A Global Perspective

By Robert Green Atlanta Trend
  • Jan 31, 2022

Everything about John UyHam’s background helped prepare him for his global role as Senior Legal Counsel, Head of Mergers & Acquisitions at Coca-Cola. "I am ethnically Chinese, and my mother and father were born and grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the US to finish their medical training."


Born in Flint, Michigan, John attended school there and initially had his heart set on attending the University of Michigan, 45 minutes from home and where his parents had trained.  Things changed, however. "My college counselor, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, suggested that I look at Duke. I went for a visit in February, and even though it was freezing cold and pouring rain, I loved it and decided I wanted to try to go to school there." He applied, got admitted, and moved to North Carolina.


Falling in love with the region, John enjoyed a very successful college career at Duke. After graduation, he decided to go to law school at Columbia University. "I was only 20 when I graduated from Duke and thought that moving to New York City would be a growing-up process for me. It was eye opening. The world got a lot bigger."


Although John was targeting Washington, DC, firms for his post-Columbia career, he also interviewed with the law firm of King & Spalding for its Atlanta 2L summer program.  John came away from his interview thoroughly impressed; the firm made him an offer, and he went to work as a summer associate in Atlanta.


Selected for a post-graduate clerkship with Federal court judge Orinda Evans in Atlanta, John was targeting a career as a litigator. "While the clerkship was a wonderful experience, I decided that litigation was not going to be my path, which was definitely a good thing for me to sort out at that point." 


Following his clerkship, John started as an M&A and securities associate with King & Spalding.  The first partner John worked for at King & Spalding was Jack Capers, whom he still regards as the perfect mentor for an attorney starting a career in mergers and acquisitions. "I learned so much from Jack," he says. "No matter the situation, he was always so calm and thoughtful and really listened to clients. It was a valuable lesson for me."


After three years at King & Spalding, John decided to leave the firm. "My father had decided to retire. The two of us went to China for four months and attended university to study Chinese," he says. "The experience of living in a Chinese dormitory in Shanghai was amazing, but the best part was being able to spend time together."


Upon his return to Atlanta, John returned to practice as an associate at Paul Hastings and in 2002 married his wife, Kirsten. "My wife was born in England, did her undergrad at Oxford and then got a PhD in math from Duke.  In addition to being a wonderful person, I’ve heard her described as ‘knock-you-back’ smart, which I completely agree with!" he said. 


Despite their ties to Atlanta, John and Kirsten spent their early married life in New York and Houston. "Not long after we were married, Kirsten was offered a great job at the investment bank Bear Stearns in New York, and I fortunately was asked to come back to King & Spalding in their New York office."  


After the birth of their daughter, John and Kirsten, like many young, professional couples in New York, struggled with the choice of whether to stay in the city or move further out. In the end, Bear Stearns decided for them, asking Kirsten to move to Houston to build out their energy trading business.


"This ended up being a special time for us," says John. "We had a newborn and instead of looking for a job right away, I was able to spend six months at home with our daughter."


When he was ready to go back to work, John interviewed with BJ Services, a global, NYSE-listed oilfield services company in Houston. "They had a very small legal department and needed a senior corporate lawyer, and even though I was new to the industry, I liked the idea of working for a company that did business all over the world," he says. "Our team was small - only four attorneys - so we all had a lot of responsibility. I worked on everything from M&A to SEC compliance and corporate governance and some really unusual projects, like how to get Russian work permits for our oilfield teams, and a lot of other things that I would never have seen if we had been a larger team."


In 2007, John got a call from a headhunter. Coca-Cola was looking for an M&A attorney with international experience. Coming back to Atlanta to work for Coca-Cola was an opportunity too good to pass up, but it was still a big change for John.  "There were around 150 in-house lawyers at Coca-Cola when I started," he says, "so it was much bigger and more specialized than my team at BJ."


John has been at the company for almost 15 years and leads a team of four lawyers focused on mergers and acquisitions and other strategic transactions. As the company’s products are sold in more than 200 countries and territories, the team supports transactions worldwide.  "It's always been interesting. My first deal took me to Zimbabwe with an overnight stopover in Nairobi, Kenya. When I arrived at the hotel in Nairobi, the lobby was full of soldiers who were part of a UN peacekeeping operation, and I remember thinking to myself 'well, this is certainly a change!’'"


Interested in other people and cultures from an early age, John strives to work effectively across cultures and geographies. "It's been great," he says. "I think that the most global in-house M&A position that I could possibly have is the one I have now."  Valuing other perspectives and backgrounds has also driven John’s desire to promote diversity in the legal profession, which is also a priority for Coca-Cola’s legal team.  


The company nominated John as a Leadership Council on Legal Diversity fellow in 2014, and John served as the chair of Coca-Cola’s Legal Division Diversity Council from 2017-2021.  John also currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.  


Although merger and acquisition work can be cyclical, John notes that in-house M&A work remains steadily busy. "Our corporate development work is constant. We are always drafting confidentially agreements, exploring, looking at opportunities," he says.  Despite COVID and virtual work, 2021 was another busy year for John, who worked on deals in Australia, China and on Coca-Cola’s acquisition of BodyArmor. "It's been a challenge," says John, “but the virtual work environment can be effective."


Nevertheless, John believes that some important nuances are missed without face-to-face meetings, making negotiations tougher. "I'm personally looking forward to the return of in person meetings," says John, "but I especially want it for the junior lawyers and businesspeople. Developing strong negotiation and deal management skills is very hard with much of their experience being virtual."


In terms of the future vision for M&A at Coca-Cola, John says, “Going forward, we will continue to engage in disciplined, consumer-centric M&A concentrated on growth opportunities and shaping our portfolio for success over the long term. We are also focused on M&A that can scale to other markets, expand our capabilities and drive efficiencies.”


Working at Coca-Cola has been both exciting and fulfilling for John. "It's a privilege to support an iconic worldwide brand," he says, "and especially so in Atlanta, where everyone seems to have or feel some connection to Coca-Cola."