Hugh Dickson is the global leader for Grant Thornton’s restructuring and recovery services world-wide, and is currently pursuing asset recovery on multibillion-dollar fraud and insolvency cases such as Saad International, Singularis and Stanford International Bank. His experience outside formal insolvency appointments includes roles for the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the European Union, as well as advising eight governments and regulatory bodies on restructuring, financial sector intervention and related legislation.
DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER TO DATE.
Varied! I started with Arthur Andersen in the United Kingdom while training for my chartered accountants qualification, largely dealing with trading receiverships. I then moved to advisory work for distressed banks in Central and Eastern Europe, before moving to Asia at the outset of the Asian financial crisis. I helped set up and run the Thai Financial Restructuring Authority before doing similar asset recovery and realisation work in Korea and Indonesia. After Andersen, I ran my own governmental advisory consultancy, working in Turkey, Georgia and South Africa, on areas as diverse as aviation and power as well as banking and finance. I joined Grant Thornton in 2006 to establish an offshore insolvency and asset recovery practice in the Caribbean.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO SPECIALISE IN ASSET RECOVERY?
It was a natural segue. The essence of formal insolvency appointments is recovery of value for creditors and stakeholders. That often requires both asset tracing and recovery, which includes recovering value by litigation against those involved.
HOW HAS THE MARKET CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED PRACTISING?
In three main ways. First, globalisation and the increased use of multi-jurisdiction structures means that major case work often involves cross-border issues. Second, litigation has become a principal means of recovering asset value, reflected in the growth of the litigation funding market. And last, the rise of the secondary debt market has led to a sea change in creditor and stakeholder relationships, both in concentration of debt and in a different mindset and activist approach to recovering value.
WHAT MAKES GRANT THORNTON STAND OUT FROM ITS COMPETITORS IN THE MARKET?
We have the benefits of a boutique in that our recovery practices are highly specialised teams emphasising partner and director involvement – we don’t leverage off general practice or junior staff to the same extent that the Big Four do – but we have a significant global network comparable to a Big Four firm. And while hourly rates shouldn’t be the main reason for selecting an asset recovery professional, our rates are extremely competitive.
HOW IS TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION REVOLUTIONISING THE PRACTICE AREA AT THE MOMENT?
Digital forensics has changed the ability to both trace asset flows and support consequent litigation, and cross-border working has been made far easier by IT innovations allowing seamless working on case files and sharing of data. However, a lot of what we do comes down to experience and instinct – the technological support is a great tool, but you need to know what to look for and how to apply it.
ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR CHALLENGES FACED WHEN WORKING ON ASSET RECOVERY MATTERS IN EMERGING MARKETS?
The biggest issue is usually the strength of the local judicial system – in terms of both the available law and the judicial process to enforce it. Those problems are then further complicated by relatively limited uptake or effectiveness on cross-border legal cooperation mechanisms. To be fair, the latter problem is not confined to emerging markets!
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR PRACTICE DEVELOPING OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
A greater emphasis on offering solutions to resolve problems and recover value outside formal insolvency or enforcement. The market is concerned about costs and delays, and whereas it’s arguable that in some cases there may be no alternative, the market would welcome an option. We have introduced company director services for distressed situations – placing experienced and independent professionals into entities who will bring the same judgement and knowledge to bear in designing a mechanism for recovering value, without first reaching for a formal insolvency appointment. The plan may utilise insolvency or litigation, but they will be part of a suite of measures being considered, and the emphasis will be on cost-effectiveness and speed of recovery. And third-party funding of asset recovery will develop. Funding currently focuses on litigation, but money is fungible, and funders are as interested in cost-effective and speedy recovery as the original stakeholders. Increased competition in the funding space will drive down costs of funding, and practitioners with strong track records will look to leverage their reputations in attracting finance. Grant Thornton is already engaged in this area, developing an in-house fund to finance hard costs as well as investing time on contingency. We have set up a co-financed vehicle to provide general funding for recovery cases. The market will gravitate towards those who can not only demonstrate skill but co-invest or arrange financing of a recovery operation at the most cost-effective price.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUNGER PRACTITIONERS HOPING TO ONE DAY BE IN YOUR POSITION?
Travel – get as much experience in working in different jurisdictions and on cross-border cases as you can. Not only do we face a truly globalised world in terms of asset recovery, but the personal networks you will build, and the experience of different cultures and working practices, will prove invaluable, both in marketing your skill and in delivering results.