More Asian companies than ever before are incorporating in the tiny nations of Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey), and the British Virgin Islands. And the local firms that specialize in offshore incorporation, as it’s called, are responding by opening more offices in Asia to serve these clients. In the past year, Ogier and Appleby have become the first offshore firms to open representative offices in Shanghai, Collas Crill has joined two competitors in Singapore, and Mourant Ozannes has made its Asian debut in Hong Kong, adding to the seven offshore firms already in the city.
According to a recent report by the company formation firm of Offshore Incorporations Ltd., Asia-based businesses began to dominate offshore registrations worldwide in the past year, and will continue to do so for the next five to 10 years. An estimated half of the 800,000 companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (BVI)—the most common offshore destination globally—are based in Asia, while Cayman and Bermuda have long been popular with Asian businesses.
Appleby, which has roots in Bermuda and Cayman, opened a representative office in Shanghai, its second location in Asia, in April. “For us, it’s just a natural development,” says Appleby partner Frances Woo, who is based in the firm’s 22-year-old Hong Kong office. “More and more of our clients are from China. It just made sense.” The Shanghai branch won’t initially be staffed with lawyers; instead, it’s there to develop business. But Appleby expects its expansion in the Chinese financial center to be rapid.
Appleby’s work in Asia includes advising the lenders of a $470 million financing package to finance the buyout by Shanghai’s Home Inns & Hotels Management Inc. of rival operator Motel 168 International Holdings Limited last October. Appleby helped the banks set up vehicles in the BVI, Cayman Islands, and Mauritius. It has also acted for a string of Cayman-registered Chinese issuers on Hong Kong Stock Exchange listings this year, including Kai Shi China Holdings Company Limited, Allied Cement Holdings Limited, PC Partner Group Limited, and Vision Fame International Holding Limited.
The first offshore firm to open a representative office in Shanghai was Ogier, which set up its outpost last July. The office’s managing director, Kristy Calvert, is a lawyer, but her role is business development, says James Bergstrom, a Hong Kong–based partner with Ogier. “Most of our economic activity has been in northeast Asia,” he says. “That’s a place where we’d like to be on the front line.”
Another firm, Mourant Ozannes, is just getting started in Hong Kong, the longtime hub for offshore incorporation. The Channel Islands firm shipped out partner Paul Christopher from Guernsey in January, and laterally hired two other partners. With six lawyers, the debut office is a big one by offshore standards. “We’re trying to send a message to the market: We’re here and we’re committed,” says Christopher. Mourant is the eighth offshore firm to open an office in Hong Kong—Bermuda’s Conyers Dill & Pearman was the first, in 1985.
Singapore has also attracted several offshore law firms, including Conyers Dill in 2001 and Cayman-based Walkers in 2009. Last August the Guernsey-based firm of Collas Crill opened an office in the city with two lawyers and a manager. According to the firm, the move was driven by a surge in work from clients in India and Southeast Asia. Singapore is also the closest developed financial center to Indonesia, where the number of U.S.–dollar millionaires is set to grow faster than anywhere in the world, according to a prediction last year by the Swiss bank of Julius Baer Group.
But the main battleground is more likely to be in Shanghai, says Appleby’s Woo, who points to predictions that China’s economy will surpass that of the United States in the next decade: “Will other offshore law firms be looking at it? Yes, I would bet on it.”