GTInterviews: Henry Williams

Henry Williams, Head of Investigations at Themis discusses his journey into the world of due diligence and trends ahead for the industry. Read more

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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 Henry Williams, Head of Investigations at Themis.

What is your background in due diligence & investigations?

I started my career as a financial journalist, moving onto work with the corporate investigations firms Diligence and Olive Group. Prior to joining Themis I worked as a consultant to the financial investigations industry where my experience included investigating embezzlement at a Romanian energy concern and identifying leading investment banks’ exposure to the illegal wildlife trade in China.

You’ve recently been working on a long-term project with the UK government. Can you tell us more?

Over the past year we've been working with the UK Government’s Serious Organised Crime Network (a collaboration between the FCDO and the Home Office) to bring together a toolkit on the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) for the financial sector. The Financial Action Task Force identified the IWT as the fourth largest transnational criminal activity in the world, so this is a critical area the financial sector has to look at.

But our findings revealed that while there was a lot of goodwill to stop these activities, finance professionals don’t yet have the knowledge required to tackle it head on. While some might think this is an ESG issue, it's actually a financial crime issue with some very nasty people involved - many illegal wildlife traders are likely to be involved in drug smuggling and/or human trafficking as well. As with all organised crime, maximising profit is the main purpose; wildlife is just the commodity.

We hope the toolkit will persuade the financial sector to close any loopholes these people are exploiting so that they can no longer continue to operate. By pulling together lots of great research and existing data from civil society groups and specifically applying it to the financial sector, it acts as a bridge between the two groups - clearly explaining what the illegal wildlife trade is and how to spot it. By identifying the red flags around wildlife trading we are confident financial practitioners will be more able to intercept transactions.

What is your experience of gathering hard-to-get data around the world?

We’ve been observing a twofold effect of late when it comes to corporate data. On the one hand we’re generally finding there’s now a simpler way to access many registers, besides the avowed secrecy jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands or Belize. Compared to when I started my career, there has been a worldwide move to close opaque jurisdictions with more accessible corporate registers, steered by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Take the UAE for example, which is now on FATF’s grey list. Previously you would find thirty or so registers across Dubai and Abu Dhabi and this has been made more user friendly and easier to access.

Unfortunately in some other jurisdictions where we’ve traditionally had good accessibility to information, it’s now more difficult because of geopolitical events. Putin has talked about preventing Russian companies from sharing their data, specifically stopping investigators such as ourselves from being able to access that information. China is another example where they are limiting access to the Hong Kong registries.

What are the biggest challenges/pain points facing due diligence professionals at the moment?

I think the investigations sector is moving in quite a funny direction, despite being more out in the open than ever. Here in the UK we’ve seen the recent case of Charlotte Leslie, a former MP, who conducted a due diligence on a Tory donor.  Her report contained some adverse references and she is now being sued quite dramatically through the courts. A lot of that comes under defamation litigation, but there is also GDPR and data protection.

I think there are a lot of actors who will use this case to stifle the traditional investigations we’ve all been doing for a long time and I think that's an area of major concern for the industry. The GDPR Act has provisions for public interest journalism but I don’t think this has really been tested from a due diligence point of view. The sector is under quite a lot of scrutiny but I don't necessarily think it's got the same legal protections that journalism enjoys. Navigating that pathway is probably the trickiest challenge at the moment.

What do you see ahead for the sector in the next five years?

The industry needs to be confident that it can exist as a standalone skill. As investigators, we need to have more confidence in our expertise and share that expertise with others. We have a deep well of knowledge, which I think sometimes we undersell. Even as it's coming out in the open and forming part of day-to-day conversation, investigations are not something just anyone can do. There is no formalised training, as such, but as your experience grows you’re better able to leverage data. For example, if you're looking at an individual and you see them linked to a hundred companies an investigator would see a red flag. You need to have that experience and background to actually connect the dots.

What advice would you give someone who wants a career in this space?

I’d say go for it! It's probably the most fun industry you could be in if you're intellectually curious - no two cases are the same. It's a much softer place than it used to be - there were plenty of investigation firms taking on some pretty ropey clients and doing some pretty poor things on their behalf. Unfortunately that world still exists, so I'd advise anyone to avoid those companies like the plague because they're going to be under more and more scrutiny.  

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently reading Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. It’s quite a door stopper but it’s a fascinating read about Russia’s culture and history. My work often involves Russia and I wanted to understand more about it and how Russians see themselves through the history of their culture. The name refers to a part in War and Peace where Natasha, the French-educated St Petersburg debutante, joins a hunting party in the middle of Russia. There she hears some peasant folk music and starts instinctively doing this amazing Russian dance. The point the author is making is that there's something intrinsically unique about Russia which is captured in that moment.

What is your favourite dish?

I’ve been enjoying the Dishoom cookery book recently and can’t stop making kachumber. I could literally eat bowls full of it all day long!

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