The World of Corporate Sleuths

This article was recently printed in CSuite Magazine published by Asia CEO COMMUNITY and CSuite Xchange.

Sleuth

By Vanson Soo

A corporate investigations specialist and Asia CEO Community member explains how business leaders can benefit from probing into the uncharted through intelligence gathering, investigations and due diligence.

It is not everyday that one would come across someone from my industry. “Not unless one is in deep troubles”, many would tend to wrongly conclude. This is a common and fundamentally flawed misconception. Our services go beyond getting clients out of troubles. The smart and savvy business leaders regularly utilize us for strategic and pivotal decisions, to formulate business plans and negotiations, and to get to the truth and mitigate risks. This is why I was told it would be intriguing to pen this article to introduce my profession to the Asia CEO Community.

A friend who is a seasoned business reporter introduced me to an industry peer several years ago after she learned we were in the same trade. “You guys are so weird” was how she ended the introductory email. Those five words have always left me wondering: if a journalist with the top echelon of global business news gives such a sweeping remark, how can one expect the men in the streets to comprehend what is intelligence, investigations and due diligence in the business world?

“Sounds like serious spook stuff” is one common reaction.

Our industry may sound exotic or unusual to some but this industry has been around and is more common than many would think. And it does not always have anything to do with troubles. On the very contrary, it is very relevant and prevalent in the business world. Consider the following scenarios.

– The Asia CEO of a listed conglomerate has been in lengthy discussions with the founder of a competitor about a potential acquisition but left with nagging suspicions he was not dealing with a decision maker. If the founder is controlled by someone behind the scenes, who is his “puppet master”?

– A global investment bank working on a potential public listing has found social media claims that the listco is running a “ghost factory”, a potential damaging red flag that the real business activities do not match the rosy financial figures submitted to meet the stock exchange listing requirements.

– A hedge fund portfolio manager is contemplating short selling opportunities on a listed entity after hearing some market rumors but he needs to verify the grapevine before placing his bets.

There is no trouble and all business as usual above but potential deep troubles if these parties do not do their homework thoroughly and get to the truth. What the Asia CEO, investment bank and hedge fund manager above need is to mitigate counterparties risks, as often times there is a tendency that one would only paint the bright picture and hide the skeletons in the cupboard.

These situations would call for pre-transaction due diligence, ie. two parties considering a pending transaction and one would want to verify the facts put on the table in case the counterparties were not forthcoming.

The above are just some examples of real and typical cases in need for pre-transaction due diligence, which comes in different flavors such as financial, legal, environmental, human resources, IT, and intellectual property due diligence. The type of pre-transaction due diligence for the examples above is investigative due diligence, ie. to examine the counterparties involved in the pending transaction and look for red flags that could translate into material risks before one signs on the dotted line. The counterparties may not always have dirt but if there is any, it is better to uncover them before committing to the transaction.

Thanks to global headlines of mega corporate failures such as Enron, Worldcom and the likes, which have subsequently led to increasingly demanding corporate governance and related regulations, pre-transaction due diligence have been growing ever rapidly since the turn of the century, and further spurred on by the more stringent financial crime compliance environment. So the corporates and financial institutions would be compelled by regulations to conduct due diligence exercises before signing off on a pending transaction like a merger and acquisition, joint venture, public listing, greenfield operations, etc.

The C-Suite executives, general counsel and key decision-makers of a corporation, investment, private or commercial bank, private equity, hedge fund, and family office, as well as high net-worth individuals are the typical parties to demand for pre-transaction due diligence services. That is why I was disturbed by that passing remarks by my journalist friend.

Now onto the more “sexy stuff”, as one would say.

By that, I am referring to post-transaction cases as per our industry speak. Typically they are undesirable situations stemmed from multiparties business transactions/agreements, leading to allegations that warrant the hire of investigators to provide pivotal smoking-gun evidence for their lawyers to prevail in or out of courts. The investigators would deploy various means of investigations as appropriate, including public records and open source intelligence research, forensic investigations, intelligence gathering, gumshoe leg-works like site visits and surveillance, etc.

At the blink of an eye, many people would often associate my profession with the cloak-and-dagger cases involving or characteristic of mystery, intrigue or espionage, ie. spycraft, that most people would relate from movies and novels. Indeed, post-transaction investigations are often full of twists and turns, involving a lot of hard works in the field, sans the James Bond or Hollywood type glamorization.

There are many different types of post-transaction matters. The following are some of the common ones.

– A company received a whistle-blower letter that its factory in Southeast Asia is bloated with frauds and embezzlement involving many of its current and former employees, contractors, suppliers, distributors and vendors, some of which with ties to the local government and supervisory authorities to run parallel and competing businesses, siphoning clients and resources away from the company. The company hired investigators to examine these allegations with the aim of finding smoking-gun evidence to help the lawyers press criminal charges against the alleged parties.

– The stock exchange suspended trading of a listed company after market rumors sent its share price into a tailspin, which eventually led the company into liquidation and endless lawsuits from shareholders alleging management of frauds and various wrongdoings. One institutional investor hired a law firm to file suit against the board but the lawyers found some of the executives may have fled the country with an array of footprints and assets for investigators to trace globally.

– A high net-worth individual found some of his business associates may have abused their appointment as directors and business nominees to secretly strip and divert his companies interests into the hands of some offshore entities through some fancy paperwork he was never aware of. The business tycoon hired investigators to assist his in-house counsel in a global forensic trail to trace the documents and map out the complex manipulations and misrepresentations responsible for his dire situation and financial losses.

Now it should become obvious that in both pre- and post-transaction situations, the sky is the limit with risks, and the losses can be bottomless. The resources spent on investigative services are often minor relative to what is at stake.

The corporate slogan of my practice sums up nicely what a business leader requires for every business situation:

More truth less risk
Take a closer look.

——–

Vanson Soo is the founder of Vanuscript Consulting, a Hong Kong-based independent practice in intelligence, investigations and due diligence covering the Asia Pacific region with a special focus on Greater China.

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