Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Chris Swart

I was interested to know HFW partner Chris Swart's thoughts on the sad passing of Nelson Mandela, given his South African background.  I discovered only recently that Chris studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar [for those of you that may not know, this is considered by many, including Time, Yale and Associated Press, to be "the world's most prestigious scholarship"] "...  and that his family were leading opponents of the apartheid regime [his father was one of the founders. with Helen Suzman, of the Progressive Party] and Chris and his brothers left South Africa in the 1980s in difficult circumstances. As a student leader at the University Natal in 1980 Chris hosted what was then only the second Free Mandela campaign protest meeting in the country, at the very beginning of that campaign with Bishop Tutu and his daughter Zindzi.  Since 1990 Chris has returned to South Africa regularly and currently spends several months a year there.

So how does he feel about the death of Mandela? Could he put into words what this exceptional man meant to him and his family and his experience of South Africa?  How does he see the post-Mandela future?
"Growing up in an anti-apartheid family in 60s and 70s Nelson Mandela was mainly a mythical figure, (though I used to listen avidly to accounts from Helen Suzman of brief meetings with him on Robben Island), and we did not expect him to be released in his lifetime.  At the same time he was demonised as a "terrorist" by the apartheid government and this was ingrained in the belief systems of most whites.  What he achieved in directing the negotiated end to apartheid (again much much earlier than expected even in the 80s) ; a peaceful transition to democracy (which seemed impossible for most of the previous three decades); establishment of the rainbow nation upon a foundation of reconciliation, which he embodied, as well as massive economic growth and regeneration, is remarkable beyond description and certainly the beyond even the remotest expectations I or anyone else had prior to his release.  
"Whilst he endured 27 years in prison we are fortunate that he had nearly 25 years to establish his legacy after his release.   My impression is that it is now thoroughly ingrained in South African society; his sad passing has been anticipated and factored in for some time and I do not expect much, if anything to change in South Africa as a result of his death.  Crises will come and go, but the country and its people will endure as they always have. It will remain a stunning, fascinating and dynamic  part of the world."

I've known of Chris's market-leading commodities expertise for some time (he heads the
Commodities team at HFW and is a very well known figure in the industry).  But his professional biography, whilst detailing his legal and market expertise very well, gives hardly anything away about his colourful background.

When I spoke to Chris, he had just secured a highly unusual freezing order against a number of Syria's leading business figures on behalf of the world's biggest commodities company. It is believed to be a legal first, in that the application for the freezing order was granted on top of a government sanctions order already in place.  His successful court application was a real coup. As a legal marketeer I was interested to know the story of how he has got to this point, ie how he has developed such a formidable practice and team.

Before his time at HFW, Chris headed the shipping team at legacy firm
Lovells which he brought with him when he moved to HFW in the 1990s.  He is famous for re-shaping the team and its expertise since then into a commodities practice which now leads the market.  I asked him to talk me through the transition.

After I joined HFW, it became clear not only that the firm needed to broaden its base from shipping and insurance, but that the very nature of shipping and commodities businesses was changing.  Our clients' interests and opportunities were broadening and we needed to understand this dynamic, respond and anticipate the next stages of these markets' development.  Whereas once shipping was limited to the transportation of goods around the globe, now our clients are involved in all aspects of international commerce: from the extraction of raw materials; to the multimodal transportation of those physical commodities to ports; to the shipping of those commodities around the world; to the regulation controlling their sale in end markets; to the commercial deals surrounding the various elements in this end-to-end process and the associated insurance, finance and derivative products that have grown up around it.  This is what was behind my drive to expand our legal practice from shipping to commodities and HFW was an excellent platform from which to do this. My partners and colleagues all have intimate knowledge of the different aspects of international commerce and so we are able to offer a very joined-up approach. The last couple of decades has told a story of changing opportunity. Our pedigree in this part of the business world, and our detailed knowledge of the markets concerned, means we have been perfectly positioned to add significant value to clients’ activities."

Genning up on the history of Rhodes Scholarships I read "For more than a century, Rhodes scholars have left Oxford with virtually any job available to them. For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military, and public service. They have reached the highest levels in virtually all fields."  Chris Swart has been able to call the shots in his career quite clearly. Given his areas of interest, and given what I have learned over the last seven years about this excellent firm and its dedicated and thoughtful approach to its very specialised markets, I'm not at all surprised Chris has found his natural home at HFW.
The highlight of the week has to be our Christmas party in...drum roll...Paris! On Wednesday we all took off on Eurostar for a #KysenDayOut in the City of Lights. We had our celebratory lunch at Cafe Marly facing the Louvre (the world's most visited gallery I am told). A well deserved trip for all the Kysen team, all of whom have worked incredibly hard and effectively this year. (And I'd like to point out this was less expensive than taking everyone to Manchester, which would have been equally lovely in its own way).

The joke of the day was a news exposé that good looking diners in French restaurants get better tables. According to the Daily Mail, guests at Paris restaurants are seated following a strict "appearance policy". Our very own Cafe Marly was cited as a prime example! Where were we sat? Were we offered the best seats in the house?!

You shouldn't expect anything less from your favourite PR consultants ;)
Another highlight for me was the "Surrealism and the Object" exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, which I caught the following day. Some amazing pieces there from the likes of Man RayMarcel Duchamp, Dali, among many others.

I have always been quite taken by Duchamp's idea of positioning an everyday object, famously a urinal or spade, in a new context as a "ready made" sculpture, this simple presentation pointing out the natural absurdity in our lives. 

The surrealists' obsession with dolls and mannequins required a strong stomach at times, reaching into our memories of nightmares for a response. Best of all in my view was Dali's Lobster Telephone. Amazing to see it in real life...or in surreal life I should say.

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