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Monday, Oct 2, 2023

General Counsel Finds Cool Career

Burton Hong, executive vice president and general counsel at CoolSys Inc., has always been quick on his feet—whether managing a nine-figure private equity sale in three weeks or returning a ball on the tennis court.

Throughout his two years with the Brea-based HVAC and refrigeration firm, he has led a series of acquisitions, handled construction contracts and managed an overhaul of the fast-growing company’s contract review process.

All that, and the company is on track to reach $1.2 billion in revenue and a $2 billion valuation by 2023.

It’s these accomplishments, among many more, that make Hong one of five winners at the Business Journal’s General Counsel Awards, which was held on Nov. 13 at Hotel Irvine (see stories on the other winners, pages 4, 6, and 8).

The CoolSys exec was honored in the category of Outstanding GC of a Private Company at the 10th edition of the event.

Only in America

During Hong’s acceptance speech, he thanked his mother for her support and patience, and his wife, Audrey Cheng, for being the best mother to their two children, and perhaps the best lawyer in the family as she currently serves as associate vice president and counsel at Newport Beach-based Pacific Life Insurance Co.

“But we won’t let the OCBJ know!” Hong laughed.

He also thanked his late father, Waun Ki Hong, who along with his mother, Mi Hwa Hong, are both immigrants from South Korea.

“My dad passed away this past January, and he lived a life that could only happen in America. My dad and mom came to this country in 1970 with $400, a medical dream, my mom seven-months pregnant with my older brother and very, very broken English.

“When my dad retired in 2014, he retired as the head of cancer medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center and had received every single scientific award throughout his career.

“My dad always told me to be successful, you have to do two things: one, work hard and two, work with integrity.

“Well Dad, I can say I’m working hard with integrity, and that’s why I’m standing up here tonight receiving this incredible award, because of the values you instilled in me for the last four decades,” he told the audience of nearly 500.

LA Law Inspiration

From a young age, Hong knew that he wanted to be a lawyer.

“Ever since I was a kid,” Hong laughed. “Do you remember L.A. Law? I was obsessed with that show. It was the first thing that turned me on to it.”

Hong completed his undergraduate degree at Rice University in Houston, as a scholarship athlete on the school’s tennis team. He took a break to reaffirm his interest in law, before heading to Georgetown University where he eventually met his wife.

“You know, the only people who can put up with lawyers are other lawyers,” Hong joked.

Hong and Cheng relocated to Orange County in 2008, where Hong took his first in-house general counsel position at Park Energy Group.

“I prefer an in-house position because it’s part of a larger role in a business,” he said. “When you are outside counsel, you have several different clients, but you don’t see the full breadth of what is going on with a company.

In-house, you understand the business objectives and what you’re trying to achieve.”

Lightning Strikes

Hong wasn’t looking for a job when he stumbled upon the open position at CoolSys in 2017. It was simply his next-door neighbor who, during a playdate with their children, mentioned that his old boss, Adam Coffey, the newly appointed chief executive at CoolSys, was looking for the company’s first in-house general counsel to help take the company to the next level.

“I told him I wasn’t really looking and had no idea what the refrigeration industry was about (see story, this page). But he told me that I should meet him, so we met for lunch and two hours later, that was it. I was in.”

“Adam is a dynamic leader, and I saw his vision for the company and what he wanted to do. It was very exciting.

It was the best career decision of my life,” Hong said.

Coffey said that Burton “checked all my boxes,” as a litigator and in-house counsel with experience in the construction industry.

“It was like lightning striking,” Coffey said of the hire.

Rapid Growth, $2B Aim

Under the leadership of Coffey and Hong, CoolSys has experienced rapid growth; the company has acquired 10 companies and about 1,000 employees over the last three years.

Hong is instrumental in these deals, according to Coffey, who called the ex-tennis player the “quarterback for our M&A efforts.”

An offshoot of that role was Hong’s involvement in the company’s transition this year in private equity ownership, from Audax Group to Ares Management Corp. (NYSE: ­­­­­­ARES).

Hong told the Business Journal that Los Angeles-based Ares put down such a good number, that the deal was done in three weeks.

After the deal was announced, Coffey said the new investors would allow the company to “pursue a more aggressive acquisition and expansion strategy.”

The company has certainly done that. CoolSys has acquired four companies this year and expects to close two more deals before year-end, according to Hong.

Moving forward, Coffey said that he expects the company to do eight to 10 acquisitions per year.

And it’s not stopping there.

“By 2023, we’ll have 6,000 employees, $1.2 billion in revenue and a $2 billion Street value,” Coffey said.

He added, “I would anticipate at that point there is a decent chance we’ll consider going public.”

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