One year into the job and it is time for Horst Ebhardt to take stock. As the first-ever managing partner of Wolf Theiss, he is in the privileged position of being the man charged with building the leading non-English law firm for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
His only realistic rival is Christoph Lindinger at Austrian peer Schoenherr, profiled in last week’s issue (The Lawyer, 5 October). Schoenherr is currently e14m (£12.9m) behind in turnover but has more fee-earners.
Wolf Theiss, the younger firm by just seven years, has 12 offices, 10 of which were founded after the turn of the millennium. In Viennese legal circles, it is “the new kid on the block” (a term Lindinger himself refers to).
The one thing the kids have, however, is ambition, and Wolf Theiss has already matured into a law firm with CEE domination in its sights.
The story begins a dozen or so years ago, when the CEE was booming, second only to China. Wolf Theiss made the firm-changing decision to follow its clients beyond the Austrian border.
This meant unlocking the firm’s partnership and realising the potential sitting on its door-step. Ebhardt joined in 1997 from Strommer Reich-Rohrwig Karasek Hainz. In 1998, he was tasked with setting up a new Wolf Theiss office in the Czech Republic, the firm’s first foray abroad.
“Other firms were very family orientated,” recalls Ebhardt. “There was a founder with a son who was always unhappy and the wife doing the books. There were very elegant partners who came from established families, who were very impressive people. But they weren’t ready to change to the modern law firm model. We seized the opportunity.”
After narrowly avoiding a merger with either Clifford Chance or Allen & Overy in 2001, the intervening years saw Wolf Theiss’s revenue grow to e74.3m in 2008. Over the past decade it has seen an average increase of 25 per cent per year.
“We went from a country like Austria with eight million inhabitants to 12 countries with 135 million inhabitants,” Ebhardt says. “In terms of potential it’s huge.”
Twelve months into his latest role and Ebhardt feels he is on the edge of something big once again. But he has a competitor in the form of Schoenherr, though Ebhardt says the CEE battle is broader than the two Austrian rivals.
“It’s not a just competition between Schoenherr and Wolf Theiss,” he claims. “It’s a much bigger game now with a lot of international firms that have a footprint in the region.”
Ebhardt points to the differences between the two firms’ partnerships. Many Wolf Theiss partners came from US and UK firms, with the Austrian to non-Austrian ratio now at 60:40.
It is an important distinction for the quietly spoken managing partner, because Wolf Theiss is in the midst of a drive to go international. Over the past two years the firm has been rebranding, repointing and changing the way it faces the world. With the growth spurt now levelling out (the firm predicts flat revenue for 2010), Ebhardt arguably has the breathing space to do a bit of much-needed housework.
“In a way it’s good,” he says. “We can focus on how we can improve, what’s important to us in the long term. We can plan a bit better rather than reacting to yet another project.”
The hire of a new chief financial officer from Capgemini, Gernot Rauter, recently has helped in a drive to reduce costs, hopefully preventing layoffs.
Most recently Wolf Theiss hired a former Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld business development director, Janis Nordstrom (The Lawyer, 21 September), whose job is to present the firm as a one-stop-shop to US clients and global firms. With a slick website and integrating branding, there seems to be nothing preventing the Wolf Theiss package from working at a time when referrals from global firms are increasingly important to the firm.
From the Czech Republic to Ukraine, the ground is strewn with the remnants of failed magic circle and US law firm projects, and Ebhardt for one does not believe they will be back. Their eyes, he argues, are now elsewhere.
“The biggest firms are much more looking at critical mass, key markets such as China, India and the US,” he claims. “Russia is up and down, the Far East is important and the global players talk about billions in revenue when they look at those markets. That’s where they’re focusing.”
Ebhardt’s own focus is Poland, where he reveals that the firm is “very actively” screening opportunities in the country to plug a gap in the Wolf Theiss map.
“It’s a key economy,” admits Ebhardt, “like looking at western Europe and ignoring France.”
The other country of interest is Turkey, one that is also favoured by Schoenherr’s Lindinger. However, with a more determined approach to expansion, it will surely be Wolf Theiss that makes this difficult step towards North Africa first.