When Rugger Burke became a general counsel last year, it was the first time he had held such a position. Yet he had a feeling he would do a good job — a doggone good job, in fact.
That’s because the Dallas lawyer cut his teeth in corporate management as chairman of the board at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the SPCA of Texas. There he says he gained valuable skills he calls on every day as general counsel, principal and co-founder of Satori Capital, a Dallas-based private equity firm he joined last October. The SPCA is also where he got his dog, Peaches.
Burke started volunteering with the SPCA as a dog walker in 2003 and by 2004 was sitting on the volunteer board of directors, he says. In 2005, he became chairman of the board of the 120-employee organization, which he says operates with a budget of more than $9 million and cares for more than 25,000 animals a year through its clinic and finds homes for more than 10,000 animals.
“I feel a great responsibility to make sure we provide the best possible service as a board for our staff, our volunteers, our supporters and most importantly, for all the little fuzzy guys — all the dogs and cats and horses and pigs and parrots and hamsters and bunnies,” Burke says.
But his involvement with the SPCA isn’t just altruistic; it also has been educational. “Working with the SPCA has been extraordinarily valuable in three areas: One is in creating strategy — seeing how businesses operate from a strategic standpoint. Two is working with people, teams and management teams. And third is really spending time learning the financial aspects of operating a business, because being able to identify and monitor key metrics on the financial statements are critical to evaluating and managing an operating business,” he says.
It was this opportunity to be involved so completely in a single business that helped inspire his decision to move in-house from private practice.
“Instead of going an inch deep with 100 organizations, I was able to go 100-feet deep with one organization,” he says. In his practice, Burke says he’d typically represent anywhere from 50 to 100 clients in a given year. As a result, “law was starting to run my life a little bit, and I thought it was time to shift to having a more meaningful working relationship with a smaller number of clients,” he says.
A Fighting Spirit
Burke actually grew up wanting to be an attorney — a real estate attorney to be precise. He came by the aspiration logically. Since he spent many an after-school afternoon hanging out in his father’s law office or his mother’s real estate office, it was simply “a blending of the two worlds,” he says.
He briefly entertained an interest in medicine during high school, but decided against it — he felt law afforded a better opportunity to “be a part of something lasting.” He says he was offered a job as an engineer following his 1990 graduation from Southern Methodist University, where he earned a B.S. degree in mathematics with an emphasis on operations research, but he chose law.
First, though, he had to battle cancer. He did, undergoing what he calls “six months of hell” during his last year in college, including several surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy. It influenced not only his decision to stay near his family in Texas for law school, but the type of lawyer he ultimately became.
He graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1993, went into a general civil business private practice with his father in Frisco, and got ready to take on the world.
“For the first five years, I wanted to fight everyone tooth and nail. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I was much more inclined to file a motion than to work things out through negotiation,” he recalls.
During that time, Burke grew his expertise and his practice, working with “bigger and bigger companies, such as a restaurant chain or a company that didn’t have a law office in Texas,” he says.
He also says he started to mellow and learned to take a more tempered approach to the law. “For a long time, I was all about the win,” he admits. But he started to notice that winning didn’t always make his clients happier or better off. “Sometimes you have to just say, ‘I can’t get that for you. The law can’t get that for you. The law can’t get the other side to say they’re sorry or get you to the position you were in before you signed the contract.’ “
Whereas his earlier fight with cancer had “fueled a fire,” Burke now understood it was time to transition from not just making things happen, but making things happen that were positive.
Around this time, he left the partnership with his father and returned to Dallas, partnering in 1999 with former classmate Kevin Buchanan to form Buchanan & Burke. “We were a good team,” Burke says. “He was a great advocate, and I was a great negotiator.” During the nearly 10 years the two worked together, Burke says he further developed his negotiation skills, becoming a mediator and an arbitrator. “On the business side of the house, there tend to be two kinds of lawyers, the deal makers and the deal breakers,” he says. “I found I really liked working with the dealmakers, the people who liked to try to find win-win solutions, who liked to have business agreements succeed,” he says.
Buchanan confirms Burke’s characterization. Burke “would rather look for some common ground and a solution to a problem, as opposed to squaring off and throwing punches,” says Buchanan, now a partner in Buchanan & Bellan. Burke “is very Zen,” Buchanan adds with a laugh.
It is exactly this calm, thoughtful style that has helped Burke excel at the SPCA, say two lawyers who have worked with him there.
“In the time he’s been on the board, the SPCA has really changed quite a lot,” says Kurt Schwarz, a partner in Jackson Walker who has done pro bono work for the organization for about 10 years. (Schwarz, who has a dog and five cats, all from animal shelters, says he was inspired to volunteer after clerking for U.S. District Judge Harold Barefoot Sanders Jr., whom Schwarz says was “a big dog lover and an SPCA supporter.”) “Rugger has really done a fantastic job along with the rest of the board in guiding the SPCA.”
Monica W. Latin, a partner in Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal who chairs the firm’s business litigation practice group, also has worked with Burke at the SPCA. A longtime volunteer, she’s also a human companion to a dog and a cat. Burke is “very dignified and very thoughtful,” she says. “He is a very good listener, even when he’s in charge, and he exhibits a restraint that you don’t always see in a leader.”
For a while, Burke considered pursuing an MBA to “have a more active understanding of the businesses I dealt with on a day-to-day basis,” he says, but he ended up furthering his education through leadership classes. It was through those classes that he met Sunny Vanderbeck, Randy Eisenman and Eric Gilchrest, who formed Satori Capital.
Vanderbeck, Eisenman and Burke started the corporation in October 2008 following the dissolution of Burke’s practice with Buchanan. Gilchrest joined immediately afterward, Burke says.
Satori’s fund, “the first of several,” Burke says, plans to invest “all or substantially all” of its $200 million in capital over the next three years, with the typical investment “in the range of $5 million to $40 million.”
Burke says Satori is looking for companies to invest in that have “a solid mission and purpose,” and companies that stand to benefit from an infusion of leadership as well as capital.
So far, there have been no shortages of candidates. “We are looking at one deal a day,” he says, in part because of the cashflow problems brought about by the economic crisis. Burke says Satori can partner with a company, “and either they have an exit event or we can buy in and continue to grow it.”
While Satori has yet to write any checks, Burke says he expects the company will begin investing in the next three months. “We are going through due diligence on a couple of companies,” he says.
Burke says he, Vanderbeck, Eisenman and Gilchrest also ask questions that are more subjective than objective, such as “would the world be a better place if this business were 10 times bigger?”
That level of reflection and thoughtfulness — Zen, if you will — infuses Satori to the core. In fact, the word “Satori” is a Japanese word for “enlightenment,” Burke explains. “It is actually a homage to our view on conscious capitalism,” that “businesses with a purpose coupled with stakeholder orientation,” he says, “have the power — in fact maybe the best opportunity — to positively transform our world.”
And that’s bound to give everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling.