GTInterviews is a series of conversations with our community of industry experts - from our network partners and clients through to our own team. We discuss what brings people to the world of due diligence and investigations and how they see the industry changing in the coming years.
This month we chatted with one of our Network Partners, Benjamin Weber, a Business Intelligence specialist. Aside from running his own business, Benjamin is completing his Ph.D. at the University of St Andrews, where he is researching the impact of ESG initiatives on environmental organised crime and corruption.
What is your background in due diligence & investigations?
After graduating in 2004, I joined a global investigations firm as a researcher in their due diligence investigations team. Later, I was transferred to São Paulo, where I spent the next decade honing my expertise in business integrity, intelligence, and due diligence investigations. I gradually expanded my skill set embracing more intricate cases involving fraud and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) audits.
Before the term “ESG” gained traction in a business intelligence context, I had the opportunity to conduct environmental and social audits on behalf of clients predominantly in the extractives industry. These projects usually took place in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.
As my career progressed, I accepted a more senior role and relocated to Delhi. A few years ago, I returned to the UK and began my own business. I now assist clients with business integrity, ESG, AML, and KYC/CDD investigations across multiple jurisdictions and in different languages such as English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Your career has led you to work all round the world. What was the most challenging country to gather information in?
India is an incredibly complex country. There are 28 states and each has its own local language and rules about data availability. Working alongside local language experts in each state is essential. While the Ministry of Corporate Affairs is a valuable resource for corporate information, accessing litigation information poses its own set of hurdles. The system of high courts and local courts, each with their own distinct databases, can be daunting to navigate. Due diligence projects in India are like a box of chocolates - you never know what you’re going to get.
Can you tell us more about your PhD?
Using the Amazon as a case study, I am looking to examine how corporations, particularly those with strong corporate governance policies and sustainable practices, have a positive impact on peace and conflict, particularly considering issues such as environmental crime and corruption. The whole question fits into a relatively new academic field known as “business for peace”, which looks into the idea that businesses can contribute to the development of peace in unstable/conflict regions. The field has been growing over the last two decades particularly with the UN Global Compact. There have been few significant studies into the matter and considering the importance of the Amazon globally, and the levels of crime, violence and corruption in northern Brazil, it is an important question that needs to be addressed.
Due diligence has taught me that companies can make a significant difference by investing in understanding their business partners. This is particularly true when it comes to monitoring the supply chain, where companies can establish codes of conduct, anti-corruption measures, and ethical principles that their suppliers must adhere to. Having these principles strictly enforced might force suppliers to improve their practices to align with the primary company's standards. This could create a ripple effect as these suppliers pass on the same codes to their own supply chain. However, a key question remains: how influential are these primary companies and this is something I am exploring in the context of my PhD.
How can businesses best meet their growing ESG requirements with due diligence?
Setting ESG goals and aligning them with your business values and best practices is the first step. The next essential step is to understand the ESG risks your business faces across the different countries of operation and throughout your supply chain. Many companies are aware of their first-tier suppliers but may lack visibility into their second- and third-tier suppliers. This information gap can lead to reputational damage. In countless cases, the image of a principal company has been damaged when suppliers are exposed for environmental or poor labour practices.
To mitigate these risks, it is imperative to map out your supply chain comprehensively and evaluate the potential risks it entails. By understanding the right questions to ask, you can initiate ESG due diligence on your supply chain and partners across all operating countries. Should an issue arise, you can then determine whether to address it through training or sever ties with the supplier.
What are the biggest challenges facing investigators/due diligence professionals at the moment?
Conducting multi-jurisdictional due diligence projects is always difficult due to cross-border complexity. You’re required to navigate various languages, information sources, regulatory requirements, and the differing legislation in each country. Collaboration with multiple teams also poses challenges in ensuring client concerns are addressed across different jurisdictions, especially when considering intricate supply chains and company ownership structures.
In addition, investigators now face the growing challenge of combating fake news. I’ve encountered cases where fake news has inflicted significant damage to the reputations of targeted companies. It's not difficult to envision unscrupulous individuals circulating fabricated images and reports about companies, particularly in sensitive industries, to advance their own agendas. As a result, researchers must exercise heightened caution, meticulously verifying reports and taking into consideration the reliability of sources used in the investigation.
How do you see the due diligence industry changing in the next 5 years?
With the increasing focus on ESG, we can expect a standardisation of business rating criteria. Presently, various rating agencies employ their own sets of criteria to evaluate businesses, resulting in conflicting rankings. Such inconsistencies raise doubts about the credibility and methodologies employed in these ratings. However, efforts have already been made by the global reporting initiative to standardise ESG reporting practices. As this standardisation progresses, it will greatly assist due diligence professionals in their assessments, providing them with more consistent and reliable information.
What are you reading at the moment?
Currently, I'm reading “Flooded” by Peter Klein which is a close examination of Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric facility. Against the backdrop of three decades of controversy, the dam was completed in 2019. Klein explores the techniques used by activists, dam-affected communities, and social movements to fight for social and environmental justice amidst the extensive upheaval in the region.
What is your favourite food and why?
Nothing beats a roast dinner made by my mother. It was a dinner that I always missed when I worked in India and Brazil and would always be one of the highlights of coming home.
A huge thank you to Ben Weber for taking part in our GTInterviews series. If you would like to get in contact with Ben then, you can follow him on Linkedin.
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