like many brand manufacturers, Sara Lee also suffers from its products being copied by supermarkets, the very customers that keep the company alive.
Many supermarkets design own-brand products that look very similar to Sara Lee’s. If Sara Lee brands do come with a certain promise, then according to Rubenstein, supermarkets’ own-brand products that resemble them also create a little of that special reassurance in the mind of the shopper.

But Rubenstein has never taken a supermarket to court over this. He argues that Sara Lee and the supermarkets need each other equally, which is why they rarely fight over intellectual property issues.

“Supermarkets are valued customers, although we’d take a firm line if we felt they were undermining our brands by producing imitative products,” he says. “Our brands carry a certain weight. Retailers need to keep stocking them to reassure consumers that they’re quality outlets and to give consumers choice. They’ll never try and imitate branded products in order to squeeze brand manufacturers out of the market. A shop that doesn’t sell branded products is usually associated with discount rather than quality and luxury.”

One retailer that Sara Lee may be having a different kind of trouble with is Marks & Spencer (M&S). Reports in the financial press say that Sara Lee is to cut 200 jobs at Courtauld Troyes Manufacture in Arcis-Sur-Aube as part of a closure plan. Courtauld’s biggest client is M&S, to which it mainly provides textiles.

Rubenstein denies, though, that a single retailer could cause the massive Sara Lee corporation any problems.

“We’re not worried about Marks & Spencer. All I know is that Sara Lee is an extremely busy place to work and not a day goes by without something happening. Sara Lee is only ever going to grow,” he says.

Even after giving up cake? Perhaps the company, rather than slimming down, now has room in its appetite for a few more businesses.

Howard Ruberstein
UK head of legal
Sara Lee Corporation

Organisation Sara Lee Corporation
Sector Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG)
Employees Approximately 1000 in the UK
Legal Capability Two lawyers, with an assistant from Ferrer & Co due to become the third
UK Head of legal Howard Ruberstein
Reporting to US general counsel Rick Palmore
Main location for lawyers Slough
Main law firms Bristows, Clifford Chance, CMS Cameron McKenna, Doyle Clayton, Stevens & Bolton, Warner Cranston