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‘We haven’t turned ourselves into a boutique’ – Ashurst’s head talks strategy, Bain and pushing energy and finance

After having brought in Bain & Co last year to advise on the firm’s strategy, Ashurst’s chairman and New Zealand-born litigator Ben Tidswell (pictured) talks to Legal Business about the firm’s new direction and its renewed focus on financial institutions, energy and infrastructure, and the Asia-Pacific.

You brought in Bain to advise on the firm’s model. How helpful was this?

When Ashurst merged with Blake Dawson, we thought, this is a great opportunity and we need to make the most of it. Bain & Co helped us with data driven analysis and provided structure for the analysis. This took time but was extremely helpful – the Bain partners sat in the firm for a few months and two Bain partners were up on the stage in our partner conference in Dubai in October last year. They were very positive about the strength of our business and its untapped potential and partners felt reassured by the evidence based and professional approach they helped us to take in determining our strategic focus.

We re-evaluated where the heart of the business lay. We have some fantastic corporate clients and many of these are in the financial services, resources and infrastructure sectors. The relationships with these clients and others could be even stronger and more joined up and there were some areas where we were not maximising the value we can bring to clients, for example, in credit and private equity funds.

What is the firm’s current focus?

To focus primarily on the financial services industry and resources and infrastructure clients and grow this side of the business but not to the exclusion of important relationships in other sectors. And with respect to finance, this does not just mean banking work, but doing M&A and competition work for the clients in these sectors for example. This works for our international clients too – for example, our Singapore and Jakarta offices are going strong and have seen lots of work come in from some of our largest Japanese clients within the resources and infrastructure sector.

Will this new energy/projects and finance focus become the firm’s new identity?

We haven’t turned ourselves into a boutique. There are no signs that our UK/Europe offering has diminished. In the firm’s last promotion round, of the 20 promotions, 13 were in the UK/Europe.

It is an operational strategy that looks at our clients and makes our strongest areas stronger.

We are not a two-trick pony. The biggest winner here is corporate – we have established relationships with our finance and resources and infrastructure clients and aim to strengthen these further by doing more corporate work for them across the board.

How did the partners react to the firm’s revenue and profit figures?

The partnership had a pretty good sense of what was expected numbers wise, and while the exchange movement was a factor, they knew this was part of the investment cycle. I have been impressed by the shared determination to make long term and fundamental improvements to our practice.

Where is the firm in terms of its investments?

There has been an emphasis on Asia Pacific – we have made a lot of investment there. We have thought long and hard about our platform, and on the finance side in particular there are lots of opportunities in Asia.

Our focus is more global now. We want to better connect our European, Asian, Australian, Middle Eastern and US offices. We want to build our Hong Kong office not just in general banking, but in structured products, which will be consistent with our offering elsewhere.

Following the merger, do you feel the firm has a branding problem?

We are somewhat understated. But we are among the best infrastructure firms in the world and we are right up there in finance.

How has the merger helped?

Many of the big deals in Asia have a connection to Australia. Before the merger, both firms wanted to build up in Asia and knew we would be strong in that area; we thought it would be easier to go in together and this has proved to be the case.

There has been positive recognition in the directory rankings and a general strengthening of our finance business as well.

How has Europe been for the firm so far this year?

It was a tough first quarter in 2015 – adverse foreign exchange movements, London had its challenges with the election and Europe was challenged further with the problems in Greece – this affected deal activity, private equity was down, and this affected London performance. However, this is trending strongly upwards.

We are doing more serious regulatory work for banks and our banking practice has grown. We have 12 banking partners in London which is one-third of our overall finance practice. The firm has also seen a lot of work come in from hedge funds/credit funds.

What are the opportunities like in Asia?

We are pleased with our Asia-profitability but we are still pushing hard to grow our business in Asia, particularly on the structured finance side and the projects side in South-East Asia. But Asia has its challenges and needs to be considered market by market.

It’s been two years since the Glasgow office launched – how are things going there?

The Glasgow office is more than twice the size it was last year. It has made the firm more efficient. We have centralised this service and the Glasgow office serves the entire firm – around 60% in Europe and 40% in Asia Pacific.

It houses 170 people. We are seeing more corporate and disputes work come in from Australia, as well as securities and derivatives work.

What is your message to the partnership?

Let’s push on and focus on the longer term.