What is it about agents, fixers, and intermediaries that makes them so attractive while potentially toxic to multinationals?
If you haven’t spent extended time with them, it’s hard to understand.
So here’s what I shared last week at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference.
During our session called The Other Side of the Sting, Getting Stung, Dick Cassin asked, “What’s it like working with intermediaries, on a personal level?”
That’s not something we often hear about. In most of my readings, agents are abstract concepts, part of an “issue” about potential ethical and legal hazards. But there’s often something much deeper going on.
Most top agents are extremely kind, courteous and gracious people. Let me add overly polite. When their clients come to see them at far off locales, either for the first time or over the course of an engagement, the agents are wonderful hosts. From arrival at an airport until departure, the client is treated as an honored guest, often even invited for a meal or two at the agent’s home.
I often found myself trying to politely refuse staying at the home of the agent but in some cases they would have none of it. I once ended up at the home of one of my intermediaries in South America, sprawled on the living room floor with him and his children, as he skillfully demonstrated how to field strip a very impressive hunting rifle. Even later, when I realized the agent was corrupt, I still liked the man.
Often with top agents, there is huge wealth on display. It’s an authentic reflection of their success. It’s not unusual to find yourself as the passenger in a vehicle you couldn’t afford on your own — a high-end Range Rover, perhaps, or a tricked out G-Wagen. There are vacation homes, collections of fine watches, art, and so on.
No one looks for an agent who’s hard to get along with, or disorganized and struggling. Potential corporate clients look for agents who demonstrate success through well planned end-user visits, and with enough substance (wealth) on display to impress your potential customers.
For those on the front lines of international business tasked with the selection, retention, and maintenance of intermediaries, this personal contact can be overwhelmingly seductive.
I finished my answer to Dick Cassin by cautioning listeners to be careful and watchful. The personal and professional interplay with agents can be treacherous and can ruin a compliance program. At some point, my loyalties subtly shifted. I became the ambassador for my intermediaries, not my former employer. I trusted the agents instead of the support mechanisms at HQ that were there to keep me and my employer successful and safe.
My transformation didn’t start with corrupt conversations and illegal conduct. It began on the floor of my agent’s living room, hanging out with him and his kids, field stripping a hunting rifle.
Richard Bistrong is a Contributing Editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He can be contacted here.