He Just Does It

Jim Carter defends the Nike brand

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2009 magazine

By Susan G. Hauser on March 1, 2009


Behind Jim Carter’s desk at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., is a framed poster of Olympic champion marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson. It’s inscribed to Carter, thanking him for joining her on a run near her New England home.

“That,” says Carter, pointing to Samuelson’s note, “is one of the best perks of the job.” At 60, the Nike general counsel and vice president maintains the lean physique of a runner. It pays to stay in shape, because opportunities like runs with Samuelson—”my all-time favorite athlete,” he says—don’t come by every day.

Eleven years ago, Carter was going to court on real estate and business tort litigation matters for Schulte, Anderson, Downes, Carter & Aronson in Portland, Ore., when client Nike asked him to become general counsel for the U.S. and Americas regions. He soon moved West to the company’s sprawling 170-acre campus; and he was promoted to the top legal job in 2003.

Today his corner office in Nike’s Dan Fouts Building, named for the San Diego Chargers quarterback, overlooks a 10-acre manmade lake and tree-shaded paths that employees use to walk (or run) between the company’s 17 buildings, each named for a star Nike athlete or coach. He manages more than 100 staff members worldwide, about two-thirds of whom are based in Oregon. While on sabbatical in Europe this summer with his wife, he says, with some astonishment, “I was off e-mail for five weeks. I couldn’t find a better group, in law firms or anywhere else. It’s a collection of really talented people. It’s nice not to have to focus on getting more business and hourly rates. We can work on leadership and management and act more consistently with good business practices.”

Carter grew up in Pendleton, a small town along the Oregon Trail famous for its annual rodeo. He followed in his elder brother’s footsteps to Stanford University, where he graduated in 1971 with an economics degree. Nike founder Phil Knight also attended Stanford, for his MBA, although he had already gone on to create Nike’s precursor, Blue Ribbon Sports, before Carter arrived at the Palo Alto campus. As a junior, Carter studied in Vienna for six months, which, along with a comparative economics class that focused on Eastern Europe, Africa and China, gave him a global perspective and an interest in world business. “Now it’s not too unusual to have students come on to campuses who are global travelers,” he says, “but in the late ’60s, that was a bit unusual. That really prompted my interest beyond the U.S.”

Today he travels to Europe, Asia and South and Central America a few times a year. While most of his time is focused on litigation and team management matters, counterfeiting is a major issue abroad. And it’s not just about the revenue, he says; it’s about protecting the integrity of the brand.

“We obviously invest a lot of money over time to build a brand,” he says. “So it’s potentially very damaging to a brand to have a product sold with unknown quality, material content and manufacturing conditions.”

Nike lawyers and staff communicate directly with law enforcement authorities and customs officials in many countries. “We’ve developed networks of local lawyers and investigators the world over,” he says. “It’s imperative to impress upon local authorities that Nike will go the extra mile to help fight counterfeiters by identifying the product to determine its legitimacy or sending a company representative to the location to appear as a witness.

“That cooperation is very important,” he continues, “because the first time or two you don’t show up, [local authorities] lose their enthusiasm for that sort of prosecution. When you do have a trial, the commitment that Nike shows, even if it’s Nike as the plaintiff in a civil prosecution, that’s all part of the messaging that matters. So that’s how we build a program in every country.”

Shortly after Carter joined the company, Nike was hit with a First Amendment case that put it on the defense and in the midst of a public relations battle. In 1998, San Francisco resident Marc Kasky sued Nike for statements responding to public criticism of factory conditions in Asia, relying on a clause in California’s business and professions code that allows companies to be sued for unfair trade practices, including false advertising. Kasky argued Nike’s statements were meant to mislead the public, and wanted the company to forfeit profits made on products sold in California.

A California Superior Court granted Nike’s motion to dismiss the claims on the basis that the Constitution protected its statements as a part of public debate. The California Supreme Court later overturned the ruling, saying Nike’s statements were commercial speech and would be held to a stricter standard than the public speech or political debate that is protected by the First Amendment. Nike appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the case was argued in April 2003. But two months later the justices dismissed the writ as improvidently granted.

“In other words,” says Carter, “the case wasn’t really ripe for hearing at the time. I attended the argument at the Supreme Court. It’s a fascinating opportunity to be able to sit in the courtroom when a case is argued before the Court.”

Ultimately the parties settled, at about the same time the law in question was amended to make such suits more difficult to pursue. “I think the whole labor issue at the time was kind of the perfect storm for a lawsuit like that,” he says. “But it doesn’t exist anymore, in terms of the perfect conditions. There were a number of changes over the years and I think this was just on the continuum of change.”

Most of the time, Carter handles the daily legal matters encountered by any large consumer products brand—”getting products created, sold and delivered, managing our corporate governance issues, drafting agreements,” he says. “Our consuming public is a very broad-based group. It covers every dynamic within the world. For example, what may be an issue in the U.S. is not a concern outside the U.S. The idea that you could draw a straight line and say we’ll never cross that is probably naïve.”

It’s his dream job. “Portland is fortunate to have a magnet like Nike,” he says. “And it’s not just about the swoosh and Nike product, but it really is about the sense of innovation and creativity that’s all driven by Nike and the brand.”

He’s married to Julie, a nurse practitioner who also hails from Pendleton. His daughter Emily, 25, is enrolled in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Oregon Health & Science University, while son Tyler, 23, is a computer engineer who works for Lockheed Martin in California. When Tyler visits Portland, he makes sure to join his dad for a game of golf. Carter confesses that he’s a better golfer than a runner, despite having run alongside Joan Benoit Samuelson.

“Nike golf clubs help,” he says with a grin.

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