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Heineken USA Taps Four Loko Owner Phusion for New Legal Chief

Feb. 23, 2022, 11:00 AM

Heineken USA Inc. has hired Matthew Dornauer, the longtime top lawyer at alcoholic beverage company Phusion Projects, to be its new chief legal officer.

Dornauer joined Heineken USA as of Feb. 14, said company spokeswoman Dayna Adelman. He succeeds former legal chief J. Carlos Kuri, who left the Dutch brewer’s U.S. unit last year to take the top legal job at SXSW LLC, owner and operator of the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Dornauer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about his new position. His former employer, Chicago-based Phusion, also didn’t respond to a comment request about Dornauer’s replacement. Phusion owns a portfolio of alcoholic beverage brands like the once controversial Four Loko, as well as Mamitas Tequila & Soda, Moskato Life, and Basic Hard Seltzer and Basic Vodka.

Phusion, started in 2009 as alcoholic energy drinks grew in popularity, hired Dornauer to be its first-ever general counsel in 2013. Dornauer joined the company from his role as a litigation associate at Sidley Austin, where he helped Phusion navigate the fallout from a 2010 decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission to ban the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages.

Sidley advised Phusion as the company agreed in late 2010 to remove caffeine from Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage that made headlines for lawsuits over injuries and deaths allegedly caused by consuming the product. Four Loko and Phusion eventually rebounded, with the alcoholic beverage brand contributing to rising company revenues as it returned to store shelves sans caffeine.

White Plains, N.Y.-based Heineken USA is the American affiliate of the Amsterdam-based beer company of the same name. Heineken NV, the world’s second-largest brewer, in November agreed to acquire South Africa’s Distell Group Holdings Ltd. in a $2.5 billion deal. Distell shareholders approved the transaction last week.

Webber Wentzel, a leading South African law firm, and Dutch legal giant De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek are advising Heineken on its proposed purchase of Distell. Ernst van de Weert, a former De Brauw lawyer, joined Heineken in 2008 and has been the company’s executive director of global legal affairs since 2017.

That same year Heineken USA hired David Morgenstern, an attorney and former principal at Washington-based lobbying firm the Podesta Group Inc., to serve as its senior director of government affairs. Heineken USA paid $70,000 last year to Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck after retaining the law firm to lobby on international and corporate tax issues, according to U.S. Senate filings.

Dornauer joins an in-house legal team at Heineken USA that includes data privacy officer and counsel Melissa Peretz and deputy general counsel Seth Skiles, who recently posted to his LinkedIn profile a job opening for a legal counsel position at the company. Skiles didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Kuri, Dornauer’s predecessor as Heineken USA’s top legal and regulatory executive, joined the company in late 2019 after serving as the top lawyer for Red Bull North America Inc., the U.S. unit of Austrian energy drink giant Red Bull GmbH.

Heineken USA hired Kuri to succeed its longtime former legal chief Julie Kinch, the company’s first American general counsel who built up its U.S. legal group before leaving in 2019 after more than two decades in the role. Kinch, a former White & Case associate, founded the Heineken Women’s Leadership Forum, which promotes the inclusion and advancement of women at the company.

Bloomberg News reported this month that Heineken is raising the cost of its beer to offset rising costs related to raw materials, shipping, and energy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com