Alumni Short
Michael Brizel ‘80: Working on the Cutting Edge Ithaca, NEW YORK, Fall 2014, FORUM

In June 2014, Michael Brizel ’80 became general counsel and executive vice president of leading online fresh food grocer FreshDirect. It’s an exciting move for him, as he explains: “We are on the cutting edge of, and leading the pack in, one of the largest sectors of the economy (food and groceries), in one of the most densely populated areas (northeast corridor), and transacting business exclusively through the Internet.”

Brizel is no stranger to working at the head of the pack. Before joining FreshDirect, he served in leadership positions at two multibillion-dollar companies. From 1998 to 2007, he worked at Reader’s Digest—“the most successful direct marketer of its era,” he notes —ultimately serving as senior vice president and general counsel. In 2007, he moved to Saks Fifth Avenue, where he was executive vice president and general counsel, served as chief ethics and compliance officer, and oversaw the asset protection department.

Brizel counts among his professional achievements not only the work he did at these companies but also the legacy he created through that work. “In each of these roles, and before when I was in-house counsel, I was viewed as an integral part of the business team, helping them navigate through the legal and regulatory environment,” he says. “I mentored and helped to develop terrific lawyers, and enabled them to experience career, professional, and personal growth. I did so without sacrificing integrity and honesty, and insisted upon a deep commitment to doing the right thing.”

Brizel adds, “I believe that my business colleagues and peers embraced that culture of integrity in their own organizations at least in part because of my influence.”

With his move to FreshDirect, Brizel has in a way come full circle, returning to the sector where he began his in-house career. In 1983, after serving as an associate at Summit, Rovins & Feldesman for three years, Brizel became an in-house counsel at General Foods. In his subsequent positions, Brizel says, he has stressed to his colleagues a principle learned at that first company: “We are not a law firm selling food on the side; we are a food company where lawyers need to partner with the business colleagues to help sell more products.”

Brizel’s legal career began with a J.D. from Cornell Law, a stepping stone he did not anticipate as his undergrad experience drew to a close. After graduating with a B.S. from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1977, he planned to study law elsewhere. That summer, however, he was bumped up from the wait list at Cornell. He jumped at the opportunity to stay in Ithaca and attend Cornell Law, a school he found appealing because of its small class size and its great reputation, which, he observes, “was well deserved.”

Reflecting on faculty who influenced him during his Cornell Law studies, Brizel remembers particularly enjoying the instruction of Professor Kurt L. Hanslowe, who taught labor law: “I recall the class being in the spring, when we often had keg parties in the Law School courtyard. We would bring a beer in for him, so he could quench his thirst while leading the class.”

Of course, Brizel departed Cornell with much more than fond memories, and his ties to the school endure. In addition to serving currently as a board member of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York, Brisbane House, and Congregation Orach Chaim, he sits on the Dean’s Special Leadership Committee (DSLC) of the Law School. “Cornell Law School and my diploma have opened doors for me for my entire career,” he says. “It has given me instant credibility in any job search and any business interaction. I owe a lot to the Law School, and serving on the DSLC provides me with an opportunity to demonstrate my appreciation and give back.”

In that spirit of giving back, some advice from Brizel for current and incoming students: “Follow your passion. Find an area of the law that excites you, and then find the right group of people to work with. Do something where you think you will leave work and feel that you have contributed to something, so that you have a sense of job satisfaction every day.”

Mike resides in New York with his wife, Dr. Judy Schwartz, and has two daughters, Ilana (twenty seven) and Alex (twenty).

~OWEN LUBOZYNSKI