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Front line strategies for responding to the COVID-19 crisis: Experiences from legal team leaders around the world

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Front line strategies for responding to the COVID-19 crisis: Experiences from legal team leaders around the world 1

By Diane Dix – General Counsel, Total Safety, Marc Michael – Chief Counsel, Global Dispute Resolution, AES Corp, Tim Williams – Senior Counsel, Dispute Management, Wärtsilä Corporation, Susan Dunn – Founder and CEO, Harbour Litigation Finance, Tamer Nassar – Managing Director, Eternal Energy, Derrick Dale QC – Fountain Court Chambers

A crisis like Covid-19 has presented a highly unusual set of challenges for global business.  Whilst, for any business, ensuring the immediate health and safety of its workforce is paramount, a coordinated and considered crisis response strategy is also essential.  Any such response strategy should include the in house legal function to mitigate litigation risk, assist in managing the dialogue with counterparties in business-critical contracts and to horizon-scan for legal and compliance risk which may develop from the crisis.

In this article, London-based Winston & Strawn litigation partner, Ben Bruton, speaks to 4 senior in house leaders, a leading Queen’s Counsel and the founder of a prominent third party funder to draw on their experience of managing their teams through previous crises and to share their perspectives on the legal challenges which businesses are encountering arising out of COVID-19.

BB: First of all, thank you to all of you for agreeing to share your experiences from managing your teams through the pandemic.  As we all worked through the global financial crisis in 2008 onwards, I thought we could start by comparing the consequences of the current pandemic with consequences of the financial crisis.  Do you see similarities?

DD:  When lockdowns commenced around the world, we were better prepared than we were in 2008, in part because this crisis came on gradually so we had time to consider the possible scenarios and plan for them. We spent several weeks ensuring we had business continuity and crisis response plans in place, developing a communications plan and reviewing contracts for force majeure and other relevant provisions. We did not have that luxury in the 2008 financial crisis. What makes this crisis different is that it has significant health and economic impacts, and it is truly global, both of which create a very different dynamic from prior crises. And our response strategies have been much more employee focused.

SD: The main difference between 2020 and 2008 we have seen (as a litigation funder), is that we did not see litigation emerge seeking funding until a very long time after 2008.  It seems people were assessing their position and knew they had, typically, 6 years to bring a claim, and therefore focused on re-building, not litigation, initially.  This time round we have already seen people contacting us for funding of claims because they have to act right now to save their businesses.  This is the big difference.

The other big difference is that litigation funding was less widely used and understood in 2008.  In 2020, it is used by every type of client including those who might well have used funding in 2008 but were not being advised by their external lawyers that it was an option.

TW: The global financial response to COVID-19 was, I think, significantly influenced by the lessons learned from the previous financial crisis: governments moved quickly to signal and implement stimulus and offer support (including direct action on evictions and so on), which I think can only help.

MM: Unlike with the 2008/9 financial crisis, our first priority has been health and safety.  Everyone is concerned about maintaining the safety of our workforce and customers. This has forced us to change the way we work at the plants and corporate offices.  We really did not have to change our methods of working during the previous crisis, although we did worry about the financial wherewithal of certain counterparties.

TN: Whilst the 2008 crisis was financial in nature and the 2020 crisis heath related, the risks to business brought about are surprising similar.  Once again we have been looking at developing strategies to save businesses, save jobs and adjust to what appears to be a new normal.  Now, as then, we are looking at various strategies to reduce costs such as remote working, cutting travel and other related expenses, shedding value-add services such as consultants and the like and renegotiating pricing with vendors.

BB: The circumstances have obviously put supply chains and contractual relationships under significant pressure.  What strategies have you deployed for engagement with contractual counterparties?

MM: The workload in the legal team increased dramatically.  We received literally hundreds of notices claiming force majeure and/or change in law relating to the pandemic or the governmental response to it.  Construction contractors have sought relief in meeting milestones given the disruption to travel and the difficulty in procuring supplies, for example.  Fuel suppliers warned that stay-at-home orders and possible social unrest could impair their ability to deliver fuel to our facilities.  We made an effort to compile and analyze these notices so that we could provide consistent guidance to all of our affected businesses.

SD: From the litigation funding perspective, a key issue is of course the solvency of claimant counterparties and defendants alike.  We always pay close attention to that factor, regardless of these current circumstances. The number one question we always ask of any new matter is how do we and the claimant get paid if the case is successful.  Inevitably there may be some impact on the businesses of particular defendants so we are paying even closer attention to this factor.  And if claimants need putting into administration in order to protect and preserve their claim we will look to protect them in this way.

TN: On the whole, we sought to accommodate our clients’ requests to suspend contracts or otherwise terminate them outside of the scope of the actual terms of the agreement (e.g. notice periods, etc.).  in many cases, we also advised our clients to do the same, such that they are not perceived as being opportunistic in their dealings with clients and vendors.  Suffice to say, we have not been running straight to the contract in these trying times, but taking a rather pragmatic view of things.

DD:  We reviewed all of our key contracts to ensure we understood our contractual rights and obligations so that we were prepared to act swiftly where necessary. We were also very proactive in engaging with our largest customers and suppliers to anticipate any disruption in services. And where projects have been delayed, we have been in regular communication about scheduling to ensure that work could resume as soon as possible. In some cases we have been asked for price concessions and we have asked our suppliers for price concessions. Our experience has been that our contractual counterparties generally are acting in good faith and trying to work together to get through this crisis.

TW: We have been working hard to keep customers, suppliers and stakeholders informed and involved, and to offer both short-term alternatives (such as remote monitoring of the equipment) and medium- to long term business continuity (how long will your safety spares last?). We have found that there have been fewer shutdowns in the supply chain than slowdowns, and we have been humbled by the responses of our individual employees who were prepared to keep going to work to keep the lights on.

BB: What are the key legal issues you have been contending with as a consequence of the pandemic and the government response?

TN: We have had to consider contract terminations and suspensions, generally predicated on force majeure; non- and late payments; employment terminations and furloughs; unilateral price revisions from clients; and disruption to the supply chain in terms of non- and late delivery.

DD: The legal issues have been numerous. We reviewed the various government aid packages in North America, Europe and the Middle East to determine which of them apply to our business; we monitored the state and local shelter in place ordinances to determine whether we are an essential business and can continue operating; we reviewed privacy laws globally in connection with actions to take concerning the health of our own employees as well as evaluating new commercial offerings such as coronavirus screening; and we reviewed contractual recourse, among many other issues.

TW:  Along with everyone else, a priority has been to balance our duties as an employer to provide a safe workplace with compliance with applicable law, changes of law, the practical challenges of restrictions on movement (we have a significant field service offering) with the flurry of force majeure notices, and of course the follow up contract notices that address events of delay. We have not sought to rely on frustration and impossibility to end contracts as we are in long term relationship businesses. We expect to see the impact of hardship to come in terms of insolvency events and possibly even foolish calls on performance bonds, and we have worked hard on alternative sources of supply, logistics and transportation.  The key words have been continuity and cash flow. We need to keep getting paid, and paying our bills.

DDQC: In terms of commercial contracts the main focus has been analysing force majeure, frustration and termination rights under contracts. In terms of insurance claims, analysing the scope of the cover for business interruption claims has been centre stage and I suspect that in addition to coverage, issues of causation and loss will all be highly contested.

MM: In addition to force majeure and change of law issues, we’ve had to consider whether official governmental action in response to the virus may require us to provide to relief to utility customers or may even impair our rights.

BB: You are all responsible for managing teams.  As a final question, based on your experience of the last few months, what guidance would you give in relation to how to manage a team remotely in an effective manner?

TW: If you are not already used to managing teams remotely, get used to the technology, use it, and use it often to stay in touch. Make sure your networks and infrastructure are robust. It also helps to use video where your network supports it to improve the quality of communication. No one wants to spend all day talking to their own screen. Virtual coffee breaks or even lunch breaks can help bring us together, especially if you have ‘lone wolves’ in your team.

MM: We’re a very collaborative organization, with frequent scheduled and impromptu in-person meetings throughout the day.  Over the last few months, that has not been possible, because many of us have been working remotely, so we’ve had to rely heavily on technology to keep us connected.  Videoconferencing has been very helpful with this, and in the Legal group we established guidelines to ensure that people are able to work productively at home and keep in touch with their colleagues.  We also established a weekly call for the global Legal group, and a weekly virtual “happy hour” for the corporate Legal group so that we can connect with our colleagues more socially.

TN:  We found that an effective method of remote team management has been to schedule weekly individual calls to set weekly objectives and review the prior week’s accomplishments.  Communication in between those calls ought to be sparse and generally initiated by the team member, rather than the manager.

DDQC: Ensuring good levels of communication and teamwork within any litigation team is always essential and during the lockdown period we had to double up on this as solicitors and barristers navigated our way through gearing up for remote hearings, which seem to be the new norm for the foreseeable future. In our world ensuring that we have the requisite IT support to do this at all times has been essential. At Fountain Court, we have set up our large conference rooms so we can use them to dial into remote hearings and have leaders and juniors in the same room whilst the hearing is going on as well as having the IT support on hand.

DD: I have led a global team based across various jurisdictions for many years, so I’m very comfortable managing a team remotely. It has been a bigger challenge for colleagues who are accustomed to in-person engagement. They have learned to take advantage of video tools and grown more patient with background noise (children, dogs). As a leadership team, we have focused on frequent communication with our employees, being as transparent as possible about the state of the business and actions we are taking to address the challenges, and we have taken time to joke with one another and have a little fun. I find that when a team is working remotely, especially during a crisis, maintaining camaraderie and a positive outlook is very important.

Interviews

Q&A with Clare George-Hilley, co-founder, Centropy PR

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Q&A with Clare George-Hilley, co-founder, Centropy PR 2

Clare George-Hilley is the co-founder of Centropy PR

Global Banking and Finance Magazine recently caught up with Clare George-Hilley, co-founder of fintech and financial services specialist PR agency Centropy, as the company toasts to three years of trading. We asked Clare about what life is like running an agency in the city, the trends she is seeing in the financial services space and what the future holds following the Covid-19 outbreak.

Why did you decide to set up Centropy PR?

I was looking for an opportunity to launch my own agency, both my husband and I had been in the public affairs and public relations industry for over a decade and we thought the time was right to go out on our own.

Clare George-Hilley

Clare George-Hilley

We could see that the financial services industry was surging, with challenger brands and new technology transforming traditional banks and setting new standards of customer service. There was a huge market opportunity to create and launch a PR agency that could provider first class comms support, alongside a deep understanding of complex regulations such as AML, KYC, and the GDPR. Likewise, many traditional technology firms are diversifying their offerings, to tap into the growing market opportunity posed by the fintech boom.

So, we worked on a business plan, designed a strategy for winning clients and officially launched in September 2017. Within a few months we had a growing portfolio of clients and a thriving business, since that point, we have never looked back!

How is Centropy doing now and what are you plans for growth?

The last three years have flown by and our client portfolio has grown and diversified quickly. We now manage PR campaigns for clients on everything from cryptocurrency, wealth management to payments and trading software.

We’ve also hosted parliamentary debates with key industry figures, including Members of Parliament (MPs) on topics such as the future of the financial services industry and the impact of challenger banks on traditional providers. The team is expanding quickly and we’re investing heavily in the latest training and support to ensure our team members are equipped to reach their full potential.

How do you see the next 12 months?

The Covid-19 outbreak has crippled the economy, forcing millions of people to work from home due to the very serious health risks. The knock-on effect of this crisis will lead to companies cutting costs where possible to save jobs, so tech will play a vital role in ensuring many businesses stay afloat.

We are already working with contactless payments specialists and other fintech companies that offer solutions to help companies survive and thrive despite the inevitable challenges ahead.

We aim to continue building our portfolio of expertise, testing ourselves with new challenges and delivering the best possible service to clients

 

This is a Sponsored Feature.

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Lessons from past recessions and advice for business owners during the coronavirus pandemic

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Lessons from past recessions and advice for business owners during the coronavirus pandemic 3

By Neil Davis, managing director and co-founder of Sterling Networks

What is Sterling Networks?

Sterling Networks is a professional organisation founded in 2014 which facilitates networking events for businesses across the Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and the South West. Over 300 members attend our fortnightly breakfast and lunchtime meetings.”

What is your background prior to establishing Sterling Networks?

“During the 1990s, I worked in the corporate team for Halifax. My wife, Tracey, and I went onto own a manufacturing business, which was also called Sterling, and produced a range of gifts, merchandise and promotional items.

“We soon realised tradeshows were a great way to meet distributors and clients. From there, the business grew exponentially, and we managed to build a network of around 500 distributors. Eventually, we became ground down by the manufacturing business – in part because the local manufacturing sector was being devastated by competition from China – and took the decision to sell the business and relocate to Spain.

“After spending several years living abroad, we moved back to the UK to set up Sterling Integrity (EXPO’S) & Sterling Networks (Networking) We were inspired by a desire to help businesses make meaningful connections with one another, and we haven’t looked back since.”

The UK has recently entered a recession, brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. What have you learned from past recessions and how are these experiences helping you to navigate the current crisis?

“I’ve lived through a number of recessions and have seen the pain that insolvency causes companies on a large scale. It’s taught me that there are those who win and sadly those who lose, and that businesses must adapt to a rise in demand for certain products or services at a time of financial crisis.

“Given the nature of what Sterling Networks offers [an opportunity for business owners to connect and grow together] I decided we could build upon the brand due to the demand for new business during the pandemic. We therefore moved our networking events from face-to-face to virtual via tools like Zoom and have gained a steady stream of new members in recent months, reaching an overall total of well over 300.

“On top of that, we’ve taken new staff on during the crisis and have launched a number of new regional groups across the country. I was determined that Sterling should come out of the pandemic with a head start, so my attitude to the recession has been much more positive than those who are forecasting nothing but doom and gloom.

“We can’t pretend high street retail wasn’t suffering long before the pandemic came along, and thousands of new businesses are sure to start up to meet the demand for the products and services that people require at a time such as this. In order to develop and grow businesses need to focus on where changes need to be made to meet this demand.”

Sterling Networks has been providing emotional support to its members throughout the pandemic. What advice have you been giving to members that could be useful to other business owners?

“I try not to be too opinionated and respect other people’s views when giving advice to members, as there are always two sides to every circumstance. I’ve been careful not to say to people that they should be doing one thing or another, as I don’t know their business and its needs quite like they do. The only thing that I have been telling members is the importance of setting up one-to-ones with one another. By doing so, they can listen to the needs and concerns of other, like-minded business owners and work out ways that they might be able to help one another.

“The pandemic has meant we all have a bit more time on our hands, so the advice I would give to people is to use this extra time wisely. Not having to travel physically from one meeting to another means there is a greater opportunity to connect with more people. It’s important to remember that individuals outside of your business can be just as valuable as those within it.”

What makes you hopeful for the future and are there any words of encouragement you can give to budding entrepreneurs?

“The key events that have happened to this country during my lifetime – whether wars, recessions, or the pandemic – have enabled me to take stock of things. While these experiences are certainly challenging, we all become stronger for living through them, and it gives me great confidence that the world will ultimately improve as a result of the pandemic.

“The whole world is effectively rebooting right now, as is the business community. I like to think entrepreneurs will recognise this opportunity to take better care of their peers, and this translates to greater collaboration between organisations. Speak to as many people as you can, ask all the questions that you need to and do your homework. This might well be a difficult time for us all but planning for the future must start now if it is to become as prosperous as I know it can be.”

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Exclusive Interview with Ugo Loser, CEO of ARCA Fondi SGR

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Ugo Loser, CEO of ARCA Fondi SGR

 Arca Fondi SGR is a mid-sized Italian active asset management company. Founded in 1983 by a consortium made up of 12 regional banks, the company has grown in time, expanding its network of distributors and its client base. Nowadays Arca manages Mutual Funds, Pension Funds and Institutional Accounts with total AUM exceeding 30 € bln, reaching more than 100 banks and financial institutions and serving more than 800,000 final clients.

What are the key contributors to ARCA Fondi SGR’s success over the past 35 years?

Arca has always put clients and distributors first. That is to say we have always privileged fair pricing for funds and developing high quality products and services for our customers. This requires constant innovation as an objective and looking for people’s talent to be free to produce its effect

Why are people the founding element of ARCA Fondi SGR and how have you sustained this vision over the years?

We work in small teams, people are young and motivated and can perform duties with a high level of autonomy and responsibility. Innovation is asked to everyone, everyday

What makes Arca Fondi SGR different from other asset management firms in Italy?

Arca is a company focused on doing what it can do very well, that is to say mutual and pension funds, services for clients and banks. We never follow short term trends but always look for long lasting impact on the industry, like we’ve done may times in the past

What products/services has ARCA Fondi SGR pioneered?

Arca has been the inventor of “Arca Cedola”, fixed-horizon, coupon paying funds, which have been with no doubt the greatest product innovation of the past 12 years on the Italian market. This type of funds, at first strictly based on bonds and later as a balanced product, has encountered an enormous success both with clients and distributors due to its simple and effective value proposition. Arca is a market leader also in the “PIR” segment of funds, a range of product focused on mid and small sized companies, that have been the best performers in the Italian stock market for the last few years. In services, Arca is a leader in technology applied to asset management. Our website, app and digital services for clients and banks are award winning, state of the art combination of data, technology and channels, and the best is yet to come on this side.

What strategies do you have in place to sustain your market position and withstand professional competition in the country?

As I mentioned, we do not waste resources on projects with dubious results, instead we constantly invest on people, products and services. The high level of profitability that Arca has been able to maintain even in difficult years for the markets of the banking sector is a further testimony that this strategy works very well

How do you use technology to create meaningful experiences for your customers?

First of all, we have created a whole new division, Arca InnovAction Lab, dedicated to technology, data and processes. This ensures projects are delivered quickly and they are free to leave bad past practices behind. Arcaonline.it, Arca’s website, provides distributors with detailed information on clients’ portfolios, asset under management and subscription/redemption requests. It monitors aggregate selling data offering to our partners a suite functions and analytics to track commercial campaigns. And if the banks branches need assistance, they may ask Sara, our digital chatbot. A broad and timely multimedia production, covering exclusive reports, comments, presentations, videos, webinars and newsletters is also available on the website.

Customers, subscribing Arca’s funds through its distributors’ network, may access Arcaclick, a dedicated area on Arcaonline.it. With Arcaclick the client can easily browse through her portfolio of funds, analyze its characteristics, view transactions and historical funds’ performance in customizable views. Arcaclick is also a powerful source of information on Arca product range: Prospectus, KIIDs and other literature is easily accessible along with news, comments and reports. Arcaclick may also be accessed via Arca Fondi App, a free application for mobiles and tables, running on both iOS and Android. Available 24/7 and in mobility, Arcaclick gives clients the opportunity access information, news and details of their personal portfolio anytime and anywhere.

What key trends will drive pension growth in 2020 and beyond?

The Italian market for pension funds is still very small and therefore there is a great opportunity to grow. Arca Fondi manages the biggest open ended Italian pension fund and it’s been constantly at the top of its rankings. As people and workers are looking for yield and to weather short term volatility, the pension fund is very well poised to profit from this trend.

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