The chief executive of Stephenson Harwood has tasted his fair share of success as the first Asian CEO of a city law firm.
Listed as one of this year’s UK’s Best Companies to Work For by The Sunday Times, Harwood is currently working on one of the biggest cases of the year. In a deal worth nearly £500m, the firm is advising Russian businessmen on allegations of corruption made against them regarding a series of shipping and banking deals.
It is this track record that has seen the international law firm scoop awards for its shipping business and learning and development. The London-based firm could have more to celebrate later in the year, as it has been shortlisted for UK Law Firm of the Year and Litigation Team of the Year at the prestigious Lawyer Awards. But Sunil Gadhia has also faced stern tests of character, most notably when Lo Hwei Yen, a 28-year-old shipping associate in Harwood’s Singapore office, was killed after being taken hostage by gunmen in Mumbai’s Oberoi Hotel during last year’s terror attacks.
Six months on from the tragedy, the 43-year-old told Asian Enterprise: “It was hugely difficult for the business. For people who worked with Yen closely it was a real challenge. But at the end of the day, what we went through was nothing compared with what her family had to go through. “She worked in our Singapore office, which has a close-knit office of about 25 to 30 people and they were a family. Losing somebody like that in those circumstances was very difficult to comprehend. I went to support the office, pay my condolences to her family at the funeral and play a supportive role.”
Dealing with challenges is something Gadhia has become accustomed to since becoming one of the youngest CEOs in the city when took over in 2003 aged 38. He is responsible for over 600 employees worldwide, in China, Greece, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Singapore. Gadhia admits that managing a team of lawyers, many of whom are much older and experienced than him, is the biggest hurdle. “Lawyers by their nature are incredibly independent, very intelligent, analytical and critical.
Managing and directing them is a challenge. “You’ve got to demonstrate your credibility very quickly. Lawyers, doctors and academics, in particular, are not going to do what you tell them, but they will do something if you explain why it makes sense. You constantly have to build a case for why as a business we should do certain things. “You’ve also got to be incredibly versatile as it’s a people business. People are hugely different so you need to appreciate and recognise those differences and at the same time lead the business in a certain direction.” On top of managing a team of hard-nosed lawyers and beating competitors, Gadhia like many CEOs, is dealing with the global financial turmoil.
He says Harwood, which is worth over £85m, has stayed on top of the credit crunch by branching out into different areas. This includes being involved in the first insurance outsourcing deal compliant with Islamic Shariah law as well as the purchase of Westfield Shopping Centre in west London, Europe’s largest shopping mall. “We have quite a diversified business in terms of the types of work we do, the type of clients we act for and the geographical regions that are important to us. Overall, we have not been affected as badly as some firms. Our corporate business is a bit quieter, but our shipping business is busier. “Firms with large real estate practices are affected quite heavily. Also firms that are strong in structured finance and complex financial products have been affected.
We have been able to withstand the downturn because of our diversity. We are planning to grow the business and the partnership.” The inspiration to tackle challenging and diverse cases stems from visits as a schoolboy to what was then the Belgrave Law Centre in Leicester. Gadhia used to translate for his dad when he went for legal advice after moving the family from Kenya in the 1970s. Gadhia says it was “seeing how a lawyer approached a problem and the method of extracting relevant facts” that sparked his interest in law. “Making assessments, judgments and giving some advice seemed to be a way of working that I found interesting. I flirted with other careers, but eventually I did a law degree.” Gadhia continues to give free advice at the Fulham Legal Advice Centre and Camden Law Centre, along with doing pro bono work at the Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice.
His talents for problem-solving and giving advice were put to the test as a junior lawyer when he joined Harwood in 1988 after graduating from Nottingham University. Gadhia had to recover millions of pounds in pension funds after the death of media baron Robert Maxwell. Maxwell, who fell overboard his luxury yacht, had used money from his companies’ pension funds to finance his corporate debt. “With the Maxwell pensions saga, there was a high profile businessman who plundered hundreds of millions of pounds of pension fund assets to keep his companies afloat. We were instructed to try and recover pension-fund assets that went on for three or four years. The conclusion of that and making really significant recoveries was a real highlight.”
The Maxwell case is among a long list of high profile achievements for the Harwood firm. It recently advised on the biggest ever directors & officers insurance claim in India on the accounting fraud scandal at Satyam Computer Services. So what is left to conquer? One key goal is having a base in India’s untapped and potentially lucrative market. Last December, a bill was passed through parliament allowing a foreign law firm to form a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) in India, and enabling foreign and Indian firms to form a new LLP if one partner resides in the country. Gadhia says he is waiting for the door of the Indian legal market to fully open. “There’s been talk of it changing for a number of years now and its anyone’s guess on when it will.
It will be more about the advantages to the clients and the ability for international firms to serve international clients in their key geographical areas of business. “The cost base of doing business is more advantageous than in London and you can run parts of your business from India. Being closer to key growing Indian businesses is also an advantage. “We certainly have it in our sights when the regulation allows us to. They wont just allow international firms to come in and do what they want.” With these ambitious goals in mind, the next 12 months looks set to be just as successful and memorable for Gadhia.