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August 30, 2011

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'Robin Hood' fixes expats' troubles

OTHER expats' troubles are Toby Raworth's bread and butter and he makes it his business to solve all kinds of problems through mediation, guanxi, and other means. Zha Minjie finds out how he does it.

Few expats in Shanghai understand the importance of guanxi or personal connections more than 33-year-old Englishman Toby Raworth, a professional mediator and problem solver who helps expats sort out their woes in China.

"A word in the right ear can go a very, very far way in China," says Raworth, an eight-year resident who had a highly paid position with an international shipping company - the kind of job that requires logistics and lots of connections to get anywhere. Raworth also speaks some Chinese.

"That's the key to resolving issues here," he adds, making it no secret that he's well-connected.

Some years back, he started out helping expats in trouble and found he had a knack for it and enjoyed using his considerable skills and resources to resolve difficult situations - compensation, claiming a body, labor disputes, ensuring that justice is done.

He likens himself to Robin Hood, a semi-legendary English medieval outlaw said to have robbed the rich and given to the poor. This Robin Hood doesn't rob anyone, but he does have a strong sense of right and wrong and working things out to everyone's satisfaction.

In June Raworth quit his job and cofounded FirstForLawyers with a Chinese partner who owns a security company. Raworth, who is not a lawyer, puts people in touch with lawyers when necessary, but prefers to solve problems out of court. He calls his company a "no-win-no-fee law firm."

At times the affable Englishman, the son of a general, has been called upon to use more than tact and guanxi. That's when his Chinese partner's security firm helps out.

But he relies on guanxi, and that means many of his cases never receive any publicity; the problems just go away.

In one of his few cases covered by Shanghai Daily, Raworth was the "mysterious British person" who helped get a Nigerian man named Shuaibu compensation for his younger brother who was killed by a security guard in a bar fight in 2009.

"They had been trying to settle the case for two years, going to a local court, when I was asked to intervene," recalls Raworth. "The objective was threefold: get the body released from the hospital morgue and back to the family, fair compensation and ultimately let everyone move on with their lives."

Even after the security guard was imprisoned, a lawsuit for compensation dragged on. Finally, the Nigerian withdrew the suit and agreed on an out-of-court settlement of around 300,000 yuan (US$46,950). The body was sent home early this year.

"My partner and I found the key people involved, the real decision makers, or the organ grinders," says Raworth. "You know what I got from the case? Not a single penny."

"We like to help people whenever we can, and in some cases we do this for free," adds Raworth. "And sometimes I just find I'm good at communication."

He started down the Robin Hood road in September 2007. An American businessman and his family turned to Raworth for help after they were threatened by a group of workers who mistakenly thought he had deliberately been withholding their wages.

"It turned out the factory that he owned was being run by a dishonest general manager, who was only paying the salaries of those in his immediate and extended family," says Raworth.

The man pocketed the rest of the money and supplier invoices.

So Raworth and his friends arranged protection for the family and managed separate talks with the workers, suppliers and the manager until the problems were solved without the need for lawyers.

He says he was inspired in life by watching his mother work with children with AIDS in South Africa when he was a child. At the time his father was a military adviser to the government of Nelson Mandela.

"My family always supported me and they back me 100 percent," he says of his parents who are back in England.

There are also times when stronger measures are required, he says, referring to "a factory far away." A new factory manager, a Frenchman, tried to clean up some work practices by changing a trucking contract. He was threatened and the factory was blocked by a large group of hired roughnecks.

Standing in between was Raworth and six big Chinese guys from his friend's security company.

"Sometimes you have to show your guts and other times you have to keep cool," he says.

The deadlock was resolved after a two-day siege and negotiation. "Play the long game and bide your time," he says.

In some cases, it's easy to get emotionally worked up, "but getting emotional drains your energy and will also show people your feelings, which may work to your disadvantage in some cases."

But if things don't work out, "it helps if you are a fast runner," he says in jest.

Speaking of his new company, Raworth says it finds lawyers for clients who are not familiar with the city. "We won't take a commission unless clients win," he says.

Expats who have trouble in China need to have clear guidance on the best people to communicate with, he says. "Here the opportunity exists to address problems outside the court room and address them much fast, but still a good lawyer can be an asset."

His LinkedIn page says "Contact Toby for job inquiries, expertise requests, business deals, reference requests, getting back in touch."

Apart from work, Raworth is a family man and his young daughter was born in Shanghai.

"This is an amazing place. I like to take my daughter to the parks and take her out on the boats. Also we go the zoo together and the aquarium ... There are some great restaurants and good bars for a drink," he says.

"Shanghai is my home now, and we love it. This city has everything, and I just took my daughter to see Harry potter in 3D."

Raworth says it would be interesting to be a performer or do stand-up comedy in the city - he seems like the kind of fellow who has a lot of stories to tell.

Toby Raworth

Nationality: UK

Age: 33

Profession: Mediator and partner in law firm


Self description:

Looking forward to my future, trying to improve myself and things around me. Motivated, tough but fair.

Favorite place:

On the sofa with my daughter, watching a DVD and having snuggle.

Strangest sight:

I have seen a few strange things since I came here, I want to say some of my friends after a night out at M1NT.

Worst experience:

A friend of mine died of liver disease a couple of months ago here in Shanghai. I spoke to his wife the night before and told her that everything was going to work out, but I was wrong.

Motto for Life:

Conquer yourself, conquer all: "Vincit qui se vincit."

How to improve Shanghai:

Keep doing what you are doing, keep working on the infrastructure - nobody likes traffic jams!

Advice to newcomers:

Remember that you are a guest, come here and contribute to society and don't take things for granted.


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