Growing up in Michigan as the son of ethnic Chinese immigrants from the Philippines, John UyHam became accustomed to navigating multiple cultures from a young age. “Both at home and when traveling internationally to visit relatives, I constantly shifted between different influences from midwestern American, Chinese, Filipino, and Canadian,” he says.
This global exposure helped UyHam in his work as lawyer for the Coca-Cola Company, one of America’s most definitively international companies. It first expanded outside the US in 1896 (to Canada), and products bearing the company’s trademarks are now sold in more than two hundred countries and territories. With the company since 2007, UyHam currently serves as the senior legal counsel and head of mergers and acquisitions and strategic transactions.
The Coca-Cola Company’s offerings extend well beyond sparkling soft drinks. In addition to its portfolio of sparkling soft drink brands, the company has hydration, sports, coffee, and tea brands, like Dasani, smartwater, vitaminwater, Topo Chico, BODYARMOR, Powerade, Costa, Georgia, Gold Peak, and Ayataka. The company’s nutrition, juice, dairy, and plant-based beverage brands include Minute Maid, Simply, innocent, Del Valle, fairlife, and AdeS. Coca-Cola’s products reach consumers throughout the world in large part through a global network of independent bottling partners.
UyHam and his team oversee the acquisitions, joint ventures, and investments that brought many of these brands (and others) into the Coca-Cola portfolio. In particular, he led the legal work on the acquisitions of fairlife, BODYARMOR, and Coca-Cola’s investment in Monster Energy. Working on transactions across six continents for Coca-Cola, his experience at the company truly has been international.
It’s easy to see how UyHam’s international background helps him in this work. It may also explain why he embraces understanding the cultural aspects around doing business in places such as Dubai, New Delhi, Rio, Shanghai, and Warsaw. “It’s fun to do transactions in different places,” he says. “Working with different legal systems and across various business and social cultures is exciting and keeps the work fresh.” Having grown up hearing Chinese and Tagalog at home, UyHam also developed a real interest in foreign languages, he says, explaining that he tries to at least learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language wherever he travels. “It shows respect and creates connection.”
While the business locales are different, one thing is constant for Coca-Cola’s lawyers: the company’s motto, “Refresh the world. Make a difference.” UyHam says, “Our brand is more than the drink in the bottle. It stands for our company’s values and is about where we fit into the communities we serve. And we have to respond to the issues that are important in these communities, including water security; waste and recycling; climate change; and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).”
With DEI a major focus for UyHam, he led the legal department’s diversity efforts from 2017 to 2021. In addition to working with Coca-Cola’s outside counsel to increase the representation of diverse attorneys, particularly at the partner and firm management levels, the Coca-Cola legal team also promoted work with minority- and women-owned firms through its Legal Diversity Link networking event. This event brings together attorneys from these firms to connect with in-house counsel from Coca-Cola and other companies.
“Working to advance DEI within a global organization is very nuanced,” UyHam says, “A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, because as we connected with our organization, we are mindful that diversity means different things in different places. The focus could be on gender, religion, or schools to which a person has access.”
UyHam lives in Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s hometown, where the struggle for racial equality has a long history. “I’ve been so encouraged by how our team has stepped forward on these issues,” he says. During the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the legal team reached out to the Georgia state legislature urging for the passage of a state hate crimes law. On a personal level, he says that after the string of deadly shootings of Asian-Americans in Atlanta happened in spring 2021, “Many colleagues reached out to me to ask how we were doing, and it really helped me during a horrible time for our community.”
In UyHam’s fifteen years working at Coca-Cola, he’s made a strong impression on colleagues, both within and outside of the company. “I’ve worked with John for over a decade, across all types of M&A and finance transactions, and have always been impressed that regardless of the situation, John has the ability to quickly analyze and distill complex situations down to the most efficient path to achieve his strategic goals,” says Jeff Baglio, managing partner at DLA Piper.
Tihir Sarkar, partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, agrees. “John works really hard to bring a sense of calm to the most difficult of situations to create a collaborative, supportive, and inclusive environment for all those involved to meaningfully contribute,” he notes.
For junior in-house lawyers, UyHam’s key advice is, “Don’t silo yourself as a lawyer; be a partner. Your value to the company should be more than just advising on technical legal issues.” He says attorneys need to be attuned to the broader business strategies, objectives, and tactics. “You have to understand the business rationale for what you are working on,” he adds. “You can’t just focus on the execution. Know the why, the goals, and the impact on operations. This broader understanding will really help you evaluate acceptable risk.”
Getting this exposure, UyHam explains, involves networking with the people who have authority and expertise—in tax, treasury, accounting, marketing, etc.—to help you see the big picture. “You need exposure to a robust team of people to successfully execute a transaction,” he says. “I enjoy getting to know people, so that helps.”
In other words, for UyHam it’s about bringing together people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, experiences, and insights and seeing what a group like that can accomplish.
Mayer Brown LLP:
“I have worked with John for years on deals for Coca-Cola. He is a first-rate lawyer and strategic thinker and is highly regarded internally. John is a true leader. We congratulate him on this well-deserved recognition.”
–Martha McGarry, Partner, co-leader of Mayer Brown’s Global M&A practice