Guitar Hero: Rocking Out with Fender CLO Mark Van Vleet

Mark Van Vleet

Lawyer Mark Van Vleet has always been into music--so landing the top legal gig at one of the most recognizable guitar companies in the world has been a match made in rock-and-roll heaven. The opportunity came unexpectedly for Van Vleet, who started his first in-house job in 1997 at a health food company, following a former partner from the law firm Johnston Maynard Grant & Parker where they had both worked. After about five years in-house, someone mentioned that Fender Musical Instruments Corp.--the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based makers of legendary electric guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster--needed a new GC.

"I've always been a music enthusiast," Van Vleet says. "Many of my all-time favorite musicians are synonymous with the Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jazz Bass or Precision Bass."

So he submitted a resume, landed an interview with the then-CEO and received an offer on the spot.

Since 2002, Van Vleet has been promoted to CLO, senior vice president of business affairs and corporate secretary. His work runs the gamut, from managing a global intellectual property portfolio to complying with environmental regulations at the company's manufacturing facilities.

At the end of March, Fender lost a six-year battle to trademark the shapes of several guitars, including the Stratocaster and Telecaster. Despite the unfavorable outcome, Van Vleet perseveres--managing myriad legal issues at the hallowed musical company--all the while working alongside legendary guitarists, such as Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton.

Q: What's your take on the IP decision?

A: Obviously, I respectfully disagree with the court's opinion. We felt that we had more than enough evidence to show that when people see those two dimensional outlines, they associate Fender as the source. We're obviously disappointed, but we still think that when people see those shapes they really do think of Fender.

Q: Will you appeal the decision?

A: We're still kind of evaluating it. Still looking at the evidence. We have not made a final decision yet.

Q: What is better about being in-house?

A: It's certainly more business focused. As outside counsel, particularly on the litigation side, it's all about winning. In-house, it's a much more pragmatic, fiscally prudent approach to decisions. It's not always about wining and losing. It's about, "Should we even start the fight in the first place?"

Q: How has your legal department changed since you started at Fender?

A: It's grown 400 percent. Initially, it was just me. I didn't have any paralegals; I didn't have any assistants. You're talking to the guy who did a little bit of everything. As the company's needs have grown, we decided to bring more expertise in-house rather than outsourcing everything. It's gone from me handling everything and monitoring outside counsel to being able to do more work in-house.

Q: What do you recommend for other CLOs who want to grow their in-house team?

A: Manage the business' expectations.
A lot of times the other departments and the business people will say, "If you're going to add another resource, then you're going to have dramatically more output." That's not always the case. Because a lot of times, as you start to get more business delegated to you from internal business departments, you realize it's a lot more complicated than you originally contemplated. So it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to increase the output of legal services exponentially.

Q: How do you decide which work
to outsource?

A: First and foremost it's expertise. We need to make sure we provide top-quality legal advice. So do we have the expertise, and do we have the bandwidth? We're a relatively small department. The company has over 3,000 employees, and we have four attorneys total. So it really depends.

Q: What's the most challenging legal issue you've faced?

A: We recently did a pretty large acquisition of a company called Kaman Music Corp. (KMC). We closed at the end of 2007. It became effective in the beginning of 2008. That was a large acquisition, not only for Fender but for the industry. And there was a lot of due diligence. Also, the integration of that acquisition has taken a lot of time and effort.

Q: Was it different from matters you'd worked on before?

A: Yeah, primarily because of the size and the scope. We had done other acquisitions, but they had been more tuck-in, as opposed to a company that was doing hundreds of millions in revenue.

Q: Overall, what's the most challenging part of your job?

A: Addressing all of [Fender's] needs. There are so many different things that come up. You need a lot of communication. Like at a law firm, every client wants his work done first. It's that constant demand of people saying, "I can just walk down the hallway, say I have an issue and expect a result." You need to be able to balance all of that, prioritize it, execute it and deliver the ultimate goods.

Q: As a brand, Fender has major star power. What's it like working there?

A: There's certainly a sense of pride. It's a household name--even if you're not a musician, you're familiar with [the brand]. With that comes a sense of humility. It's something you feel you need to cherish--and take care of this brand and the goodwill that's come along with it. Fender has been such an important part not only of music but of pop culture, so it's really this sense
of responsibility.

Q: I've read that you often interact with well-known musicians.

A: Not every day or every week. But one of the benefits of the job is to do business with amazing musicians who are some of the best-known rock gods on the planet.

Q: Do you have any good stories?

A: I grew up in Rockford, Ill. The one true band from Rockford is Cheap Trick. I grew up always paying homage to Cheap Trick, and as part of the KMC acquisition, one of the brands we acquired was Hamer. [Lead guitarist] Rick Nielsen has always played Hamer guitars [such as his famous five-neck ax]. That's his signature guitar and signature look. So I've gotten to develop this relationship with Rick Nielsen. Having grown up in Rockford, it doesn't get any better than that.

It's a great thing to not only meet your idols like Eddie Van Halen and Rick Nielsen and Alice Cooper and Eric Clapton--I've always been a music fan--but now to interact with them and do business with them. It's a real treat.

Q: How exactly do you interact?

A: It depends. With Ed Van Halen, Fender is the exclusive manufacturer and distributor of his line. He's arguably one of the greatest living guitar players, but he's also a sophisticated businessman, and he's very hands-on. Everything from the product development to the positioning of the product and the marketing materials. So when we have those types of issues, and we talk about the business plans and the future of the relationship, we get the opportunity to meet with him, spend time with him. That's where we hear the stories of things that just blow your mind.

Assistant Editor

Christopher Danzig

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