Holleb & Coff, founded by Marshall Holleb and Morris Coff in 1951, was an influential law firm that enjoyedi ts heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. It was the law firm to work for in the Midwest. Drawn to the supportive culture, new associates and seasoned partners alike enjoyed working at the venerated firm. At its peak, Holleb & Coff employed 130-plus attorneys and advised prestigious clients, including American National Bank, Hollinger International Inc. and LaSalle Bank. The firm shut its doors in 2000, but not before helping to shape the careers of many successful M&A pros today, including:
- John Corvino is enjoying his dream job today as the general counsel to the Chicago White Sox.
- Brian Kerwin chairs Duane Morris’ global corporate practice and serves on the executive committee.
- Theodore (Ted) Koenig is the founder and CEO of Monroe Capital, the Chicago-based lending firm that works with many well-known private equity firms today.
- Kenneth Serota is president of Hu-Friedy Manufacturing Co., a global leader in dental instrument manufacturing.
- Michelle Warner serves as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at USG Corp. (NYSE: USG), a publicly-traded Fortune 1000 company that makes sheetrock and is currently being acquired by German manufacturer Gebr. Knauf KG for $7 billion. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK.A) is USG’s largest shareholder.
Holleb & Coff started off with a bunch of attorneys who co-invested in the real estate deals they were putting together,” Serota recalls. “Our client base was primarily entrepreneurial owner-operated companies, as opposed to the multi-national conglomerates. As a result, we were given access to the strategists and decision makers, and we were able to learn a lot beyond legal.”
Holleb & Coff is not the only firm to leave a legacy. A few years ago, we featured the alumni of Heller Financial. We can’t help wondering firms today are training the leaders of tomorrow?
Landing the job as the general counsel to the Chicago White Sox in represented a dream come true for John Corvino. “I knew the CFO at the White Sox for years. I had just left my in-house job at Holden, was about to go to a startup, and the White Sox called me,” recalls Corvino. “I gave up the speculative job. Major League Baseball had a lot of allure.” Today, the American League baseball team is home to veteran baseball player Jose Abreu and future stars Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon.
Corvino started his law career as a tax attorney at a smaller law firm, which was one of many smaller law practices Holleb & Coff snatched up over the years. “When I came to Holleb, the firm was hovering at just under 100 attorneys, and it was a very entrepreneurial place. Even though I was in the tax world, I would be brought in and expected to participate in more than just my tax opinion. If you had the desire to reach to other practice areas there were attorneys happy to bring you in. You were able to get involved in transactions very deeply because it was a smaller firm. It was very exciting,” remembers Corvino, who added that the firm had a nice environment.
“They made an effort to make new people feel welcome. Jerry Wexler, one of the firm’s partners, would have an annual party at his farm where he gave all the kids hay rides. This was a polished lawyer, and he would be on his tractor. I had young children at the time. It really was a family atmosphere, which I appreciated,” says Corvino.
Although he loved his work at Holleb, opportunity knocked and Corvino answered. He left the law firm to go in-house at CRL Industries and then at Holden Industries, which were both Rust Belt manufacturing companies. “I had an opportunity to go in-house and get into management. I always used Holleb for all my corporate work after I left. I really respected the team there,” says Corvino.
As a partner at Holleb, Brian Kerwin focused his practice on corporate M&A and financing transactions and was with the firm nearly to the end. He loving life at Holleb until the firm’s leadership announced at a partner off-site meeting that the firm was going to target being a “Midwest power house” law firm, with one office focused primarily on Midwest clients. Kerwin was not on board with this strategy.
“I was representing clients all over the U.S. who more and more frequently were doing transactions nationally,” says Kerwin. “Staying at a regional Midwest law firm didn’t bode well for my clients and where I was headed in my career. Many of us told senior management we did not agree, but they were not changing their minds. As a result, I met with other law firms, but Duane Morris was the right fit for me.”
Holleb’s loss was Duane Morris’ gain. Kerwin left Holleb and opened Duane Morris’ Chicago office in July 1999 with a few other partners. “Eventually 20-plus lawyers joined us. We are now just shy of 80 lawyers in Chicago, and I am chair of the 172-lawyer corporate practice group and on the five-partner firm executive committee today,” says Kerwin, who works with many of the most recognizable banking names in M&A including CIBC, Huntington National Bank, Wintrust, Fifth Third Bank, MB Financial, First Midwest Bank, Byline Bank, CapX Partners, Monroe Capital and Northern Trust Company, among others. Today, Duane Morris is a national, 800-lawyer firm.
Kerwin, who was recruited to the firm from Skadden Arps by Theodore Koenig, still has fond memories of his Holleb days. “It was a great place to work until the end. I still keep in touch with many of my old colleagues from Holleb. Fast forward to today, and a number of the lawyers from Holleb are doing impressive things with a national scope. We definitely had good training at Holleb,” says Kerwin.
Mergers & Acquisitions readers know Theodore (Ted) Koenig well as the founder and CEO of Monroe Capital, the Chicago-based lending firm that works with many well-known private equity firms today. However, while at Holleb, Koenig worked his way up to one of three managing partners and had a thriving business.
Koenig had come to Holleb from Winston Strawn as a young associate and was the 19th lawyer hired at Holleb. “I made partner relatively quickly and built a pretty good practice. We grew the firm over the 10-year period I was there to about 145 lawyers, I had about 35 people working with me in the M&A and corporate finance department. I worked with a lot of good lawyers there. The firm had ethos, culture and leadership,” says Koenig.
Still, Koenig, very much a businessman, made a decision to leave the practice of law in 1998. He wanted to start a finance business. “It wasn’t about the money. I wanted to fulfill a dream. I wanted to build a business and create something more permanent. My law business was booming, but in the law, the alignments are all wrong—the more successful you are as a lawyer, the more hours that you are required to work and bill. My quality of life was going in the wrong direction. At the time, with four young children, leaving the practice of law and the firm was a very personal decision,” says Koenig.
Koenig launched Hilco Capital in 2000 and raised $38 million for its fund. Koenig raised most of the limited partner capital from the banks he had represented as a lawyer at Holleb, including LaSalle Bank, Wells Fargo, GE Capital, Harris Bank, Cole Taylor Bank and Fifth Third. “These people were willing to take a chance on me and my vision for a new type of finance company. I also was able to build a team from some of the very best bankers I had met and worked with as an attorney from places like CIT, GE Capital, LaSalle Bank, Finova and JPMorgan Bank. We had our ups and downs during the financial crisis, but we stuck with it and persevered,” says Koenig.
Monroe Capital was founded as a private credit investment firm in 2004. Today, Monroe has more than $6 billion of assets under management, over 100 employees, seven offices throughout the U.S. and 400 borrower companies in its portfolio. The most recent 2018 private credit Monroe fund is over $1 billion.
While at Holleb, Koenig was responsible for hiring and managing some key people, including Brian Kerwin, Kenneth Serota, and Michelle Warner.
Kenneth Serota is president of Hu-Friedy Manufacturing Co., a global leader in dental instrument manufacturing. The company has grown substantially with Serota on board. The company has a strong focus on strategic acquisitions. In 2017, Hu-Friedy purchased J. Palmero Sales Co., a family-run dental products company located in Stratford, Connecticut. Over the past several years, the company has acquired multiple brands, including J & J Instruments, Julius Wirth and Karl Schumacher. Hu-Friedy is pursuing acquisitions to grow.
“The dental industry has experienced a tremendous amount of consolidation in the last few years. I’ve always been fascinated by the chess game that is M&A, and in my role, I am at the forefront of identifying, negotiating and onboarding acquisitions that will power our growth into the future,” says Serota. “We do about one acquisition a year, and in the current climate, I spend a good portion of my time traveling, researching and developing relationships to gather the information we need to make the next best move.”
During his days at Holleb, Serota wore two hats. He was both a corporate and tax attorney. “Holleb was an amazing learning environment. My in-the-trenches education there really helped to shape my approach, in addition to immersing me in the discipline of M&A,” says Serota.
There were about 50 lawyers at the firm when Serota joined. “It had an entrepreneurial culture. The firm started off with a bunch of attorneys who co-invested in the real estate deals they were putting together. Our client base was primarily entrepreneurial owner-operated companies, as opposed to the multi-national conglomerates. As a result, we were given access to the strategists and decision makers, and we were able to learn a lot beyond legal,” says Serota. “The partners were really approachable and cared about the development of the younger attorneys. We staffed lean, so I really got to go deeper into deals at a very young age, not just drafting documents.”
After seven years at the firm, Serota was given the opportunity to work in house at Hollinger International, a publishing company, and a client of the firm’s. During his time at Hollinger, the company actively bought and sold companies until it was ultimately bought by Leonard Green & Partners, and Serota became CEO of the new company, Liberty Publishing. The asset was sold to Fortress Investment Group seven years later in 2005 and became Gatehouse media. It was then that he moved on to Hu-Friedy.
As senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at USG Corp., Michelle Warner is busy, but it’s nothing she couldn’t handle after proving herself as a multitasker at Holleb. Warner actually sat across the table from Marshall Holleb as a young attorney at McDermott Will and Emery. That was how she came to know the future firm co-founder. She wasn’t looking to leave when he approached her about joining the new firm. However, a year later when Warner was ready to leave, Holleb & Coff was happy to have her. Like so many of her colleagues, Warner loved the freedom to learn that came with practicing law at Holleb. “It was a great firm. I could work on a financing, then a securities offering or an M&A deal. I had a lot of responsibility, and I loved it,” says Warner. “After working there, I was able to move to my next job really knowing how to do things. Still, I went back to my colleagues at Holleb many times during my first year at Motorola, and they helped me. They were a great resource.”
Warner left Holleb to become in-house counsel at Motorola and stayed at that company for 18 years. “It was 1997, and Motorola was starting to go through a lot of changes. They did a number of spinoffs and divestitures and, as the company got smaller, I took on more and more responsibility. After five years, I was running the M&A legal practice,” says Warner.
Two years ago, Warner left Motorola for a new opportunity at USG Corp. (NYSE: USG), a publicly-traded Fortune 1000 company that makes sheetrock and is currently being acquired by German manufacturer Gebr. Knauf KG for $7 billion. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK.A) is USG’s largest shareholder.
“I am now part of the management team, and it has been a terrific experience. About half of what I do is legal, and half is management. Shortly after I started, we sold off a big division of the company to a distribution business, and I ran that transaction. I have spent the last six months working on the impending sale of USG,” says Warner.
“There was a nice culture at Holleb. People got a long with each other, acknowledged you had a life outside of work, but you also took your work seriously. We made lots of connections as young lawyers and they allowed me to do things that I may not have had the opportunity to do at larger firms. It served me well,” says Warner.
Other noteworthy people who worked at Holleb include: Susan Marr, former co-president, Jet Support Services Inc.; Alvin Marr, former senior vice president and general counsel of Midas Inc.; Keith Shapiro, co-chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Chicago office, national chairman of the firm’s global restructuring and bankruptcy practice; and Benjamin Nortman, executive vice president, Hilco Global.