x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Company treasurers vote for openness – a good thing too

At the annual conference of the Association of Corporate Treasurers in the Middle East the talk everywhere was of restructuring: how to avoid it, and what to do when it becomes necessary.

We are all restructurers now, it seems. As Aidan Birkett left the UAE this week having completed his role at the Dubai World conglomerate, I sat down for an hour with AlixPartners, the American company that has advised on some of the biggest restructurings in the US and was also involved with Dubai World.

Later, I spent a day at the annual conference of the Association of Corporate Treasurers in the Middle East. Treasurers play a vital role in any restructuring, helping to avoid the need for it in the first place and implementing the process should it become unavoidable. So there was restructuring talk everywhere.

On Mr Birkett there is little more to be said. He left Dubai World with the "job done" and with the appreciation of the emirate's business leaders. To have pulled off such a big restructuring, involving some US$24.9 billion (Dh88.15bn) of debt owed to more than 90 financial institutions and thousands of trade and customer creditors,in less than a year surely goes down as one of the great achievements of the restructuring business.

Mr Birkett is taking a break to climb the 5,895-metre Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa before returning to the UAE. It's incredible what some people regard as fun, but handling Dubai World's debt mountain will have prepared him well.

AlixPartners offers a different perspective on the restructuring process. The company, based in Detroit, has been active in the Middle East for a while and reinforced its presence this year by opening in the Dubai International Financial Centre.

It comes with a solid pedigree, having been at the centre of some of the biggest and most controversial restructurings ever seen, such as WorldCom, General Motors and Enron.

According to Eric Benedict, the head of the Middle East business at Alix, the job of the restructurers is three-fold: to get a corporate out of trouble; to achieve an operational turnaround; and to advise on forensic aspects of the process in preparation for any litigation that might arise.

Alix performs some of the roles of an investment bank adviser, with the expertise of management consultants and the detailed knowledge of an accountancy, without being labelled as any one of these.

It is a unique set of skills and one very much in demand in the Middle East at the moment. Private and government-related companies preparing for economic recovery in the region need the kind of expertise Alix provides.

When Alix is hired by a company it asks the question: "What can this company do operationally?" Its role is to co-ordinate the work of the other advisers, produce a restructuring plan and then a business plan for the company, and then to execute the details of that plan.

Implementation is all-important. With the financial restructuring complete, Dubai World is at this stage of the process. It will be the responsibility of the new management team to achieve the operational turnaround and the implementation of the business plan.

Alix has plenty of business in the region, as governments and private-sector executives get to grips with what Mr Benedict calls the "tail" of the financial crisis, one he believes will take two years or so to work through.

New business in this period will come in several different forms. There are the plans that many Dubai companies had for initial public offerings that were delayed before the summer, but that now look achievable. Alix helps private companies prepare for market listings, maximising their strengths and installing structures to meet the demands of listed status.

What has to be avoided is another situation like that of Damas International, the jewellery retailer that listed on NASDAQ Dubai only to be engulfed in corporate governance controversy.

Alix also sees business in the private equity field, where investors are looking to find exits from positions in private companies through listing or a private sale. There are plenty of cases in Dubai and Abu Dhabi where private companies with high levels of bank leverage are looking for a way out of that financial straitjacket.

At the Association of Corporate Treasurers gathering, the professionals with whom the restructurers will have to deal - the group treasurers of the region's big corporates - met to discuss the way ahead. In particular, they tried to answer the question: "What are the lessons to be learned from the crisis?"

The answer, it seemed to me as a participant in one of the sessions, was all about risk. Perhaps the treasurers had taken their eyes off the ball to some degree in the run-up to the crisis, but they are now firmly refocused on risk.

The other big theme that emerged was the familiar refrain that more transparency and good corporate governance were needed to minimise risk.

I have had my doubts in the past about the serious commitment of executives in the region to genuine transparency. Many paid lip service to the concept in the good times and only rediscovered it as a serious proposition when the going got tough.

But on a show of hands, the commitment of the treasurers to transparency and governance was overwhelming. A good thing, too. The region will not be able to restructure successfully without it.