27 July 2009
Walkers global managing partner Grant Stein is not about to shrink in the face of bad press against offshore firms or the current economic difficulties. He’s seen it all before and is confident his firm is well-equipped to thrive globally. By Katy Dowell
Walkers global managing partner Grant Stein speaks for many offshore lawyers when he expresses anger at the deluge of negative press coverage surrounding the offshore world.
“It’s based on fiction,” he states flatly. “We have much stricter anti-money laundering regulation and cooperation.”
After 25 years as a Walkers partner Stein has heard the political rhetoric before. He believes it is in sync with the economic downturn. This time around, however, he believes the private sector is better placed to respond to the criticism.
“The private sector is beginning to wake up to the need to cooperate,” he says, before adding that public bodies in the offshore jurisdications have been less keen to cooperate. He would like to see this changed. “In 1998 a coalition was formed [between jurisdictions], but it fell apart,” he says. “Now they’ll have to come together to show a united front and they can be helped in that by the private sector.”
While political pressures on the offshore sector are intense, Stein has been more concerned of late with the economy.
At a partner retreat in 2007 the firm decided it would look to overhaul its structure to better reflect itself as a global operation. “Cayman is our largest base, but 40 per cent of our staff are outside the island,” he says. “We wanted a team approach externally and internally.”
As a result, in May the firm overhauled its management structure in a radical move that saw it adapt to a global practice hierarchy. In addition, Walkers is in the throes of winding down its two Cayman Islands-based practices, criminal and real estate, which will close in September.
The aim is to better concentrate on the growth of its international offices, which are experiencing varying levels of activity.
“Everyone’s affected by the recession,” Stein notes. “We’ve weathered the storm pretty well.”
The Cayman and British Virgin Islands-based offices are “very busy”, he says, while in the Hong Kong office the insolvency and corporate recovery practice is also experiencing an upturn.
The firm launched in Singapore in January (The Lawyer, 29 January) and so far things are going well, says Stein. “There’s an expansion in developing markets, while the US, Europe and UK are in decline - we have more emphasis on developing practices.
“We’re quite enthusiastic about growth in Asia. The Middle East has the potential to rebound. We’re well positioned, the global economy is something of a cycle.”
Several offshore firms are using their presences in Asia to buoy growth while the traditional markets recover from the recent battering. Appleby, for example, has recently opened in the Seychelles in a bid to tap into work coming in and out of Africa.
Stein is “optimistic” that his firm can continue to grow and hints at the possibility of a new office. “An extension of the Walkers brand is likely,” he says.
Earlier this month he celebrated 25 years as a partner at Walkers. When he joined the firm’s corporate practice as an associate in 1980 it was a seven-lawyer firm.
He joined the Cayman office from an Edinburgh-based firm, he says, not because of the weather, but because he “wanted to be more international”.
It was a bold move and one that paid off: within four years he was a partner, a decade later he was head of the corporate/trust practice; and when Bill Walker, the firm’s founder, retired in 1999 he became senior partner. At that time it was a 20-lawyer Cayman-based firm.
“We needed to embark on an aggressive growth strategy if we wanted to become a global firm,” he reflects. So does he have any regrets about taking up a management position? “All lawyers who’ve gone into management have pangs of regret,” he states matter of factly. “I regret no longer being client-facing, but I do quite enjoy it.”
The challenges have changed significantly since the economic slump hit and you get the sense that Stein is actually quite enjoying the hurdles before him. It has given him a new mission to get his teeth into. “It stops any boredom,” he quips with a hint of mischievousness.
Offshore managers usually have a wealth of experience behind them and have seen a few recessions come and go. It helps to be thick-skinned, straight talking, determined and likeable.
Stein weathers the political rhetoric well, responding not with emotion but with practical solutions to an ongoing problem. It is this attitude that he applies to the running of the firm through the ups and downs of the economic cycle, and one that will see Walkers positioned strongly for the recovery.
Name: Grant Stein
Practice area: Offshore law
Number of employees: 500
Grant Stein’s career at Walkers:
1980: Joined as an associate in the corporate/trust group
1984: Admitted to partnership
1994: Head of corporate/trust
1999: Senior partner
2001: Chairman of the management committee
2006: Global managing partner