Dezan Shira & Associates, the professional services firm, celebrates its 25th anniversary of doing business in China today, with celebratory events and a gala dinner being held in Shanghai. The firm, which began life on November 10, 1992 with the formation of a limited company in Hong Kong, and a small office in Shenzhen, was founded by Chris Devonshire-Ellis, now the Chairman of the practice, with the support of two Sichuan girls acting as interpreters and administrative staff. Later, and current equity partners, include Alberto Vettoretti, recently Vice Chair of the European Chamber of Commerce South China, Sabrina Zhang, and Adam Livermore.
Today, Dezan Shira & Associates, together with its Asian Alliance members in Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, operate 28 regional offices throughout Asia and employ some 600 professional staff. Dezan Shira & Associates’ own offices includes 12 in mainland China, plus offices in Hong Kong, Delhi and Mumbai in India, Jakarta in Indonesia, Singapore, as well as Saigon and Hanoi in Vietnam.
“Dezan Shira & Associates predates the development of China’s legal and accounting industries”, explains Devonshire-Ellis. He said, “In 1992, all lawyers, accountants, and auditors in China worked directly for the government. Foreign professionals in the consulting services industry had to sit an examination to qualify as a “Legally Responsible Person”, or LRP, which in those days was the equivalent of being a lawyer in China. I sat my exam at the local government office in Shenzhen. I had studied Chinese law using translated English language materials sourced from material in the main public library in Hong Kong. There were no university courses in mainland Chinese law at that time and you had to make the most of whatever resources you could find. In 1999, we corrected that knowledge gap ourselves by launching China Briefing magazine, which has become a major resource in its own right.”
The professions were liberalized in China in 1994, and the term “Legally Responsible Person” was then redefined as being the head of an enterprise, and the emphasis on having a legal examination changed to just being professionally competent, although LRP can still be held individually accountable if their company breaks the law. Lawyers and accountants in China who wished to enter private practice had to change their LRP to Chinese state qualifications; however, this was not an option available to foreigners, who were nonetheless allowed to keep the “legal” definition as distinct from today’s more general LRP. Devonshire-Ellis comments, “I am one of the very few original foreign LRP left still practicing in China under the pre-1994 qualifications system – there were never very many of us to begin with, and of those, most have now retired or moved on. Meanwhile, China’s commercial laws have changed beyond all recognition since 1992. It’s been a fascinating experience to be part of that.”
The liberalization of the legal and accounting industries in China also had an unexpected, but positive, effect for consulting firms at the time. All the good quality lawyers and auditors, who were government employed, left the public sector to start their own practices, which meant that for about a decade the level of service provided by local government was highly fluid. That, coupled with the generous tax breaks given to foreign investors at the time, meant firms such as Dezan Shira & Associates, which specialized in assisting foreign companies enter China, were in high demand as we really knew what we were doing with the legal and tax issues, often times more than the local government departments did. Chris said, “I once had to explain to a government official in Shijiazhuang the legal differences between an Equity Joint Venture and a Co-Operative Joint Venture [CJV]. He simply didn’t know there were two different types, and he was responsible for the regional JV approvals process. We eventually got the first CJV ever done in that city by us teaching him China’s CJV law.”
There were other strange quirks in those early days as well. Representative Offices of foreign companies could only be established in special hotels, with a floors reserved for only commercial usage. Foreigners could not legally use RMB, and had to use Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) instead, a practice that was not fully phased out until 1995.
“Technology was very different back then” continues Devonshire-Ellis. He notes, “When the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing got a fax machine for foreign guests, it was a city-wide business event. Some of the very first JV contracts in China were completed by faxing documents overseas from that machine in China, and back again with amendments. There were queues at all hours to use it.”
Dezan Shira & Associates, however, has continued to specialize in servicing foreign investors rather than Chinese. Devonshire-Ellis said, “The Chinese market is still developing in terms of accepting professional advisors, except for the high level of Chinese MNC’s who are used to it and understand. Mid-market firms like ours are not in that space. Instead, we continue to service foreign investors, mostly at the middle market and SME range, with average investments of about USD1 million to USD10 million. They pay their bills, and we have very few receivables and negligible bad debt. We’re happy with that space.”
That space includes servicing over 10,000 foreign investors over the past 25 years, in total investments handled by the firm being in excess of US$20 billion.
“Our main markets are the US, UK, Italy, Australia, France, Germany, Singapore, and Hong Kong “, said Adam Livermore, a partner with the firm. He further noted, “We have serviced clients from more than 90 countries worldwide”.
Alberto Vettoretti, the firm’s managing partner, stated, “Dezan Shira & Associates has a unique combination of Asian geographical spread, cross border practical experience and talent. These factors are what have allowed us to prosper over the years and develop a seamless, cross-country consulting practice advising FDIs in the region. We are one of the very few players able to provide a total Asia solution”.
In terms of longer-term development strategy, Devonshire-Ellis has this to say: “Asia is now where the majority of global wealth is now concentrated and it is going to stay that way. Dezan Shira & Associates will continue to focus and develop our practice into our existing markets, such as China and India, while also looking at other emerging Asian markets as they develop. Moving ahead, countries such as Russia, Indonesia, Vietnam are all performing well, while other economies such as Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Mongolia are all on our radar. West China too will also start to become more attractive as the Belt and Road initiative begins to push those regional economies forward. In terms of services, it is all about IT. We are heavily investing in IT driven services, such as HR and payroll, while also looking at developments in Blockchain technologies, for example. We see a role for professional firms in taking a small percentage, say 0.05 percent of goods value to be declared, and paid by us on behalf of clients when goods transit different customs unions. Rather than the client having to process the payment, our platform, building on Blockchain could interface directly with customs, and do that for them. It’s just another method of helping clients pay their taxes, after all.”
Sabrina Zhang, Dezan Shira & Associates China Tax Partner, said constant evolution is the key to long term business success. Zhang elaborates, “Since I joined the firm, China has changed immeasurably. We have had to adapt just to keep pace of those changes. China and Asia are markets which never stand still. Dezan Shira & Associates is constantly changing and re-inventing who we provide services to, and what new services we need to provide as an on-going evolutionary process. It is both immensely challenging and rewarding.”
The firm is also one of the very few to have broken the China mould and expanded into Asia. “We felt we would miss opportunities by only staying in China”, said Vettoretti. He commented further, “We needed to follow our clients, many of whom were opening up elsewhere as the China plus One strategy started to emerge. Ten years ago, we started our India operations and now we are in Vietnam, Singapore and the main ASEAN nations. Now our clients can find total Asian solutions with just one firm.”
Dezan Shira has certainly done that. Non-China revenues are increasing steadily, as have the numbers of Briefing publications provided by the firm, which extend beyond China to India, Indonesia, Russia, Vietnam, and even the Belt and Road Initiative with the new Silk Road Briefing publication, which was launched earlier this year. “These resources are utilized by a lot of government bodies and multinational corporations who hire our staff to conduct cross-border and regional intelligence reports,” says managing editor Adam Pitman. He continued, “The main Asia Briefing portal will also be getting an overhaul in the next few weeks. These sites are popular internationally, with a substantial subscriber list and overall viewership. The symbiotic relationship between the Briefing titles and Dezan Shira & Associates is mutually beneficial: we generate marketing opportunities, while Dezan Shira & Associates receives first-rate regional research to pass onto clients.”
Looking ahead, where does the firm see itself in the future? Devonshire-Ellis said, “We are in the process of bringing in a whole new layer of young professionals who represent the next generation”. Devonshire-Ellis elaborates, “The required competency is changing, and IT is a major factor. The firm is going through a profound period of change with a lot of great young talent joining us. Asia is also changing, and new opportunities are opening up throughout the region, including with a new wave of capabilities to sell to China, and educating businesses how to do that, in addition to new trade routes opening up involving China, Russia, India and ASEAN. We are, and will be, expanding in all these spaces.”
Any last words? The partners of the firm echo each other: “We’d like to thank all our clients, staff past and present, and the many friends of the firm who have helped us along the way. 25 years is a long time and we couldn’t have succeeded without a lot of hard work and effort put in by all. It’s been a blast and we hope to continue to push on with our unique style and professional introduction to business in Asia”.
China Briefing is published by Asia Briefing, a subsidiary of Dezan Shira & Associates. We produce material for foreign investors throughout Asia, including ASEAN, India, Indonesia, Russia, the Silk Road, and Vietnam. For editorial matters please contact us here, and for a complimentary subscription to our products, please click here.
Dezan Shira & Associates is a full service practice in China, providing business intelligence, due diligence, legal, tax, IT, HR, payroll, and advisory services throughout the China and Asian region. For assistance with China business issues or investments into China, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.dezshira.com
Dezan Shira & Associates is a pan-Asia, multi-disciplinary professional services firm, providing legal, tax and operational advisory to international corporate investors. Operational throughout China, ASEAN and India, our mission is to guide foreign companies through Asia’s complex regulatory environment and assist them with all aspects of establishing, maintaining and growing their business operations in the region. This brochure provides an overview of the services and expertise Dezan Shira & Associates can provide.
Released ten years ago, this popular and complimentary book describes the first 15 years of the development of Dezan Shira & Associates. Essential reading for all Foreign SMEs and Start Ups in China, the sequel will be published next year.