In the zone

Austria’s links with the surrounding region are growing ever-more important for law firms

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Vienna found itself on the right side of the headlines again this year, when a study from The Economist Intelligence Unit named the Austrian capital the world’s second best city to live in. So why did the Economist Group move its regional office from Vienna to Geneva in 2008? Are Klimt, Mozart and Sachertorte not enough?

Apparently not, because The Economist is not the only one. More recently, mobile phone giant Nokia announced it was to move its Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) headquarters from Vienna to Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in an attempt to streamline operations and become more profitable.

“Are we going to see businesses move away from Austria? Yes and no,” says Wolf Theiss managing partner Erik Steger. “If we take the car industry as an example, you see a huge amount of manufacturing done in Slovakia where production is cheaper, but the research side is still done in Germany and Austria.

“So while companies might move part of their businesses east of Austria for cost reasons, most Austrian headquarters are staying put – in the past three years we have seen 50 new companies put their headquarters in Vienna, despite the crisis.”

The danger, Steger explains, is when neighbouring countries start to offer investment incentives that attract Austria’s skilled workforce. He adds that referring to Vienna – or any one place – as a ‘CEE hub’ has become irrelevant in the legal market.

“Where you have your headquarters is becoming less important to how good you achieve integration between these places,” he explains, pointing to the network of firms that have opened up across the CEE and Balkan countries in order to capitalise on the cross-border investment flows in the region. Wolf Theiss itself has just announced the launch of a Warsaw office with the hire of German firm Beiten Burkhardt’s entire Polish team.

“Although our headquarters are in Vienna, our energy is all over the place – we need people capable of transporting know-how elsewhere, just like the Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer]s and the Clifford Chances,” Steger adds.

Buddy-minded

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that international firms looking to develop in the region are still searching for buddies in the Austrian capital. Many key developing markets, such as Romania, the Balkans and the Czech Republic, have relatively undeveloped legal sectors which are dominated by local firms.

“There aren’t many German or UK firms that have successfully managed to enter the CEE region without an alliance with an Austrian firm,” says Philip Hoflehner, a partner at Taylor Wessing ENWC. The tie-up earlier this year between UK-headquartered Taylor Wessing and Austrian firm ENWC gave Taylor Wessing a foothold in six new jurisdictions – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Ukraine.

“I don’t know why, maybe it’s a question of local experience. You could compare it to an Austrian firm looking to expand in the Middle East – you need contacts and relationships first. We’re right next to Bratislava – there have always been relationships. It’s easier to renew those than start from scratch. Austrian firms went east quite early,” Hoflehner observes.

Having gone east early, Austrian firms are now looking to take relationships to the next level by finding alliances of their own, such as Wolf Theiss’s Polish venture.

“It covers what’s the most important remaining white spot on our map in Central and South Eastern Europe,” said Steger when the acquisition was announced last month. “We’ve seen more and more mandates coming in that would require us to have a presence in Poland. We believe that it’ll assist us in gaining more work and it’ll be credible to the clients.”

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But firms are choosing their new friends with care. Wolf Theiss had been working alongside the Beiten team for a year, advising on the privatisation of a Warsaw hospital together before making the big commitment.

“We looked at the market at length but it was always more important for us to do something of high quality than do something in a rush,” Steger stresses.

Likewise, Freshfields has increased its presence in Austria’s legal market through its dominance in Germany.

“In the recession German clients have become more important to Austrian law firms, and we’re seeing Freshfields on the other side of a huge number of Austria-Germany deals,” observes one partner at a local firm. “The strong relationship Freshfields Germany has with German clients, and its reputation as a tier one firm, has seen them more often than other firms on headline deals involving Germany.”

Other international firms, meanwhile, have lost out on the big transactions, notably for their lack of contacts in the Austrian or German market.

Skadden’s Vienna office sometimes seems like more of a marketing operation for the CEE region,” observes one partner in the area. “They’ve retained the office in Vienna to be the hub of CEE but they are involved in no to very little client work with respect to big Austrian transactions. You can’t say they don’t do any meaningful work, but the work they do do seems to be from outside of Austria.”

Local difficulty

So if a few international firms are losing momentum in Austria, does this mean the small, local firms are laughing? Unfortunately not, explains Christian Herbst, a corporate partner based in Schoenherr’s Vienna headquarters.

“It’s hard for purely Austrian firms focusing on the Austrian market, because most large transactions have a CEE angle,” he says. “So even though Austria is stable – with energy-related and restructuring work booming – it’s not growing in terms of purely Austrian transactions. Firms doing well are those that have concentrated on the CEE region.”

Clearly, the relationship between Austria and CEE should not be underestimated. Several Austrian firms estimate that they earn around 50 per cent of turnover from outside-Austria; some say the proportion of revenue coming from the region is more than half.

Since Taylor Wessing and ENWC merged in May, Hoflehner says there has been a decent amount of restructuring work coming from Hungary and Ukraine, with the firm expecting to profit from Poland’s booming economy in the next year.

The region seems to be benefiting from an increase in litigation work, a trend that has been making its way across Europe ever since the recession.

“To put it bluntly, once companies run out of cash they try and find it somewhere else,” adds Hoflehner. “This will continue for a while, if only because litigation can take some time. Maybe the focus will shift to expansion again once the economy settles.”

Unsurprisingly, nearly every partner interviewed for this report agrees, with many beefing up their litigation departments to keep up. One of those firms is Dorda Brugger Jordis, which has doubled its litigation team in the last few years.

“The dire situation across Europe is making people look at developments in the past because they see a bleak future,” says Dorda’s managing partner Martin Brodey, who also heads the firm’s CEE desk. “The culture for pursuing claims has been getting stronger across Europe ever since the recession fuelled an American-style claims culture.”

Certainly the crisis has seen claims increase and M&A slow down, but there’s no doubting that stability has been the watchword in Austria for some time. Are things set to change? After all, major ratings agency Standard & Poor cut Austria’s long-term credit rating from AAA to AA+ with a negative outlook earlier this year.

“We have a stable and safe environment in Austria, but we’re not immune [to the credit crisis] because the country is reliant on exports,” concludes Brodey, adding that stability will be the watchword for some time yet. “We were concerned in 2009 that the whole banking system would collapse, but Austrians quickly get used to situations and there are intrinsic matters that we can’t influence. There are no signs that the economy is turning just yet.”

The world’s best city?

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Vienna is not only voted again and again as one of the world’s best cities to live in, it is also one of the greenest cities. Almost half of its surface is covered by parks and gardens that are fantastic places to spend a little relaxation time outside. Not only do green areas make it a fantastic city, but an extensive bicycle network and cheap public transport adds to the city’s excellent infrastructure.

Drive around the Ringstrasse (the ring road, circling the inner city) either by tram or rental bike once it gets dark and you’ll see that all the monumental buildings built around the ring are gorgeously lit. Or take the 38A bus for a short ride from Heiligenstadt to Cobenzl and enjoy a splendid view over the brightly shining city of Vienna before taking a walk to Weingut am Reisenberg for a glass or two of Viennese Grüner Veltliner and some traditional Austrian dishes.

Erik Steger, managing partner of Wolf Theiss Vienna

Top Austrian M&A deals by value since 2007

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$4.5bn (2009)

Volkswagen announced its acquisition of the operating business of Porsche Holding Salzburg for an amended €3.3bn ($4.5bn). Originally, Volkswagen offered €3.6bn.

Target legal adviser: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Acquiror legal advisers: Schoenherr, Clifford Chance, CMS Cameron McKenna, Allen & Overy, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Wolf Theiss, Hogan Lovells

$4.2bn (2007)

Austrian steel company Voestalpine acquired a majority holding of Boehler-Uddeholm, a Vienna-based manufacturer and wholesaler of metal and steel works in one of the largest acquisitions in Austria’s industrial history.

Target legal adviser: Tozzini Freire Teixeira e Silva

Acquiror legal adviser: Shearman & Sterling, Allen & Overy, Binder Groesswang, Tozzini Freire Teixeira e Silva

$3.5bn (2008)

The Austrian government planned to acquire an undisclosed minority stake in Vienna-based Erste Bank der Oesterreichischen Sparkassen for $3.5bn via capital increase. The securities could, at the bank’s discretion, be convertible into shares, meaning that EB could theoretically end up being partly re-nationalised.

Law firms not disclosed.

$2.3bn (2008)

Wiener Staedtische Versicherung acquired the insurance business of the Vienna-based Erste Bank der Oesterreichischen Sparkassen AG, for €1.5bn ($2.3bn). The transaction was approved by regulatory authorities and was to include subsidiaries in Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Romania.

Target legal adviser: Wolf Theiss, Tuca Zbarcea & Asociatii

Acquiror legal adviser: undisclosed

$2.2bn (2007)

Bayern LB Holding of Germany, a 50:50-owned unit of the Bavarian government and Association of Bavarian Savings Banks, acquired a 50 per cent interest plus one share in Klagenfurt-based Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank International, from Austrian-state-owned Kaernten (24.9 per cent), Berlin & Co (24.8 per cent) and other undisclosed sellers, for €1.6bn ($2.2bn).

Target legal adviser: Kirkland & Ellis, Wolf Theiss, BKQ Quendler Klaus & Partner

Acquiror legal adviser: Dorda Brugger Jordis

Source: Thomson Reuters

Key figures

GDP (2011): $418.5bn

Annual inflation (Aug 2012): 2.2%

Population (Jan 2012): 8.4m

Life expectancy: 80.4

Unemployment rate (Q2 2012): 4.3 per cent

Sources: World Bank, Statistics Austria