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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
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Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
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Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
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Marc Alain Bohn
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Bill Waite
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Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong: The dangerous charm of agents

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.

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  1. Dear Richard, Agents have and have had a role in international commerce and trading for a long time. As a third generation "Agent" in a country that in the last 50 years have escalated to the ranks of the top ten of transparency international corruption indexes, I can tell you we add a lot of value to the business and we are in the front line of fighting corruption since it is our main enemy. In a corrupt situation we have no value. The all mighty dollar and the depth of the pocket are the value. Trust me when I say that we can smell a company that is willing to engage in corrupt practices a mile away. First sign is the term of the contract they want to sign with the local agent. The second one is the behavior of the executive that wants to engage you.

    Yes we need to be charmers, as any good salesman has to be, but do not confuse culture with intent to buy loyalties and support. Safety and convenience play a factor in those "stay at home" invitations. Similar to our US counterparts labeled as "lobbyist". They all play a great game of golf and have tables at the best restaurants and watering holes in Washington and mayor cities.

    Our role as local agents is crucial and in many cases the main obstacle to corrupt practices. Our moral values and local reputation is more important and are more strict than this new "trend" on compliance with laws, rules and regulations that none of those enforcing them have much real life experience being exposed and surviving those "challenging environments".

    Agents are needed. We bring a lot of value to the table. We are your best and only compliance officer in the battlefield. There are many ethical and with high moral standards out there to keep the greedy export VP from making mistakes in the name of making the numbers.

    Best regards,

  2. You have painted here a vivid, psychologically subtle picture of sales at the front-lines. Fascinating. Thanks

  3. Dear Carsten, Thank you for your kind remark, and Ramon, your reflections are a wonderful complement to the blog post. You are absolutely right, agents can be the best gate-keeper for a multinational employee in fostering ethical, sustainable and legitimate business practices. I can't image a more reliable "battlefield" partner than an ethical in-country agent. My thanks and appreciation to you both for speaking up and sharing your reflections on "what happens" at the front lines.

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