Charlie Wijeratna: London 2012

A host of City law firms are giving London’s Olympic bid their financial support. And it’s all thanks to London 2012 commercial and legal director Charlie Wijeratna. By Steve Hoare

London 2012 is now a fully-fledged joint venture between the British Olympic Association, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Greater London Authority. When the company’s first lawyer Charlie Wijeratna came on board, there was nothing – no staff, no offices, no money. He is now glowing with post-Athens euphoria and is certain that his team can help deliver the Olympics to London.

Wijeratna had been involved in a number of business ventures after qualifying at Clifford Chance and then retraining to join the corporate finance team at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson (now Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein). When he heard the announcement of London’s Olympic bid, he immediately got in touch with the then chairman Barbara Cassani and volunteered his services to get the fledgling project off the ground.

Cassani did not even have a secretary. “My offer to help arrived on her desk half an hour after the draft joint venture and funding agreement did. I had exactly the right experience, so she asked me deal with it,” says Wijeratna.

Cassani had a relationship with Ashurst from her time as chief executive officer of discount airline Go. Ashurst partner Jan Sanders, with no promise of payment, spent two months with Wijeratna negotiating the joint venture agreement and, two months later in August last year, the company was formed.

The bid is funded by the London Development Agency and the DCMS. A complex agreement was put in place with £10m donated by each body. Public auditing requirements aside, the agreement gives the joint venture a lot of freedom to operate as it likes within an agreed remit. During that time the Canary Wharf Group donated offices and the skeleton team set about filling them, calling in old favours for furniture and building the team.

“We had to get in a financial controller and a lawyer straight away to make sure the company itself was set up and operating properly,” says Wijeratna.

The first lawyer to join was Mitchell Wells from Gide Loyrette Nouel and then Wijeratna did the deal with four law firms that would create the core of his team. “We never wanted to rely on one firm,” he says. “The philosophy of this bid is that it has got to be the whole of London. It’s got to be inclusive. We wanted a range of law firms to support the bid and to demonstrate that the City was behind the bid.”

Wijeratna ran the rule over 14 firms, which would assist him with distinct practice areas: corporate, IP, planning and infrastructure. The firms were asked if they would do a certain amount of work in return for ‘supportership’ rights. The first tier of supporters comprises six companies contributing £1m. Three law firms – Ashurst, Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer – agreed to become ‘major partners’ as the second tier of supporters. Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) is a third-tier supporter, known as ‘champions’.

Clifford Chance technology, media and telecoms partner Daniel Sandelson is working on the venue agreements, sponsorship and IP issues. Freshfields corporate head Tim Jones is doing the corporate work, with Sanders at Ashurst looking at infrastructure and employment. As well as advice, each law firm supplied a secondee, and Wijeratna’s team was born.

“We’re trying to convey the professionalism of London. We don’t really celebrate the fact that we have the best law firms in the world based here. It’s one of the things that London does best. English law is used all over the world for business. It’s one of the areas we can demonstrate to the IOC [International Olympic Committee] that we’ve done this really professionally,” Wijeratna states.

On the legal side, the team is completed by paralegal Patricia Travers, former Olswang lawyer Alastair Ruxton and Andrew Zarraga, who used to work for Linklaters and Credit Suisse First Boston.

On a day-to-day basis, the team has negotiated £8m in sponsorship agreements with companies such as British Airways, British Telecom, Electricité de France (which, curiously, is also sponsoring the Paris bid) and Virgin. It runs the board meetings. Michael Beloff QC of Blackstone Chambers has been appointed as ethics commissioner. Anyone in the company or on the board with concerns about ethical issues is encouraged to discuss them with Beloff. Wijeratna’s team also has to deal with the commercial agreements for the company and any employment issues.

Berwin Leighton Paisner planning partner Ian Trehearne is advising the bid on the ‘masterplan’, one of the biggest planning applications in years. The plan fits in with the London Mayor’s objective of regenerating East London. Trehearne worked with the London Development Agency to produce two masterplans, one for the redevelopment of East London in the event of a successful Olympic bid and one without the Olympics. The application covers a 500-acre site in the Lower Lea Valley.

While this area is little more than a semi-industrial hinterland, 10 rail or underground lines will service it when Eurostar is extended to Stratford in 2007. “We believe it’s the best-connected rail hub in Europe,” states Wijeratna.

If the bid is successful, all the facilities will have a use post-Olympics. The Lower Lea Valley Regional Park Authority will be responsible for the velodrome. Hackney will take over three sports halls, two of which will be converted for light industrial use. The Olympic Village will be sold as housing. The main Olympic stadium will become a home to UK athletics and used by a London rugby club during the winter. “Everything’s got a properly reviewed, funded and costed legacy,” says Wijeratna.

The London 2012 bid document is due to be sent to the printers at the end of September. It has to be with the IOC by 15 November 2004. In February 2005, the IOC evaluation committee will come to London to dissect every small detail of London’s plans. It will write a report that will be delivered to the 124 members of the IOC, who will make a decision on which country will host the games by July 2005.

“The IOC give you their games, you run them and you endeavour to give the intellectual property back enhanced,” says Wijeratna. In this regard, he says, the law firms that are donating their services have helped enormously. Wijeratna seems so much more thankful for their support than the average fee-paying client, and is convinced that the professionalism of the London 2012 team can deliver the best Olympics ever staged.
Charlie Wijeratna
Commercial and legal director
London 2012

Organisation London 2012
Sector Sport
Employees 70 (including full-time consultants)
Legal capability Seven
Commercial and legal director Charlie Wijeratna
Reporting to Chief executive Keith Mills
Main law firms Ashurst, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer