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  • Richard Bistrong

Rationalizing Bribery: A Perfect Storm from the Field of International Sales.

On April 23, 2014 I was interviewed by Chris Matthews, Wall Street Journal Reporter, at the Dow Jones Global Compliance Symposium, in a keynote interview entitled “Informing on Bribery.” The session started by discussing elements of my cooperation with US law enforcement, including my disclosures to the Department of Justice and FBI concerning overseas corruption in which I had participated, as well as witnessed, during my career in international sales.  These initial disclosures, made during my proffer sessions at the Department of Justice, ultimately commenced my two and half years of covert cooperation with US and UK law enforcement. I addressed how the FBI witnessed, during my cooperation, the “wink and nod” language of foreign bribery, as confirmed by my first consensually monitored conversation in July of 2007.Mr. Matthews then turned the questioning towards “what was I thinking” as I encountered corruption in my overseas work. My initial response to his question was that it was a “perfect storm of rationalizing risk,” which I broke down into four elements:

1. International procurement instability. 2. Personal incentive compensation. 3. Lack of witnesses. 4. Illusion of no-victims. Over the next week, I will post on each one of these factors, which all contributed to my “rationalization” of bribery as I encountered it during my international sales experience. To be clear, I make these observations in no way to “justify” my behavior, or even to “explain it away.” To the contrary, my goal here is to open the window with respect to my thinking and how I rationalized overseas corruption. My hope is that by sharing my experience, compliance professionals and practitioners might better understand the forces facing international executives, and to better assist them with the  tools and training to help them manage the risk they face, especially the front line personnel, who are, in my experience, the most exposed to foreign corruption in their work. As Wall Street Journal Reporter, Ben DiPietro, tweeted during the interview “I knew (what) I was doing was wrong but I rationalized my risk.” Well, here’s how:

International Procurement Instability. Winner Take All or Win Big-Lose Big. Having spent about half my career (the first half) as a VP responsible for US law enforcement and US military sales, I could easily describe that procurement environment as stable. As I shared with Mr. Matthews, take a fifty mile radius around Washington DC and consider all of the surrounding federal, state and local agencies, each one of which has a procurement department(s). These procurement agencies all purchase goods and services on a regular basis. It does not matter if there is a change in departmental leadership, a new President, a new Mayor, etc, the purchases continue. If a procurement official goes on vacation, takes leave, retires, etc, there is someone to take his or her place in the bureaucracy. In addition, the frequency of purchases ranges from long sales cycles (as in large military contracts), to smaller, high-frequency purchases. For a sales person, this is a stable environment and one which can easily be modeled into a sales forecast. If a sale is lost to a competitor, there will be another agency to go after, or that same agency will be buying again in the near future.

Contrast that environment to overseas procurement, regardless of product or services. In many countries, including EU and NATO members, the Ministries at the national level procure goods and services for the entire country, from the federal to local level in a single integrated contract. Thus, in those countries, the contracting entity is concentrated in a specific national Ministry, be it Health, Finance, Interior, Defense, etc.  In addition, those contracts, which cover the purchases for the entire country, often have renewal and escalation clauses which reduce the probability that they will be offered again for public tender in the near future. In my experience, it was common for a Ministry of Defense or Interior to award a contract and to use renewal clauses over the course of three or four years.

So, How Does that Impact an International Sales Executive?

It means that in a territory there will be a small number of tenders for the products/services that he or she sells, and that those tenders will be significant in value. In addition, if the sales person “loses” the tender to the competition, it means that in terms of the identified market segment, there will be no more business opportunities, perhaps, for years to come.  Thus, for the sales person, and for the company, in most overseas countries, it is “win big or lose big” for sales to state controlled entities.

Is That All? No. Moving outside the NATO and EU community, procurement instability gets dramatically magnified. In addition to the infrequency of tenders and their large financial scope, there is also the unpredictable and unstable nature of the procurement process as a stand alone issue. Such instability, which can stall, delay, indefinitely postpone, or even cancel a procurement, can be attributable to the following issues which I have encountered the most:

  1. Regime Change  and Personnel Turnover. I list this bullet point first as it is probably the most common reason for procurement delay or cancellation. In many countries, a change in regime can cause a cancellation and re-bid of all outstanding tenders in the State Ministries. In addition, where there is not cancellation, many of the tenders, even those awarded, will be indefinitely delayed, as existing procurement personnel are often replaced. Such turnover in procurement staffing due to regime change is common. In extreme cases, the funding for all outstanding procurements is cancelled, and the entire tender and sales process starts from the beginning.

I recalled a transaction in my interview where I had sales responsibility for a  procurement which was funded and licensed, yet delayed for over a year, due to regime change. The change in leadership had caused a significant turnover of personnel in the Ministry, and one of the people who needed to sign the final release of the purchase order was no longer employed  and had to be replaced. One year for a single signature: how can you account for that kind of instability in a sales forecast? 

  1. Logistics. In many countries, even after a purchase order is funded, signed and issued there can be indefinite delays due to licenses (if regulatory agencies are involved) and/or the arrangement and costs of logistics, including warehousing, shipping and forwarding.  I was involved in a transaction where the purchase order was executed, funded and secured, but there was a negotiation over which party would pay and arrange for the transportation costs once the goods had arrived in port, including storage fees. That negotiation lasted almost six months, mostly driven by the end user (who was a public official). Again, circumstances beyond the control of an international sales person, but one which makes for instability in the planning and forecasting process, both on the personal (as in bonus compensation) and corporate level.

What Does This Have to do with Rationalization of Bribery? A lot. This is the procurement environment in which overseas sales, marketing and business development people operate. Infrequent but large volume tenders, delays subject to regime change, personnel turnover and logistics, all of which make the entire sales process extremely unstable. If we are talking about sales personnel with high personal performance sales goals as part of their incentive compensation (the next part of this storm), creates tremendous pressure, as it becomes difficult to predict and achieve performance goals.  In other words, the sales person starts to think, “if I miss this sale, I doubt I will see this opportunity again any time soon,  and even if I do win  it, I don’t know when it will actually be booked and shipped. A miss here will destroy both my forecast and bonus.”

If we are talking about a public company environment, the challenge gets dramatically magnified, as sales and expense forecasting, which are usually on a rolling and quarterly basis, are a part of corporate life. Nonetheless, how can you forecast for a “win all-lose all” tender? How can you predict when an order will get shipped and billed when it is subject to all kinds of delays due to regime change, personnel turnover, etc? All this makes for vulnerability if a corrupt offer is presented. Accordingly, this backdrop of procurement instability is a major part of the “rationalization process,” even if mostly an unseen one.

More to come.


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