Following a substantial increase in both revenue and lawyer numbers in recent years, Olleros Abogados is now looking to expand into Cuba
While the US government continues to deliberate on whether to lift its embargo against Cuba – a move that would allow American companies to compete on a level playing field with investors from elsewhere in the world – Olleros Abogados managing partner Jaime Olleros, is quietly, astutely, stealing a march on rival US law firms. In July this year, the firm announced a partnership with US heavyweight McDermott Will & Emery with the aim of “coordinating efforts” to provide advice to American, European and Cuban clients on their interests in Cuba.
“Soon the US will be a leader in Cuba,” Olleros says. “But for now, US law firms cannot think of Cuba.” Consequently, Olleros is gaining what he describes as “first-mover advantage”. And, with the firm receiving a phenomenal level of enquiries from clients about investing in Cuba, Olleros is acting with the conviction of a man secure in the knowledge that he has spotted a significant gap in the market. “We are putting a lot of emphasis on the Cuba desk – given the recent developments in the country, we are preparing, we´ve had a tremendous level of enquiries from existing and new clients,” he says.
‘Terrorism tag’ removed
What are the biggest opportunities for investors in Cuba? Olleros highlights a significant number: “Imports and exports are good, Cuba will be a major tourist destination and it will also be a logistical hub. There are also opportunities in real estate and infrastructure”. He adds that there has been a change in investor sentiment, particularly following the US government’s decision to remove Cuba from its “state sponsor of terrorism list”. Olleros says: “The ´sponsors of terrorism’ tag deterred companies, but now the perception of clients has changed. The embargo has not been lifted for US companies, so there is fierce competition from Asia and Europe, particularly investors from countries such as Spain, South Korea, UK, France, Germany and China”.
Olleros says his firm´s long standing reputation for advising clients with interests in Cuba means it is well-placed to pick-up such business – the firm was advising Tabacalera (which later became part of Imperial Tobacco) on its interests on the Caribbean island as far back as 1999. “We can give good advice, we have the advantage of knowing lawyers there, we know how business is conducted,” he says. Olleros adds that Cuba-related revenues currently account for around eight to nine per cent of the firm’s total billing – he says the firm would like to one day open an office in Havana, though he acknowledges that “the Cuban authorities are not interested, at this stage, in allowing foreign law firms to open offices there”.
Olleros’ determination to become a pioneer in the Cuban legal market is not particularly surprising given that he is a man who says he has long had an enterprising spirit. “I´ve always been entrepreneurial and I like to understand the business of clients”, he says. It was this characteristic that prompted him to found his own law firm in Valencia in May 1986. This venture followed time spent as company secretary at Textiles y Confecciones Europeas SA – Grupo Lois, where he worked from 1982 to 1986. Prior to this, he worked in the Madrid office of Arthur Andersen & Co, which was where he started his career in 1973.
Though the firm’s roots are in Valencia, Olleros says that the firm’s Madrid office – which opened in 2004 – is now growing at a faster rate than its Valencian operation. “There are more opportunities in Madrid and more international clients,” he adds. The firm currently has 100 staff with around 55 in the Valencia office – which contributes around 55 per cent of the firm’s revenue – and 45 in the Madrid office, which is responsible for the remaining 45 per cent of the firm’s billing.
Integration takes time
The recent history of Olleros Abogados has been a story of impressive growth. In 2014, the firm’s revenue increased a healthy 27.9 per cent to €8.4 million, while between 2013 and 2014, the firm increased its number of lawyers by around 25 per cent. To put this in a broader context, the firm more than tripled in size between 2007 and 2014. In February 2014, a team of nine lawyers – led by Enrique Vázquez – joined the firm from KPMG, while other recent recruits include tax partner David Jiménez Mouriz and employment partner Jesús Molinera Mateos. Despite the growth in lawyer numbers, Olleros acknowledges that there has not been a corresponding growth in the firm’s profitability yet. “It takes time to integrate – in one year you won´t get an increase in profitability that corresponds with the increase in staff”, he says. “In theory the crisis is over, but the consequences aren’t. For example, unemployment is still high – however, there have been good consequences in that people are more conscious of the need to control costs”.
What are the main drivers of growth at the firm? “In the second half of 2014 and in 2015, the corporate practice has been growing, the forthcoming elections may affect investors, but the Spanish economy is quite strong”, Olleros says. “Also, the litigation and arbitration practice has been very active, we have a clear strategy to acquire capabilities in litigation, arbitration, compliance, criminal law and tax – three or four tax lawyers will join us in the last quarter of 2015”. Who have been among the firm’s recent star performers? Olleros highlights the contribution of litigation and arbitration partners Iñigo Rodríguez-Sastre and Javier Mata, as well as corporate partner Gonzalo Cerón, who, he says, have been doing a “tremendous job”. Olleros also has high praise for public and regulatory law partner José Vicente Morote.
Olleros says there is generally more optimism in the Spanish legal market than there was three years ago. “Firms are growing, the Spanish market is more aggressive and new players arrived in 2014”, he adds. What challenges does Olleros face as a managing partner? “The challenge is to create a clear partnership and allow partners to enter into management”, he says. “We created an executive committee of four partners, we are trying to open up the management of the firm as we don´t want to be considered a one-man firm”. However, Olleros adds that the firm is relatively small and that this is an advantage in that the firm can “think in terms of double-digit growth”.
Given the fairly dramatic increase in the firm’s headcount in recent years, what is the attraction of Olleros Abogados to prospective new recruits? “We have many partners who have come from firms such as Garrigues, Cuatrecasas, Baker & McKenzie and KPMG – many partners come here wanting a gentler atmosphere”, Olleros says. “We explain our philosophy to them, we have a good atmosphere, when you work until midnight or at weekends, afterwards you can take some time off”. Olleros also indicates that the firm strives to ensure its lawyers are able to achieve a good work-life balance. “Around 50 per cent of our lawyers are women – we have had more than 20 pregnancies among staff in recent years.” Olleros Abogados has three women partners in total.
The firm has 85 lawyers, of which 11 are equity partners and five are non-equity partners. Olleros says that the firm has gone down the route of having a number of non-equity partners because some lawyers have to develop important non-legal skills before they join the equity. “Partners have to have commercial capacity, technical knowledge, management skills and visibility in the business community”, he adds. “Not all lawyers have this full range of characteristics, it’s not easy to be an equity partner – if they don´t have these skills, they have two years as a contract partner to develop them”.
The expectation is that Olleros Abogados will grow further in the near future. “We´re not targeting a certain size, we´re targeting a level of service”, Olleros says. “We need a certain critical mass, so we need more labour lawyers and more litigation lawyers, especially in Valencia”. He adds: “We work with headhunters, there’s a lot of movement and we’re always looking – finding good people is the target, but it’s not easy, we need to find the right philosophy, the right knowledge, and they must be people who are in line with our principles”.