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Rick Chung: Bowlmor AMF Corp.
As general counsel for the world’s largest operator of bowling and family entertainment centers, Rick Chung dutifully serves Bowlmor AMF Corp. with a unique arsenal of skills that combines a background in economics and information technology with business savvy and legal expertise — just don’t ask him for advice on how to hit that 7-10 split.
“People always ask me if I’m a great bowler, but I have to admit that I’d only bowled once in the past two years,” says Chung.
When Bowlmor AMF brought Chung on board in 2013 amid a period of massive change at the 10-pin behemoth, the company was more interested in his sharp legal mind than his proficiency on the lanes.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘I’m not a bowling attorney,’ and they said ‘we’re not really interested in a bowler, we need someone with more progressive and out-of-box thinking who can take a truly collaborative approach to legal discourse and turn this company around,’” says Chung.
At that time AMF was emerging from the depths of bankruptcy after being purchased by a group of investors led by Cerberus Capital Management and needed a proven winner in the general counsel role who could oversee the drastic steps necessary to get the company rolling strikes once again.
“When I came on board I told them my job was to help them make money by acting as a facilitator and conduit,” says Chung, employing an allusion to The Godfather. “I said, ‘Think of me as your consigliere; my most important job is to counsel and do that in a way that makes your job easier.’ General counsels can look at their jobs solely as risk mitigation, but at the end of the day we function best when we can provide who we counsel with that value-add.”
Chung embraced the role like he was Robert Duvall himself, bringing his years of industry experience in the tech and legal world to bear on Bowlmor AMF’s darkest hour and helping to double revenue to over $600 million in just three years.
The legal team at Bowlmor AMF’s general counsel office includes a junior attorney, real estate paralegal, senior paralegal and a risk-management group handling commercial general liability issues. The office also works with eight outside law firms, each with its own expertise and unique value-added proposition. In contrast, when Chung joined Bowlmor AMF the company had as many as 35 different law firms working on various legal issues. “It was just too much,” he says. “No one had a vested interest because everyone thought they were a one-and-done type of partner.”
Chung set out to whittle down the roster of outside firms to a more manageable number, keeping the key criteria that underlie all of his work at the forefront of his mind throughout the process.
“I think any attorney can be a good attorney, but the question is how can you be a law firm that is truly a value-add for our organization?” Chung asks. “Certainly some of them didn’t get it — the worst response was ‘I can tell you Rick, I’m a really good bowler’ — but others were all on board in terms of reducing costs, like not spending an hour on an email when they can pick up the phone and talk to me for two minutes; what I really wanted them to do was devise solutions to save or make us money.”
The paring down of outside firms has made Chung’s job easier while increasing overall value for Bowlmor AMF. “This way they know who we are and we know who they are and I don’t have to re-explain things about how our business operates. There is a level of continuity and legacy info sharing that is just much more seamless,” says Chung.
An education in economics and finance
Raised in Toronto, Chung attended the University of Toronto, graduating with distinction with a degree in economics in 1994. It was from there that Chung decided to venture into legal work, a decision that brought him to the U.S. where he earned his J.D. from New York Law School, graduating magna cum laude and serving as editor of the school’s law review.
His stellar performance in law school saw Chung recruited by Proskauer LLP - a storied New York City law firm highly regarded for its labor and employment, litigation, corporate, private equity, finance and intellectual property law departments. From 1997 to 2007 Chung served on the firm’s technology committee, helping the firm’s clients weather the tumultuous rise and fall of the dot-com bubble.
“I came on during the tech boom and because that’s what I was really immersed in, I understood how to be much more flexible in my ways of thinking,” Chung says. “I realized that every company is not going to be like a Ford where the policies are established and the metrics are proven; there are going to be a lot of companies that need to pivot and need a more dynamic level of thinking.”
A bit of a computer whiz himself, Chung was familiar with basic programming and coding, allowing him to speak a common language with the firm’s litany of startup clients. “I was working with young people who wanted to put together business plans and in doing that, I got the foundational knowledge of how to build a company, make it grow and the ins and outs of operating it,” says Chung. “I was able to leverage those talents in later jobs.”
In 2008, Chung joined Epiq Systems, a New York City-based provider of integrated technology and services for the legal industry, where he served as deputy general counsel. While he only spent two years with the company, the position allowed Chung to further develop his specialty in technology and execute his skills in growing a company. “When I came on board Epiq was in three countries,” he says. “By the time I left, we expanded it to six and grew the cash revenue 25 to 35 percent year over year.”
Chung’s most recent stop before ending up at Bowlmor was a three and a half-year position with Medivo Inc., a technology-based company providing health-tech solutions in population wellness where he served as general counsel, chief compliance officer and secretary. Chung’s talents helped Medivo grow exponentially — doubling its revenue year over year during his tenure.
In the eyes of Bowlmor AMF management, Chung’s technology-and economics-heavy resume made him the ideal candidate to head the legal department for the company. “Bowlmor AMF hired me to leverage those assets and see how many different ways we could monetize them,” says Chung. “That dovetails into being an attorney who is not allergic to financial statements or economic modeling and is not isolated from the economic realities of the business in terms of assets and understanding revenue recognition.”
At home in the engine room
At Bowlmor AMF, Chung strives to ensure his office plays a proactive role in the company and is known to lead by example. “You can pick a general counsel to just steer the ship in the right direction and that’s fine, but I’m the general counsel who is going to roll up his sleeves and also work in the engine room, shoveling coal and helping the ship go faster and cater to its passengers,” says Chung.
“I strive for our office to be more proactive and engaged with the business and its stakeholders; the more we know about our company, the better we can do our jobs,” he says.
This emphasis on information-sharing extends well beyond interoffice communication, with Chung citing Bowlmor AMF’s extensive database of bowler information as one of the company’s most valuable assets. “I’m a big fan of data monetization: taking the big data that’s out there and using push-and-pull marketing strategies with the consumer,” says Chung.
Chung reflects on his time at Epiq as an important period of professional growth during which he truly began to grasp the important applications of data. “It’s a very tech-world way of looking at hospitality and retail,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a big secret that technology is not the first thing people think of when they think of bowling, but part of the focus when Bowlmor AMF hired me was selecting someone who didn’t have any kind of trepidation toward the tech world and my time at Epiq allowed me to speak in the same vernacular as those who wanted to take Bowlmor AMF to the modern world.”
Bowlmor AMF will use its massive data repository to cater to a customer’s food and beverage preferences, and schedules, tracking customer’s buying habits and launching an online booking system where they can book lanes and order meals.
The art of the deal
Soon after Chung’s arrival, Bowlmor AMF faced one of its most difficult legal challenges to date: the acquisition of Brunswick’s bowling retail business, which was Bowlmor AMF’s largest competitor for the past 100 years. AMF had just emerged from its 2013 bankruptcy restructuring to become Bowlmor AMF, but nothing could prepare Chung for the time-dependent intricacies of the Brunswick acquisition.
“It was an extremely challenging merger and acquisition [M&A] deal. I had come from the M&A world at Proskauer, but this deal was truly unique,” says Chung. “We had to close three deals on the same day,
so we literally had to buy 85 properties in 18 states, and then immediately sell 58 of them, only to lease them all back all on the same day at the same time as taking on a credit facility. I counted the number of law firms we had to retain and it was close to 30 just on our side to handle all the local real estate and licensing issues. Proskauer, Lewis Brisbois and Wilson Elser were instrumental in their counsel during the deal,” he says.
When the dust settled on the deal, Bowlmor AMF had grown to encompass some 320 bowling alleys across the country, becoming 15 times larger than its nearest competitor and earning accolades as “M&A Deal of the Year” by M&A Advisor magazine.
It’s not always easy to track success as a general counsel in raw, quantitative terms, but that has not stopped Chung from trying. “I thought, what are our metrics? Reduced external cost spending? Maybe. Protection of risk? That’s a given,” he says.
“But the more I looked at it, the more I looked at my role through the most important lens of the company: how do I make the company money? I’ve tried to instill that view through each member of my team.”
As chief legal counsel for the world’s largest bowling and family entertainment center operator, Chung’s job is never dull. One day he might be hammering out a complex M&A deal, but the next could very well find him responding to a slip-and-fall incident or playing the role of coat check attendant.
“This company operates in three time zones, so I knew full well what to expect,” says Chung. “I’ll get calls at 3 a.m. when it’s still midnight in California and something happens. What I didn’t expect were the disparate events that might come across my desk. I might get a call from a general manager who says ‘Rick, we just lost a coat,’ and I’ll have to ask, ‘Where is the customer? Did you give them a ticket? Are we sure the coat is theirs?’ It really runs from one end of the spectrum to the other.
While Chung says there are always chances to return to a more traditional law practice one day, he is quite content at Bowlmor AMF, calling the position “the perfect opportunity.”
While Chung has had an early and important impact on the success of Bowlmor AMF, his own skills on the lane still need a little work. Despite working in a corporate office inside Bowlmor’s 90,000-square-foot, 50-lane Times Square location — the most structurally expensive bowling facility ever built — Chung’s busy schedule doesn’t allow him much time to work on his hook. “Now I’m not bad, but I’m no professional,” he says.
Bowlmor AMF’s future is in good hands thanks to its general counsel, Rick Chung, at its legal helm.