Before I got married, all I had to do to get a girl to speak to me, was give her my Arthur Andersen business card

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In this interview with Olaleye Adebiyi, Country Managing Partner of Andersen Tax in Nigeria, and Co-Chairman, African Regional Board, shares insight on essential ingredients for success in professional services, attracting top talent, Andersen Global Collaboration with TNP, current realities and the transition to remote work.

EXCERPTS


There are very few professionals in Nigeria that have the breadth and indeed depth of your experience in the legal and professional services space; from Arthur Andersen to Aluko & Oyebode and WTS Adebiyi & Associates and now Andersen Tax. Given your unique perspective, what would you say are essential ingredients/factors for success in legal/professional service businesses?

 Quality! Quality! Quality! I think that adherence to quality cannot be overemphasized. Clients want the best, especially if they are paying top dollar for it. Firms need to get to a place where their clients can say, because I got this from so and so firm, I know I can rely on it. This ties in with hiring right. When you hire right, you are somewhat assured of quality work from staff. I remember back in my days in Arthur Andersen, after a certain level you were no longer appraised on technical competence, because that was a given.

A second factor for me, would be people management. If you do not treat your staff well, they will leave and that’s why some firms die. I remember in my days at Arthur Andersen, we did not have to think about salary increase, it just happened. The Firm took into consideration the rate of inflation and increased salaries accordingly. I remember in my first year, I had three salary increases. It is important to pay people well, develop your staff, give them good training and continually make sure they are happy to remain with your firm. That way, the firm can grow.

Are there any practices that you have observed in bigger larger firms and organisations which you were unable to replicate in WTS Adebiyi & Associates because it was a smaller practice?

The only thing I know I probably was unable to do, was pay the kind of salaries I felt should be paid even though we paid quite well according to legal industry standards. However, the competition was not just with law firms, but against the Big Four and others.

I think the only encumbrance for smaller firms might be that they are unable to pay top salaries and this might affect the quality of talent that they are able to attract to their business. Right now, in Andersen Tax, we are able to attract top talents and pay them well and we can also provide the type of environment where they are able to excel.

It’s a catch 22 situation. Is the brand the entire difference? As Andersen Tax you are able to guarantee a certain clientele, which enables you to pay more and therefore attract top talent, and by being able to attract top talent, you are able to guarantee a certain clientele which enables you pay more.

When I go with my Global CEO around Africa to other potential Andersen Tax offices (we have offices in 38 countries in Africa), I always tell a story. Before I got married, all I ever needed to do to get a girl to talk to me, was give her my Arthur Andersen business card. They could say no to me later, but with the card, I could be sure they would at least listen to me; the brand was that strong then. Arthur Andersen was Number 1 by far ahead of the other Big 5.

I can tell you right now, that the brand has played a big part in elevating our practice to where we are now. Now, when RFPs are sent to the Big Four, they are also sent to Andersen tax.

 So, what can local firms, do to attain or at least approach the same type of brand recognition.

 I mentioned Aluko & Oyebode earlier. It is a local Firm that it is very strong locally. As a result, they have been able to attract engagements not just locally, but internationally as well. They have built a good reputation over the years. So, hire good people, produce top quality work and treat your people well.

So, those same things will build the brand?

Yes. It is not about having a foreign affiliation. There are other top firms in Nigeria. Banwo & Ighodalo, Olaniwun Ajayi and so on. These would typically be the firms that would get invited to do major transactions in Nigeria. These are all local brands built on quality.

The firms you have mentioned are indeed widely recognized as tier one firms in Nigeria. There are also a few others in this category. They do good work, generally have a large work force and have clearly built a strong brand over the years. However, there are small firms that also do good work, treat their people well and so on, but do not have brand recognition. What are they doing wrong? What are they not doing?

 I don’t think they are necessarily doing anything wrong. What I would say, is that they should mark their own time. There is no way, if you continue doing good quality work and treating your people right, your name will not come out. I will use WTS’ Adebiyi & Associates as an example. Though we started small and were offered “peanuts” for some jobs initially, as word spread about our work, we began to get very well-paying engagements and in many cases were chosen for engagements over very well established local and global brands.

I remember then, I would go to some places and mention my name and be surprised to hear “o yes, the tax guy”. I did not know that people actually knew who I was or what I was doing. There is no way, if you remain committed to quality, you will not be recognized. Yes, it may not be at the same level as some established brands, but remain committed and you will get there.

All it takes is one big break. If you get a job say with a big company and you do it right, they are very likely to refer you to similar companies that have the same problem. Not too long ago, the CFO of one of the major conglomerates in Nigeria called us because the CFO of another conglomerate had spoken so well about us at a meet up of expatriate CFOs. Same would apply even for a smaller firm. If you do good work, in time, word gets around and a firm that was not known yesterday becomes a recognized brand. So, I cannot overemphasize doing good quality work as well as getting good people and treating them well. Regardless of how small you are, those principles are constant all over.

Great advice. Now let me go to TNP and the Collaboration. What was your thought process in embarking on the collaboration?

 Right from the onset when setting up Andersen Tax, we wanted to have the whole gamut of tax and law. But for various reasons, it was not possible at the time.  When we would go for meetings, we found out that legal issues would come up which we could not deal with as Andersen Tax, because we were not a Law Firm. As more opportunities began to arise, I had cause to think again about the original plan.

I had known TNP for some time. I knew that they think the way we think. They were a practice that wanted to make a change in the market and had started making their mark.  So, on one trip to London these opportunities again came up, I called TNP’s Managing Partner and scheduled a meeting for when I returned to Nigeria. As providence would have it, the Partner and I were on the same flight back to Nigeria the next day. I initiated the conversation and the rest as they say is history. They share the same passion that we do, they also want to dominate the world, not just Nigeria.

In view of some of the regulatory restrictions that exist in Nigeria, have you faced any resistance from the NBA or any regulatory bodies regarding the collaboration.?

No, we have not and should not. Andersen Tax does not do legal work and TNP represents Andersen Global in Nigeria as a Collaborating Legal Firm, there is no common ownership relationship with Andersen Tax. We refer all legal work and opportunities that come our way to TNP, whilst we continue to address the tax needs of our clients.  Under the model that we have adopted, Andersen Tax and TNP are separate practices and we do not combine revenue. Our common goal is to ensure we provide high quality service to our mutual clients and solve their problems.

Talking about models, brings me nicely to my next question. There are many conversations going on globally and to some extent locally, on the business of law. From talks about business models for law firms, to the disruptions in the legal space caused by technology and alternative service providers (such as Andersen Tax) amongst others. Although you are strictly speaking, no longer a practicing lawyer, what are your thoughts or recommendations on the direction, lawyers and law firms should be taking in these times?

 The only thing I would advise, is specialization. The days of having a law firm of generalists, is gone. You have to specialise in an area. Considering especially, that technology is taking over many things, you need to dominate an area and be able to deliver in that space.

 For instance, if I say I am a tax lawyer, I can advise you not just on tax, but also on commercial law generally. So, I have an edge. I remember years ago, I was asked to review the tax aspects of a major financing agreement, which the commercial lawyers had flown to London to conclude. I however took time to review the entire agreement and was able to advise based on my tax expertise, that the contract would-be dead-on arrival if signed the way it was.

The tax provisions of the agreement were inconsistent with the commercial objectives which the parties sought to achieve. I then made suggestions on how the agreement could be re-drafted in a manner that made it workable and actually received commendations from all stakeholders. There was also a case many years ago, where a major company that produces and exports gas had problems claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits because they adopted a wrong contracting structure.

They wrongly adopted a contracting structure that entailed hiring rather than ownership of the vessels. Unfortunately, the hiring structure adopted in their contract did not provide the tax incentives they were seeking. A tax lawyer would have spotted that immediately at the contract drafting stage.

My point is that specialization has been and will continue to remain important regardless of technology and other disruptions.

So, specialization is the way forward. What’s your view on other issues like technology and let me tie that in with where we are now, COVID and the transition to remote work? Were you ready?

I am not sure anyone would say they were prepared for COVID. At least I was not. But I think many people had something that they could build upon. That was the case for us. Prior to COVID, everybody at Andersen Tax could log in and work remotely. If you call that preparation for COVID, then perhaps, yes, we were ready. It had to be so, because I have always had to work remotely. So, the ability to work remotely, has always been key. We just had to scale up a little.

 Are there any specific tools that you leveraged, now and in the past?

I cannot speak specifically to that. We may need to ask my IT Team. On my part, I am able to connect to the office server from wherever I am in the world. And really, this is not new. I remember as far back as 1999 in my days with Arthur Andersen, from Chicago, I could connect to the Lagos office Server do my work and save straight into the server in Lagos. Organizations like that have been far ahead of the rest for a long time.

Technology is now more easily accessible which is why I would say that every lawyer or law firm that wants to scale up must take technology very seriously. You need to have amongst other things a server and dedicated IT people. You cannot do it yourself. You need specialists that can ensure that you keep upgrading as technologies change and improve.

 

 

 


Olaleye Adebiyi is the Country Managing Partner of Andersen Tax in Nigeria, and Co-Chairman African Regional Board. He has more than 33 years’ experience in professional services across several firms, ranging from a global “big 5” multidisciplinary professional services practice, through one of Africa’s largest law firms and a boutique law practice

 

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