How a Dad Became a Distance Runner & What It Taught Him About Business

Nancy Flagg Issue 11 - May/June 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

NBTY General Counsel Christopher Brennan runs ultra-marathons with his son. Here, he shares professional wisdom gained over the course(s).

By Nancy Flagg

Life lessons are everywhere. After Christopher Brennan’s twin sons were born 12 years ago, he started pushing them in a jogging stroller while running. One of his sons, who has profound autism, seemed to especially enjoy partaking in the runs; even when their casual runs became longer, his enthusiasm never wavered. Before long, the runs became marathons, which became triathlons, and then ultra-marathons and ultra-distance triathlon races. In the last seven years, Brennan and his son have participated in numerous marathons and other sporting events. And along the way, Brennan has learned a great deal about endurance and patience.


Life Lessons Extrapolated to the Business World

Brennan and his son have formed a deep connection through their shared training exercises. The elder Brennan has watched the younger demonstrate a high level of endurance when faced with the frustration of struggling through the daily challenges his autism presents. As a result of their experiences together, Brennan learned lessons of patience and fortitude and brought those lessons to his workplace.

“In today’s world, everyone wants results immediately,” said Brennan, who is General Counsel at NBTY, a global manufacturer, distributor and retailer of more than 20,000 brand-name vitamins and nutritional supplements. As an executive, he is in a position to give others the perspective that, “It is OK to stumble along the way and defer the satisfaction of good results until they can be crafted into great results.” It is the end result, as well as the lessons learned throughout the process, that matter, according to Brennan.

Another lesson Brennan brings to the office was learned when he was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force: that the best end results happen when people are led, not managed. “You manage projects; you manage papers. You don’t manage people; you lead people,” he said. Managing is about controlling people to meet specific expectations, whereas leading people means empowering them to take responsibility and be self-motivated. “The results go well beyond any expectation I could have set for them,” Brennan added.

As an example, he is in the process of launching a pro bono legal program at NBTY—one that emphasizes the company’s commitment to supporting wellness in every form. Brennan has empowered his staff to explore specialty pro bono projects in which legal staff across the globe can participate. He set the overall objective, but his team is determining how the project will be structured. He meets with the group and they share ideas, but rather than it being his own pet project, the efforts are owned broadly by and driven by the group.


brennan_chris_raceLegal Liaison Program

One lesson that Brennan learned in prior General Counsel positions within the life science industry is that it is imperative for a corporate legal team to be part of early discussions on business initiatives. In large organizations, business managers may spend considerable time and energy developing a new project and at the eleventh hour bring it to the Legal Department and other units to vet it. If the legal team finds a problem at that eleventh hour, Brennan said, the project is derailed and business leaders experience frustration and additional work.

He has since solved the eleventh-hour problem by creating a Legal Liaison Program at NBTY, which in addition to the U.S. and Canada maintains offices in the U.K., China, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and New Zealand. In the program, he identified all the major business units that could benefit from having a specific point of contact on the legal team. He assigned a lawyer to management teams so that they could be part of early project discussions, raise red flags and help the business managers navigate the rules and legal challenges of their projects. This new collaborative effort has allowed the Legal Department to be more proactive and create operational efficiencies.

As an example, the company’s business units formerly consulted extensively with outside legal counsel on issues. Since the liaison program was started a year ago, the use of outside counsel has dropped substantially and $2 million has been saved.

A New Breed of Lawyer

The Legal Liaison Program also provides a training ground for a new breed of lawyer and General Counsel. Like they did with Chief Financial Officers years ago, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) are relying more heavily on General Counsel to be integrally involved in executive business decisions. Brennan was drawn to NBTY because CEO Jeff Nagel and the management team held the philosophy that a General Counsel serves as a leader and executive first, and a specialist second.


For lawyers and General Counsel to fit the new breed profile, they need to be “business enablers,” Brennan said. He noted that the role of a business enabler is to participate in business discussions, identify risk, interpret risk in lay businessperson terms, and help the leaders navigate through the maze of rules and options that helps create an acceptable risk profile.

Brennan started his training as a business executive-lawyer hybrid early. After several years in private practice, including beginning his legal career at the New York City law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, a former client asked him to review a business plan for the startup Quinnova Pharmaceuticals. Shortly thereafter, Brennan was invited to be one of two operating Co-Founders of the company. He accepted the challenge because it gave him an opportunity to be an entrepreneurial businessperson, General Counsel and jack-of-all-trades. Although the learning curve was steep, his company raised $32 million, grew to a staff of 80 and provided pharmaceutical sales to physicians nationwide, all in a five-year period and in preparation for the eventual sale of the company.

Before joining NBTY, Brennan served as General Counsel at PharmaNet. The PharmaNet position required a hybrid of legal and executive-level business skills in a company of 5,000 employees located all over the world. His role was to position the company to meet specific objectives and help execute an eventual exit strategy set by the private-equity owners.

At each step in his career, Brennan enhanced his entrepreneurial and legal skills and patiently applied them toward meeting long-term company goals. Whether growing a company and preparing it for sale or changing the internal corporate culture, such as through his Legal Liaison Program, Brennan leads with a singular persistence he learned while logging thousands of running miles and hours with his son.

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.


Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

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