The White stuff

Executive chairman Jonathan White has overseen the expansion of Ogier from local Jersey firm to international offshore powerhouse.

The White stuff To be the best – that has always driven me,” says Ogier executive chairman Jonathan White as he relaxes into his chair. White reflects on 18 years in senior offshore management where he was the driving force behind a huge expansion of the Jersey-headquartered firm.

When White joined Ogier in 1985 the firm had just four partners and a lone office in ­Jersey. Earlier this month he stood down as executive chairman, leaving Ogier in robust health and having mentored some of the Channel Island’s leading offshore lawyers. Today the firm has lawyers based in 11 ­jurisdictions, including Bahrain and Tokyo.

Ogier approached White while he was working for local rival Mourant du Feu & Jeune. Mourant was reluctant to let him go, but White was ready for a new challenge.

“Ogier was a very small business with some good people,” he recalls. “I found it very exciting and decided to move for that reason.”

At Ogier, White found his mentor in then group chairman Malcolm Sinel. White refers to him as an “outstanding individual”.

“He dictated strategy and felt the best approach was to be the best in your jurisdiction,” he says. “I was delighted to learn from him. He helped build Ogier into one of the best Jersey firms.”

White himself was a mentor to others. BakerPlatt Group chief executive Stephen Platt started his career with Ogier. He says it was White who gave him the confidence to build his own practice and later he went on to launch his own firm.

“Jonathan was a role model as a business leader when I was at Ogier and has remained one since I left,” says Platt. “When I was 27 I went to him with an idea for a new practice group – Ogier Compliance. He backed it and in six months it was up and running. At the time it positioned Ogier as a market leader”.

When he took over eight years ago as executive chairman, White entered what he calls the second phase of his management career.

“When I took over we looked at where ­offshore law was moving and how our ­business was placed,” he recalls. The way ­offshore law was conducted was changing and Ogier needed to change with it.

“Historically it has been big deals led by London and New York – they would choose the jurisdiction and then the firm they ­wanted to use,” White explains.

“We felt we could achieve more by setting up multiple services. Initially we set ourselves targets as jurisdictions – Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands [BVI] – and we would take the rest from there.”

Ogier has never ventured into Bermuda, fearing it would be too insurance-dominated and firms there already had that sector sewn up. In fact, the boldest move came first and was much closer to home. A merger with Boxalls in February 2004 gave Ogier an instant footing in Guernsey, Cayman and London. It was the first merger of its kind in the offshore world.

White remembers: “It was a very daring thing and it was quite interesting our ­
opening in Guernsey. It was seen as a brave step in a way that nobody outside the ­Channel Islands would understand.”

Traditionally Jersey and Guernsey have competed against each other, White explains. So when Ogier became the first to have a base in Jersey and Guernsey some ­commentators were outraged, labelling it a “degenerative measure”. Nevertheless, the merger set the ball rolling for Ogier’s ­expansion.

Later in 2004 it opened in New Zealand, then in 2006 it consolidated its position at the top of the ­offshore tree with a merger with WSmiths, extending the firm’s reach into BVI, ­Montevideo and Hong Kong.

In 2007 Ogier followed the offshore trail into Dubai and last year launched a joint venture with Bahrain accounting firm ­Keypoint and further committed to Asia with a Tokyo office.

“In the past if Ogier focused on London and providers of business in London it could be reasonably assured of getting work,” says White. “That’s not the case anymore. Now you have to be in China to do work in China.”

White recognises that Channel Island firms have failed to compete adequately with Cayman and BVI-based firms in the fight for work from the East.

“Cayman and the BVI were younger and less established than the Channel Islands,” he says. “They found it difficult to move into the traditional markets so went to develop markets in China and Hong Kong. So they’ve been there 20 years while the Channel Islands haven’t felt the need to ­target the east.

The challenge is to take advantage of the developing market while managing the risks.”

That, however, is not a challenge for White – it is time for a change. Clive Chaplin, a senior partner who heads Ogier’s business and trust law group in ­Jersey, will become chairman. Nick Kershaw, managing partner of Ogier’s legal practice in Jersey, will become group chief executive officer.

For White the biggest challenge facing ­offshore law is being able to develop global ­regulations to improve standards without ­damaging entrepreneurial spirit.

“Our strength is in how we’ve positioned ourselves internationally with multiple offerings,” he says. “I could have done a lot of things better but I’ve been very lucky to work with some great partners with a common vision to create a strong business.”

Jonathan White
Practice are Offshore law
Firm: Ogier
Employees: 835

Jonathan White’s career at Ogier:
1985: Joined as solicitor
1987: Admitted to partnership
1991: Managing partner, Ogier Le Cornu
1995: Managing partner, Ogier Group
2001: Group chairman, Ogier Group