Product safety and compliance expert Leeton Lee, vice president of regulatory compliance and general counsel for Oxnard, California-based supplier ETS Express, Inc. (UPIC: ETSE), wasn’t always an expert in his field. Like legions of suppliers and distributors thrust into the product safety abyss a few years ago, Lee also scrambled to learn how to navigate the sea of regulations and product recalls.
It was the mid-1990s, and Lee was in the midst of a seven-year stint working as in-house legal counsel for The Walt Disney Company. One day, Lee’s boss approached him and asked what Lee knew about product safety. “I can spell the words,” Lee replied. “Good,” his boss said. “You’re in charge of Walt Disney’s product safety and compliance program. Here are five recalls for you to take care of.”
Lee likens his first experiences with product safety to being thrown into a swimming pool not knowing how to swim and with no “floaties” strapped to his arms.
But before long he was up to speed on topics such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and California’s Prop 65, eventually rising through the ranks of product safety circles, volunteering with the Toy Association of Southern California and PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG), and making a career out of compliance.
“I loved that I was doing something to help not just my company but also in a way making a difference out there,” Lee says of his work in compliance at Disney. “It became quite a fascinating area for me. I loved it.”
Lee’s tenure at Disney overlapped with the company’s stratospheric success in children’s animated features and the product franchises that accompanied its big-screen hits, such as Toy Story, The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast.
He recalls a time when, in mere days, a Burger King franchisee sold out of Lion King-themed products for its kids’ meals and acted on its own to purchase substitute toys. When the stand-ins turned out to be inappropriate for small children, an unhappy mother complained to Disney’s then-president, Michael Eisner. The complaint was forwarded to Lee.
“I took it upon myself to contact the mother, and developed a real sense of what the disappointment was,” Lee explains. “Her child thought she was getting a Lion King toy, but it was not.”
Then Lee did what most would never think to do: He purchased a Lion King computer program at a local store and created a homemade greeting card featuring the movie’s entire cast of animated characters. Then he says he signed each one of their names and mailed the card to the disappointed little girl. She responded with a batch of cookies and an invitation to meet up with her and her family at Disneyland, which Lee accepted.
“I went to Disneyland, which was about two hours away, and met them for breakfast and got to know the family,” Lee recalls. “It was a wonderful experience, and it still stands out in my mind.”
Though Lee may not have had experience with product safety before working for Disney, he did understand the nuances of business and the art of quality control. Before he was born, Lee’s parents emigrated from China to the U.S. and started a contract sewing company in Los Angeles. While attending high school and college, Lee worked afternoons and nights at the factory inspecting finished garments and prepping them for shipment.
After graduating from Pepperdine University, Lee worked for a real estate developer and discovered that he could hold his own in negotiations with lawyers. At age 26 he enrolled in law school, attending classes at night and clerking for a law firm during the day. When he passed the bar, senior members of the firm for which he worked asked Lee to join them in forming a new firm. There he gained experience in trial law as well as real estate and commercial law before signing on with Disney.
Following his time at Disney, Lee worked as associate general counsel for Sega Gameworks and for Equity Marketing (aka EMAK Worldwide)—which produced toys for Burger King, Subway, Yum! Brands and Kellogg’s, among others. After leaving Equity Marketing, Lee chose to move up the coast from Los Angeles and look for a position that would allow for a slower pace of life.
To do this, he leveraged his West Coast contacts in the product safety arena and became a consultant for UL-STR—a CPSC-accredited testing laboratory that is also a PPAI business partner. Essentially a sales role, Lee says this position rounded out his product safety knowledge and provided a nuts-and-bolts education that complemented the regulatory experience he gained in more corporate roles.
“With the cpsia just being enacted, there were many companies out here that had no clue,” Lee says. “I was essentially a salesperson, but with my background as a lawyer and a compliance person, my role was not to sell so much but to help these clients to get through the cpsia.”
Two years ago, Lee said goodbye to sales and accepted an offer to work in the industry with drinkware supplier ETS Express, Inc. Here, Lee has created a comprehensive compliance program from scratch and shepherded the company through the Quality Certification Alliance’s (QCA) certification process—for which the company will soon undergo its initial audits.
After almost 20 years in the compliance industry, Lee still enjoys the customer-facing aspects of his job.
“Many clients contact me directly at ETS,” Lee says. “They have technical questions and want comprehensive advice on what is best for them and their drinkware products, and sometimes even on other items that don’t relate to drinkware. I’m always happy to help out our customers, and I’m grateful that ETS’ owners support me in these efforts.”
Despite working with a range of product categories—apparel, cosmetics, house wares and toys among them—Lee had never officially worked in the promotional products industry prior to joining ETS. And his impression of the product safety landscape within the industry may surprise some distributors and suppliers.
“In the promotional products world, it’s actually a bit simpler than selling products to the Wal-Marts and Toys ‘R’ Uses of the world. From a compliance perspective, it could be much worse dealing with nationwide and retail chains.”
Yet, Lee cautions distributors and suppliers not to get too comfortable. He forecasts continued scrutiny of consumer products, with U.S. regulation levels growing nearer to those of Europe—which strictly regulates hundreds of chemicals compared to a handful in the U.S. under the CPSIA.
Lee says the promotional products industry has been fortunate so far in avoiding intense scrutiny and scandalous recalls. “However, we don’t want to be caught unawares and unprepared in the event that an incident occurs with a promotional product,” Lee says. “We just need to be ready.”
>>Leeton Lee writes frequently on product safety issues for PPB’s Product Safety column. Find Lee’s articles in previous issues by searching his name at pubs.ppai.org.
<<More With Leeton Lee
My secret to success is … “I try to do my best for everyone—to try to make their situation better. When it comes to my company, I try to do what it takes to make it better or improve on things when a client or customer calls me. I try to help them in a way that doesn’t just solve the problem but edifies them so that when something similar comes up again they have something to help with decision making in the future.”
When I’m at work … “I work hard but also try to have fun. Most of those who are around me know that I have a pretty good sense of humor. We have to enjoy our day; we have to enjoy our relationships. There is always the time to have a bit of humor and appreciate one another. This life is short, and we just have to do our best to make it as rewarding as we can.”
When I’m not at work … “I’m an avid motorcyclist and have been riding for more than 20 years. Riding gets me away from the e-mails and phone calls, so the solitude is welcomed. … I’m not a weekend-type rider who goes out just to have brunch somewhere and then rides home. To me, a short ride is 100 miles.
“I’m married to a terrific lady. … We have no children, but we have four dogs. We treat our dogs like they are our children—we live and work for them. They’re all rescues. Also, my wife and I are avid golfers who are somewhat competitive. It creates a level of ‘friendly’ tension when we’re battling each other on the golf course, but it’s all in fun.”