On the 28th of March, Shuvra Deb of Harneys BVI office caught up with Francois Lassalle, CEO of the BVI International Arbitration Centre. Francois kindly answered a few questions about relocating to the BVI, opening the BVI IAC and the global arbitration market.
I note from your CV that you have a broad range of geographical experience having worked in London, India and the Philippines. What inspired you to come to the BVI?
The adventure. From a personal standpoint, there was a small window of opportunity for me to come to the BVI and set up the International Arbitration Centre (IAC). My children are young and it was the perfect time to move my family for five to six years across the world. Professionally, the last time someone created an institution with this kind of mission and aspiration was 20 to 30 years ago in Hong Kong and in Singapore with the International Arbitration Centres in each of those jurisdictions. I was also presented with the opportunity of working with John Beechey CBE, and this project came with the backing of the BVI government and the BVI Bar Association, each of which wanted to put the flag of arbitration on the map. It was an opportunity not to be missed. This also felt like my previous experiences were directly relevant to what I’m doing now. That experience was in banking, setting up a start-up and operating in a new culture, as well as my previous law firm experience. It just made sense.
You arrived here in the BVI in May last year. In a very short time and by the end of the year you had established and opened the BVI IAC. What would you say were the biggest challenges in making this happen?
The first challenge was that I had thought that things were slightly more advanced on a number of topics. There was no lease for the two floors in which the IAC is housed; there were no finalized building plans nor construction documents; and no knowledge on how to make it work. I just had a deadline to open for Christmas 2016. The lead time was a very short time and I had to progress with the lease and to design and start work by end July in order to open before Christmas. That was the hard part. I was fighting against time from May to get everything sorted. Mid-November was the grand opening. Counting back, I had needed to do things two months before!
The other challenge was that I was alone, despite the excellent support from Dawn Smith and others, there was a massive amount to do. Opening the centre was one thing but I also had to create the website in its entirety, from writing content to selecting a firm to build the site. I also had to create the institution which needed rules, a panel, a registrar and all the processes in the background. I had to get it right so that it would be possible to administer arbitration’s from the point of opening and so the IAC had to be ready and up there. Running 3 streams together was the challenge – the building work, the website and the institution.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of being the CEO of the IAC?
Looking back, managing to create the centre in less than 6 months was extremely satisfying. To go to market with something that works and has all the components to make it a successful arbitration institution felt like a great achievement. One of the things I’m really proud about is the design of the IAC itself. We had an empty floor and it’s hard to come up with a strong design. We’ve had meetings and conferences and I know that the flow of people and the soundproofing work. That is probably what makes me the happiest. There is no major problem with any of the streams of work we have pushed through in the last 10 months. We didn’t get anything profoundly wrong, which is a great achievement as we were required to think through the minutiae. For instance, making sure we have access points in every room because soundproofing is killing wifi signals. There was a lot of thinking through to ensure the end product is usable for a very demanding audience. There is still plenty to do and we continue to punch above our weight which is fantastic. The next steps are to grow resources, operations and stabilise the institution.
The IAC has truly capitalised on technology. What could other businesses in the BVI learn from your experiences in setting up this high-tech venue?
One of things that really reassured me is the quality of the people I talked to in the BVI. From the plumber to the general contractor to the audio visual teams to the tech teams – the quality and craftsmanship of those people were second to none. I would hire them to build my personal home in the UK or in France. I didn’t know the BVI before getting here and couldn’t help but wonder whether the craftsmanship would be of an international standard in order to compete against other centres where that level exists. We made sure we had a good list of requirements, and we didn’t have any choice – we had to be at least as good as other centres located in New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. Therefore, we had to find people who had the required knowledge. It helped to understand the traditional limitations in the BVI, such as power and internet outages and to select providers to help with that. In terms of the internet, the centre has two separate connections so when one goes down the other picks up. The power protection system protects everything and can hold for ten times longer than is needed. That needed to be thought through in a flexible way because everything we have has to have the capability to be scaled up and modified. We have done lots of pre-wiring. Therefore, if we need more technology in the future, we won’t need to destroy ceilings and walls to update it. It is a slow ramp up in getting arbitrations through the door, therefore I know I won’t be using full hearing rooms immediately. For that reason, some are not fully equipped as yet. When we start using them regularly, the centre has the capability to adopt new technology.
Where in the arbitration market do you see the BVI?
The BVI IAC and the BVI is plugging a gap in the world arbitration map. Various Caribbean countries have a developing policy of promoting arbitration as a way to resolve disputes. None of them have upgraded their legislation like the BVI or have had enough momentum to create something like the IAC with the aspirations that it has. From a regional perspective, the BVI is aiming to become a hub for arbitration and given the strength of the Commercial Court, the BVI plans to become a hub for dispute resolution overall. The reputation of the BVI as a jurisdiction is second to none in the Caribbean and moving forward with arbitration validates that position. From an arbitral perspective, the BVI is a crossroad between South America and North America. Where parties are looking for a neutral jurisdiction, where there is a conflict between South American and North American firms, the BVI presents a very attractive jurisdiction. It is based on a common law system and has a brand new and modern Arbitration Act of 2013. The IAC has state of the art facilities and modern rules so it makes sense to hold arbitrations here. The parties will not necessarily want to go to Miami, New York or Sao Paolo, so this is clearly a growth area. Finally, arbitration in the BVI will benefit from the 450,000 registered companies in the jurisdiction. We can offer reassurance to corporate structures in the BVI to resolve disputes. We have built flexibility into the rules as an arbitral institution so that we can administer arbitrations outside the BVI as well, which will be good for Asian users of BVI entities.
What has been the reaction of the global arbitration community to the opening of the BVI IAC?
One example is this: back in summer 2016, we had to build the initial roster of arbitrators for the IAC panel. We sat down with the IAC Board and discussed the requirements for the panel. It had to be diverse in gender, geography and age, but we didn’t want the quality to be diverse! We contacted 200 excellent international arbitrators from 42 nationalities. We asked them to review our rules and decide if they wanted to join. During our conversations at the time, we were trying to be reasonable and estimated that we needed 50 arbitrators to be in business. We were concerned that this was the first time we were reaching out to the international arbitration community. They will say whether it’s a good idea or they won’t. Within a month we had 170 positive replies. That was the reaction of the international arbitration community. It was extremely positive and borderline overwhelming at the time.
Talking to other centres, there is no competition between centres; everyone is here to promote arbitration. We have had positive conversations with the HK International Arbitration Centre which recognises the value of the IAC. In short therefore, there has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the international community.
The IAC is hosting the BVI International Arbitration Conference in May this year. Tell me more about that.
Arbitration Week starts on Saturday 27 May and runs to Friday 2 June 2017. The vision and mission are to promote arbitration in the Caribbean, Latin America and beyond. There will be a week of arbitration related events that concludes with a day and half conference addressing various topics from the rise of arbitration to more technical subjects. We also plan to have a flurry of ancillary events including workshops run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb), a Young International Council for Commercial Arbitration (Young ICCA) workshop day, an ArbitralWomen workshop and a mock arbitration. The goal is to use the BVI and the IAC as a platform for local and regional practitioners to develop their arbitration practices. This is a fantastic opportunity for the BVI and the Caribbean to build and develop arbitration as a culture and this conference is designed to start that journey.
If you had to pick a highlight in your career, what would you choose?
Making the IAC work in a country I didn’t know 10 months ago. I had never been to the Caribbean and, looking back this was a leftfield idea to accept the role and make things happen. There were so many opportunities to fail, so being where we are now is a highlight.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by people who get things done, by people who are positive and who try to make things work. I’m a fan of so many people in specific situation. Sometimes my employees inspire me, sometime my bosses inspire me. How people react to adversity inspires me.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to spend time with my wife and children. I like water activities – swimming, diving, getting out on boats and snorkeling. If I’m going to spend a portion of my life in the BVI, I must spend time in the water with my family.
This article has been republished from www.harneysoffshorelitigation.com
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