Only a few months after Trent McKenna took his first in-house counsel job at Comfort Systems USA, which manufactures, sells, and services mechanical systems for commercial buildings, he was promoted to the general counsel position, a transition that forced him to acclimate quickly. But, the 40-year-old attorney—who, for fun, runs marathons and recently ran a 100-mile race—has never let a challenge get in his way. “I didn’t come from a family of lawyers,” he says, “but I was destined to be one from a young age because I was always interested in philosophy and argument.”
Now, 15 years into his career and nine years after joining Comfort Systems, he has seen the revenues of the 6,681-employee company grow from $778 million to $1.3 billion, and he has watched its market capitalization go from $270 million to $750 million. Below, McKenna explains why he chose Comfort Systems and how he has helped drive its growth.
How did you end up at Comfort Systems?
Driven by an interest in litigation, after graduating from law school at Duke, I took a job in the Houston office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. I stayed for five and a half years, during which time I did some work on behalf of Comfort Systems. Knowing my work, the firm’s general counsel approached me about joining the company as an associate general counsel.
Was it an easy decision?
The hardest part of my decision in leaving Akin Gump was moving from private practice to an in-house counsel position. I just didn’t see myself doing that. But I knew and liked the Comfort Systems management team. Also, at the time (2004), Comfort Systems was in the midst of a recovery, and I could see its potential for growth.
How was the transition to an in-house counsel position?
It was a steep learning curve, in part because I made a quick transition to general counsel. But one thing that stood out to me about my success is the quality of mentoring I received. I owe a lot to current CEO Brian Lane, CFO Bill George, and prior CEO Bill Murdy. There are a lot of people here who are very good at what they do, but they’re also very willing to be collaborative and share resources and information.
How did the company achieve such stunning growth?
The company has had a focused growth strategy. One of the things it has done is focus on acquisitions, albeit in a deliberate and measured manner. The market in which we exist is very cyclical, and we’ve taken advantage of this cyclicality by acquiring companies at opportune times.
What is your role in the company’s growth?
My participation has primarily been on the acquisition side, although I’m involved operationally on a few things. IT reports to me, but perhaps most notable is my role in risk management. During the downturn, starting in late 2008, there was a huge decline in commercial construction, and we had to reconsider how we manage the company. One of the things we looked at was risk management. At the time, we had a vice president of risk management, but we decided legal needed a bigger role in that function because our research showed that legal was in a good position to know in advance where, how, and why claims were happening. So, we appointed a director of risk, Byran Farris, who teamed with me. Together we managed the claims-management side of the risk profile, and we dedicated some legal resources that could be deployed to help proactively mitigate risk at the operational level.
Did your management of claims change as a result?
Yes. We determined a lot of our claims dollars were being spent on costs associated with construction-defect claims. Essentially, attorneys with our outside counsel were being handed construction-defect claims and managing them like regular claims, attending all depositions, conducting robust motion practice, and such. We thought it would be better to do early case management in-house—sit down and say, “What is the likelihood that we’re liable?” So, we asked outside counsel to take a step back and work with us to get a handle on the claim and decided early on how best to settle it. That early case-management and settlement program helped drive down our costs.
What’s important for the success of a general counsel or legal department?
The most important thing in my role at Comfort Systems is to be an advisor to the operating company presidents. They’re the lifeblood of the company, so I need to listen and deeply understand concerns they raise. My philosophy is to be a driver of solutions, not the stereotypical group that is so risk-averse it says “no” to everything. Obviously, a balance has to be struck because I need to make sure we don’t take on something that’s legally problematic, but 99 percent of the time, some sort of legal solution can be engineered for what the company is seeking to achieve.