Rosanna Marrero Neagle, Vice President of Legal Affairs for Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream, shares the story of her career and what she has learned along the way
Many people – especially women – do not see a symbiotic relationship between jeans and ice cream, but for Rosanna Marrero Neagle, the combination of the two has made for a rich and sweet career, not unlike the ice cream made by her current employer. After spending 14 successful years in-house at Levi Strauss and Company, she took her legal acumen and generalist skillset to Nestlé Dreyer’s and Nespresso USA where she currently is the Vice President of Legal Affairs.
A Rich History
It appears that Neagle was predestined to become a lawyer considering both her parents practiced law, and Neagle agrees, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Neagle, a first generation Cuban American, hasn’t wasted the opportunity afforded her when she, her parents and younger brother emigrated to the United States. Neagle’s mother, one of few female graduates of law from the University of Havana has influenced her a great deal. “My mom was an attorney in the 1950’s–the number of women in law at that time–there weren’t very many. She was the feminist anchor in my life.” Neither of Neagle’s parents explicitly encouraged her to go into law, instead, they fostered a love and desire for higher academic pursuits and, “having a career where you were being challenged intellectually.”
The cream always rises to the top, and for Neagle that holds true. Neagle started her career at the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw before seizing the opportunity to go in-house. Her impressive 14 year stint with the company initially provided her the opportunity to practice her specialty: employment law. She started to focus on employment law about halfway through law school, and she hasn’t regretted it since. “Most major companies, with a large number of employees have a pretty consistent need for internal employment law support.” But, after a few years, Levi Strauss made a number of manufacturing changes that took her away from her first love but provided the opportunity for Neagle to branch out and take on more of a generalist role. She began supporting the marketing and sales teams with their issues and learned one of the tricks to the general counsel trade: “being flexible and learning new substantive and leadership capabilities on the job.”
The position at Levi Strauss led to Neagle learning another invaluable lesson: take risks and don’t be afraid to be a little uncomfortable. Albert Moreno, General Counsel at Levi Strauss, encouraged her not only to move beyond employment law, but to take on an international position. She and her family (a husband and two small children) initially weren’t sure. Moreno “pushed me outside my comfort zone.” He also told her that “if it feels a little bit scary, it should, and that is going to be a good thing for you!” And, while it did provide Neagle with some trepidation, she went for it, and it ended up being a positive move both personally and professionally.
The time spent abroad helped Neagle gain some very useful perspectives that she continues to apply today. “In any situation, it is important to not come in with any sort of “hard line , or form an absolute opinion until you take time to learn the other person’s perspective. …you are working in a different culture, just like working with a new client, you have to understand the culture you are in, and what people’s point of view is…” Letting people have a voice has also been instrumental. “I believe I am a good listener. I usually have some sense of what my point of view is, but I am pretty flexible and understand I may need to adapt.” On the flip side, she knows when to fight the good fight. “I am also very comfortable in stating my opinion… You have to gain a seat at the table, and then you have to hold your own. Sometimes holding your own can mean looking someone in the eye and saying, there is a different way to approach the issue or reach the desired outcome—and then being able to effectively state your position on the risks and opportunities. As an in house attorney, critical components of success are to effectively describe the legal issue in clear, “business friendly” terms—but always offer an alternative path or solution to the commercial problem before you”.
Along with taking risks, Neagle believes there is another significant key to her success: believing in the product. “Finding a role in a company that makes a product that I am excited about and relate to made a big difference in my enthusiasm… Liking the product your client makes– as well as understanding it– are obviously important factors. ” And, while she loved the product and the work at Levi Strauss, she knew in 2007 that it was time to challenge herself further and move into another industry– Nestlé Dreyer’s Ice Cream Company.
Moving to Nestlé Dreyer’s has been a sweet move literally and figuratively for Neagle. The literal is obvious, but what isn’t so obvious are the challenges she faced and mastered. In 2010, Nestlé acquired the Kraft frozen pizza business and began the integration of their DSD (direct store delivery) operations into the existing Dreyer’s DSD operations—at the same time that the legacy Dreyer’s operations were being integrated into Nestlé USA’. Neagle and her team began the intricate process of providing the legal support to the integration of two culturally and operationally diverse companies. “It was unprecedented for me to have a moving target of an organization that was about to integrate and then having another newly acquired organization also integrate its operations, both at the same time.” Neagle’s success in the process started with helping her clients work through the question of “when all of this is done, what does the newly combined organization look like, then working back from there to ensure that the steps we were taking would be incompliance.” Another challenge Neagle has had to face since changing industries is the “tsunami of false advertising litigation.” Food companies are susceptible to these lawsuits because there is “often a lack of regulatory clarity about what the marketer can and can’t claim. That opens the door for claims that consumers are being mislead about the product’s attributes…” Neagle has been up to the challenge of defending these cases but admits, “they are complicated and very time and resource intensive.” Not to mention, there are continued challenges because of the company’s sheer size along with its variety of products and product propositions.
Another sweet opportunity she has had at Nestlé is to demonstrate her leadership capabilities, many of which she again credits to Levi Strauss’s Albert Moreno. “He didn’t micromanage–he really empowered me.” Along those lines, he showed Neagle that some mistakes are bound to happen and that often, “you learn more from the mistakes. The goal is to be clear about what happened and how to avoid that in the future.” She also gleaned from Moreno that, “you don’t necessarily need to be the “smartest person” in the room to be a great leader. A strong and effective leader needs to know when to step back (even if he/she knows the “answer”) or they can get in the way if they are in the leadership role.” But one of the most important aspects of Moreno’s leadership style that Neagle effectively emulates is caring for her team. “He not only cared professionally but personally, he was incredibly understanding and supportive. I try to do that with my team.”
Denim and ice cream, kind of the proverbial ‘odd couple’ have led to a consummate career for Neagle. But, Neagle gets all the credit because she did just what she advises new lawyers: “first and foremost, find an industry that interests you in ways that are broader than the law.” And if one looks at all Neagle has accomplished at Levi Strauss and Nestlé Dreyer’s–including merging two huge corporate entities, never mind being named a finalist of the 2014 Corporate Counsel Awards, what she says is true–the proof is in the ice cream. ♦
Learn the Business
Neagle advises learning the ins and outs of the business you represent. As a general counsel, getting a seat at the senior leadership table is an important part of learning that business. “At the table you are wearing both a functional hat as a lawyer but also a business person’s hat. During the course of those meetings, you build your knowledge of the commercial issues with your colleagues… You start to really understand the business side that you support from the legal perspective, and it is important, because your legal advice is most effective when when your client knows you understand how their business actually “works”.”
Neagle also recommends reading everything a person can about the business issues facing your client’s industry and most importantly, focusing on building relationships and spending as much time as possible with the team leaders.” Likewise, Neagle stresses the importance of understanding the market and how the product is promoted and manufactured. For Neagle, she even stresses understanding how a product is delivered to its consumers. “Whether it is pants or ice cream, it really doesn’t matter; significant issues are going to happen across the supply chain and as a lawyer you have to build a pretty strong basis of understanding for your client’s business.”