Could you provide a brief journey of how you arrived where you are today?
I qualified as a solicitor in 1986 and joined Trowers & Hamlins in late 1993. My involvement with Islamic finance started immediately. The firm had just been asked to advice on a Shariah compliant UK property fund and, having just arrived, I had sufficient time to work on this interesting and unusual project. At that time, Islamic finance was still a little known field and it is fair to say that this first experience was not immediately followed by a flood of further work. However, it aroused my interest and I was encouraged to follow this up, find out more about it and get to know other people working in Islamic finance.
What does your role involve?
As a partner in the banking and finance department in our London office I handle a range of banking work, not just Islamic finance. I also head, jointly with Nicholas Edmondes, the firm-wide Islamic finance group which acts as a forum to share information and knowhow across the firm among those working on Islamic finance.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
It has been very much a team effort, but I feel my greatest achievement has been my part in laying the foundations for our Islamic finance practice. Initially I was following up a personal interest without being sure where it would lead and I am delighted that we have been able to achieve recognition as a leading law firm in Islamic finance.
Which of your products/services deliver the best results?
In the UK, where we have been most successful is in helping our clients to structure Shariah compliant real estate investments to be as tax efficient as possible both in relation to successful initial investment and eventual disposal, while in the Middle East, we have worked on various high profile projects utilizing Islamic finance, for example the US$1 billion expansion of the Mosque of the Prophet in the Holy City of Medina, the US$205 million financing of the new Hajj Terminal Complex at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and a number of integrated water and power projects such as those at Umm Al Nar and Shuqaiq.
What are the strengths of your business?
We have various disparate strengths including our Middle East practice, with Trowers & Hamlins having been working in the region for over 40 years. Our long-term commitment to, and experience of the region, is unrivaled. Another is our real estate practice in the UK. We are one of the top 20 firms for real estate advice in the UK offering a full range of services including corporate and tax structuring, financing and construction procurement advice.
What are the factors contributing to the success of your company?
We always strive to deliver excellent service. Wherever possible we aim to get to know our clients personally and to understand their business. We look to build on our strengths, developing our business out of the areas where we are already successful. Our growth has mainly been organic with the occasional bolt on of a leading individual or team. We have a distinctive culture. We try to ensure that Trowers & Hamlins is a firm where people enjoy working and are able to develop their careers so that our clients receive the best possible service from our staff. Our staff turnover rate is low resulting in a continuity of expertise and service.
What are the obstacles faced in running your business today?
Obviously the business environment in the UK is particularly challenging at present and as the available work in all areas reduces we are bound to see increasing competition. This is especially true in Islamic finance where more and more law firms are realizing that this is not a field they can afford to ignore. We therefore need to work hard on maintaining and improving our service. We are focusing on keeping in contact with people and making ourselves available to discuss ideas while times are quieter.
Where do you see the Islamic finance industry in, say, the next five years?
I think that the growth of Islamic finance may slow over the next one to two years at least. I think that we will see Islamic banks seeking to diversify and reduce their perceived dependence upon real estate as an asset class. Islamic financial institutions will not be insulated from recession as is already becoming apparent in the Gulf region. As economies recover, however, I am confident that we will see renewed growth for Islamic banks which should have a golden opportunity to present themselves as offering a genuine alternative to the interest based banking system. I think we will see consolidation among the Islamic banks and a continuing trend towards standardization of Shariah standards and documentation. Organizations such as Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions, the Islamic Financial Services Board and the International Islamic Financial Market will have a pivotal role to play. However, Islamic finance must continue to innovate and where new products are being developed the emphasis needs to be on creativity rather than standardization.
Name one thing you would like to see change in the world of Islamic finance?
It would be good to see a real consensus emerge as to what the Islamic finance industry stands for and is trying to achieve. Until now, it has often been simply another form of financial engineering designed to mirror conventional products. As a non-Muslim, it is not for me to express an opinion about which is the right path but it would be very interesting to see new ideas emerging for products that break the link with conventional finance and offer genuinely different ways of doing business.