Brian Henderson has been the chief operating officer of Baker & McKenzie’s offices in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam since February 2012. He was formerly COO then global head of legal sourcing at Linklaters, where he was based in London and lived briefly in Paris. He is now based in Hong Kong.
What are the key challenges in your jurisdictions at the moment?
Competition against UK, US and Australian firms. Chinese firms are also huge and increasingly ambitious, and are becoming more and more competitive. This gives rise to aggressive pricing. There are fewer international firms in Vietnam so the main competition is in Hong Kong and China. Competition in Vietnam will depend on how the economy develops – at the moment it’s a very small market.
What are the similarities and differences between the jurisdictions?
Well, they’re all in Asia – that’s the one similarity. But really they have quite different cultures, even between Beijing and Shanghai. People in Hong Kong and China tend to speak their minds, while the Vietnamese are relatively quiet.
There is widely differing GDP per head between the jurisdictions – Hong Kong is obviously a wealthy country, for example.
Are companies in these jurisdictions slimming down or bulking up their panels?
There is not a particular trend when it comes to panels in Asia. A few companies may have panels, but whether or not you’re on one does not necessarily mean you will or won’t get work.
The main way to get work is through relationships and showing you’re reliable. The main thing we’ve noticed here is that companies are looking for cost savings.
How often do you go to the offices in China and Vietnam?
As often as I can, which probably isn’t often enough. There’s no set routine for when I make a visit, it tends to depend on what issues have arisen and what is on the agenda. I’m currently based in Hong Kong along with the management committee.
Has there ever been a problem at work that’s surprised you?
Businesses challenges are the same wherever you are in the world, but it’s peoples’ reactions to proposals that can take you by surprise.
Do you speak Cantonese or Mandarin?
I can say good morning and thank you in Cantonese or Mandarin. English is very much the language of business here, but I’m learning as I go.
What are the most significant external issues that have an impact on your role?
Office rents in China and Hong Kong are going through the roof. As with pretty much any law firm, the office rent is probably our biggest fixed overhead apart from salaries. It’s a cost line we have to manage carefully.
What is Bakers’ strategy in these jurisdictions for the future?
Bakers has been in Asia for quite some time, so our strategy is to build on the capability we’ve established. We want to leverage this while focusing on multinational clients investing into this region.
You were in London before. Why Asia?
I was finding Europe rather depressing – it was a low growth environment for quite a number of years, with headcount cuts, budget cuts and pay freezes. It was all about making businesses more efficient but not about growing or developing. Asia, by contrast, is a high growth market, with lots of exciting things going on.
Do you expect more people to make the move?
I’m surprised at how few people have come over.
What is the most important lesson your role has taught you?
Humility – there’s no room for a big ego in this line of work.
London revenue: $199m (£74m)
London RPL 2011: £807,000
Global revenue: $2.3bn (£1.4bn)
Global RPL 2011: £608,000
Global RPP 2011: £1.7m
“Although the fall in global trade has affected Asia the situation is much more positive than in the West, with strong GDP growth in most countries,” explains Henderson. “Many multinationals look to Asia to drive revenue as the middle class grows. There’s also a strong pipeline of large Asian companies lining up to raise money on the capital markets and they are more likely to aim for local listings than go to established Western markets.”
PMS: Elite Enterprises
Also: Global Citrix System