Foundational Stories of
The People Behind the Enterprise
The Seymour Liebman Story
An extraordinary man in ordinary clothes who carries a deep devotion to his family, his community and his company in a plain briefcase full of degrees, titles, and honors.
This is part 3 of the 6-part Seymour Liebman Story series. If you would like a free eBook of the entire series, Click the button below.
Seymour Liebman, the Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of Canon U.S.A., recently spent time with Julie and Andy Plata, Co-CEOs of the OutputLinks Communications Group, to share some of the events that shaped his life and propelled his career into areas that he didn’t expect or actively pursue.
The discussion uncovers a remarkable man with a story that leaves one amazed, impressed, and inspired. It reveals a humble and confident leader who has made his way through a long and respected career, building skills and expertise in an impressive range of disciplines. Along the way, he also set others on their paths to success through his mentorship, his teaching, and most clearly through his many examples of leadership.
Over this multi-part article series, we will share the life approaches and adventures in service that characterize Seymour Liebman’s multi-decade Canon career.
We trust that your time invested in reading this series will provide insights and pathways to enrich your approach to life and business.
After a few years with Canon, Seymour began hearing the comment, “You should go to law school.” He had absolutely zero interest at the time, even though he was engaged in business negotiations that might have benefitted from some legal training. He recalls his boss at the time (and current Chairman and CEO of Canon) Mr. Mitarai, telling him “Lawyers aren’t businessmen, I want to make a businessman into a lawyer.” These suggestions continued for several years, until 1985 when they became a ‘very serious’ suggestion.
Seymour, who was now a married father of two young kids, told his wife that Mr. Mitarai was again asking him to go to law school. “He’s been telling you that for five years,” she responded. “Yes, but this time he really means it!”
Realizing that this time the request was very serious, Seymour agreed. He enrolled in Touro Law School in 1985. Of course, he also told his wife that since he was going to Law School, he wanted to make Law Review. He again relays his wife’s practical advice; “Do you really need that additional pressure? You already have a job. Will Law Review really make a difference?”
He made Law Review.
Making the Law Review means one excelled in their studies and either researched, wrote or reviewed articles published in a scholarly journal on some aspect of the law.
Acquiring a law degree certainly helped Seymour as his roles and responsibilities with Canon increased. In 1989, Seymour established the in-house legal department at Canon U.S.A., where he currently oversees almost 50 in-house attorneys including intellectual property attorneys. His breadth of experiences took him into situations that required a mix of skills and knowledge. Seymour says that Mr. Mitarai’s foresight in sending him to law school was brilliant and he’s so glad that he listened to him.
Like most major companies, Canon would often rely on the assistance of outside counsel to provide support and expertise in a variety of situations. Seymour, representing the business interests of Canon, would often find himself at the negotiation table alongside senior partners and veteran attorneys brought in to assist in negotiation. He certainly valued their experience and listened to their input. At the same time, Seymour had his own ideas as to how he saw a negotiation going.
“I Like Doing Crazy Negotiations”
When you have a long and varied career, there will certainly be a few experiences that rise to the top. When thinking back across his many negotiations, these two stand out.
Seymour sets the scene:
I will tell you one story that goes back 20 or 25 years. We had a major issue which could have involved us having to pay almost $200 million.
The negotiation begins. Seymour picks up the story:
I went with our attorney to meet the other party. Our attorney knows I always try to save the company as much money as I can. I guess I treat Canon’s money like my own and try to minimize how much money the company has to pay. He said, "If you offer them less than $50 million they are going to throw us out on our head." He was an older guy, probably in his mid-seventies, with long experience as head of the law firm and he expected to be the lead negotiator. I said to him, "Norman, I will do all the talking." He said, "I'm warning you, let me do it.” Even more emphatically I again told him, “I will do all the talking!”
They entered the negotiation room to find 4 or 5 guys sitting across the table.
They said, "This is what you owe us. We understand you want to settle."
I said, 'Look, we had a bad apple who acted in a way that obviously was not sanctioned by the company … we didn't approve it.'
"One of them says, 'Well, we are here to talk money - if you don't want to talk money there’s no purpose in talking. What do you want to put on the table?' I said 'A million dollars,' and Norman kicked me under the table."
They said, "We need to talk among ourselves," and walked out. My conversation with Norman went something like this:
Norman: "They are not coming back."
Me: "They are coming back, we put money on the table."
Norman: "Why did you offer a million dollars?"
Me: "Because we are not going to pay 50 million dollars."
Norman: "Oh yes you are." (He had told our president to plan on paying $100 million, and maybe you'll get a 50% discount off the $200 million.)
Norman: "They are not coming back."
Well, probably half an hour, 45 minutes later they came back and said, "Obviously, we are not taking that offer seriously, and you probably didn't take our number seriously. If we can settle this today, we are willing to compromise for 50 million dollars. We will give you guys time to think about it." They left the room and Norman said to me "Offer $25 million - just offer to split the difference."
We told them to come back, and I offered them two million dollars. By five o'clock that day, we settled it for six million dollars. Norman said to me, "I'm not calling your president, I told him this is going to cost him a hundred million dollars!”
I went back to the office, and told them, "We just settled it." They asked, "A hundred million and what?" I said, "Forget that, we settled it all for six million dollars!" They looked at me like I was nuts.
STEVE JOBS and NeXT
Soon after Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple, was asked to leave the company in 1985, he launched a new company, NeXT, to develop a new personal and business computing platform. Jobs was the public face of NeXT, but there were two other key financial partners in the company. One was the billionaire entrepreneur and former U. S. Presidential candidate Ross Perot. The other partner was Canon, Inc.
In 1996 Steve Jobs negotiated Apple’s purchase of NeXT for $429 million along with his return to the company. Canon’s Chairman called Seymour to let him know that Jobs would be calling him about the distribution of funds from the pending sale. When Jobs called, he stated that since he had “negotiated” the deal, he expected a larger per-share distribution than Canon or Perot. Seymour said “no” and held firm that the parties would receive the full per-share value.
Steve Jobs, a man who did not like being told ‘no’, informed Seymour that he would no longer deal with him and disconnected the call. He decided to go around Seymour with a call to Canon’s leadership in Japan. He told them that he wasn’t happy with Seymour and wanted to work the deal with someone else. They responded politely but pointedly that Seymour Liebman was their man, and there was no changing that position.
Jobs called Seymour back, telling him he had “reconsidered” and decided to work with him after all. Seymour responded as only he could, telling Jobs, “no, you didn’t decide, you called Japan, and they told you that you had to deal with me.”
Once that was settled, Seymour and Steve worked together over the next four nights to complete the negotiations for the sale and an equitable distribution of funds among the three parties. The deal was completed on Thursday evening in time for a Friday deadline for Apple to announce the purchase of NeXT and Steve’s return to the company.
Well, This is Different!
As Chief Legal Officer, Seymour deals with a wide range of issues from contracts to acquisitions and increasingly finds himself defending against Patent Trolls. This practice has grown from an occasional nuisance to a full-fledged business. Companies have been formed to seek out and buy all manner of patents with the goal of creating revenue streams through both patent enforcement and potential litigation. Many companies find themselves in the dual positions of rigorous enforcement of their own patents and rigorous defense against patent infringement charges. Seymour has seen his fair share of both. His approach to dealing with Patent Trolling has been a bit different, as we’ll see in the following examples.
A patent troll claimed Canon was infringing their patents. The court ordered mediation and assigned a well-known and respected mediator with offices in San Francisco and Maui. One of the sessions was scheduled to take place at the Four Seasons on Maui. They were told the mediator required participants to come in suit and tie. When Seymour arrived with Canon’s attorney, the hotel doorman immediately knew what room they wanted – because they were the only ones wearing a suit and tie in Maui!
Seymour recalls: The mediator told us the room on the beach was reserved for the entire day. If the mediation was settled at 10 o’clock, we could enjoy the room for the rest of the day.
Throughout the day and evening, the mediation was going nowhere as the other party was still expecting something around $400 million. Around midnight Seymour spoke with his colleagues in Japan and told them he didn’t believe they were close enough to settle. They agreed – no settlement. The mediation was over, and he flew back home.
The court ordered one more round of mediation in San Francisco. As the meeting progressed, the mediator was not optimistic that the session would be successful and at 9:00 AM, he said the parties could leave. Seymour asked if he could talk to the client by himself – with no attorneys in the room. Everyone agreed.
The mediator came back two hours later to see how they were doing. They responded, “We’re still talking.” The discussion continued until late afternoon when they decided they were going out to lunch because they were both hungry. Returning from the very late lunch, they called the mediator in, and Seymour told him they thought they had reached a deal, but he needed to check with his team in Japan first.
The deal was, to say the least, unusual and required a lot of non-traditional thinking. Seymour’s proposal had two components:
- The first component: Canon would agree to a small payment.
- The second component: One of the claims that were part of the suit would be taken to a retired circuit court judge who would decide if there was an infringement or not. If there was no infringement, Canon would only be obligated to the small payment as agreed. If there was infringement found, Canon would make an additional small payment.
Seymour had to sell this deal not only to the plaintiff but also to Canon. It was very unusual and it took some real skill to convince both parties this package made sense. Finally, everyone agreed to the deal. The issue was settled. All parties realized value, and it didn’t involve a large cash payment.
After the settlement, the person who sued Canon began calling Seymour to set up a lunch meeting. The gentleman represented several inventors and companies who sue for patent infringement, but since he wasn’t actively suing Canon at the time, Seymour saw no reason to meet. Eventually, he agreed to a lunch and was surprised by what he was offered.
"I have a very successful business, but I've never negotiated against anybody like you. I want you to be my partner. You'll own 50% of my company. " Seymour immediately said no, explaining, "I can't go to the dark side." The man replied, "If you ever change your mind, there's a ton of money to be made." Seymour’s response was, "Yes, but I also have a reputation."
This little exchange provides another small glimpse into Seymour Liebman. These glimpses become a bit more personal later when he shares his thoughts on parents, family, community and his passion for the future.
This is part 3 of the 6-part Seymour Liebman Story series. Watch this publication weekly 'for the rest of the story.'
If you would like a free eBook of the entire series, Click the button below.