At the back end of 1991, the Soviet Union began heaving itself out of Estonia – 60 years after it invaded and illegally occupied it, and shoved in a puppet government. For the former Estonian SSR, independence was a watershed moment – a brighter future for a country reclaimed.
But this was a country in tatters, and it needed people to rebuild it. Juri Raidla was one of those people. As a matter of fact, then the freshly appointed minister of justice, he was responsible for heading up the writing of the Estonian constitution and the seminal Land Reform Act, which, affecting a vast number of Estonians, saw the fast and effective restitution of expropriated property across the country. To date, there has been no constitutional crisis. “It is the thing I am most proud of. Being involved in something like that is a dream for any lawyer, and in my case, that dream came true,” says Raidla.
HOPE AND GLORY
Last year, Raidla won EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Estonia, and I met him last weekend in Monaco, as he battled it out for the worldwide award. He didn’t win, but that doesn’t diminish his blatant determination. “I really feel alive when I’m in the middle of reshaping something, when there’s something new to do. In 1992, we reshaped a whole country.”
After two whirlwind years in office, Raidla retired, and suddenly found himself jobless. “I had been so incredibly busy, I hadn’t prepared a next step for myself. All I knew is that I wanted to go into practice, to set something up. I wanted to help improve the situation in our country.” Raidla was fortunate. His work with the European Union had made him friends, and he puts a lot of his success down to the kindness and support he received from fellow lawyers in France and Finland – “they taught me how to establish a firm and how to run it. Thanks to their good advice, my firm took off; I still call them my teachers”. Founding Raidla Lejins & Norcous in 1993 was at once “easy and complicated. There was no market competition, but neither was there any experience to go on. Now, of course, it’s the other way round. We’ve got experience, but competition is strong”. Today, Raidla runs one of the most successful firms in the Baltic, and has an international clientele.
But in the last six months, he has ramped up his growth plans. “The name you’ve got down for my business is already out of date,” he laughs. His firm had always had partners in Latvia and Lithuania, and over the last few years, they have turned their shared belief that teaming up would give them more clout into a new venture. “You always try to respond to the market and what it needs, and we believe that we can do something more significant together.” On 20 May, Raidla launched Raidla Ellex, joining forces with Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts to form Cobalt, and also opening an office in Belarus. “We aren’t fully merged, but we are integrated, which means that we can act as a single legal service provider. The one stop shop approach is important – it’s the approach our major competitors are taking.”
Raidla knows acutely the significance of keeping ahead. London has always been “extremely important” for Baltic firms. Back in the mid to late 1990s, he tells me, it was far easier to get business from the capital. “But during the economic boom times of the 2000s, Baltic markets were too small for London. We were on the map, but we were seen as smaller than we actually were.”
But on the September morning Lehman Brothers collapsed, Raidla received an email from a partner of one of our most prominent London firms. “He said, ‘Juri, if there’s anything going on your end, please let me know; it’ll likely be of interest’. That was the moment when I thought, ‘the world has changed. We are back on the radar’. Now, London has regained its importance and is, of course, growing. But the mindset there has also changed. The city is more open; we’re being taken more seriously. For us, the financial crisis was an opportunity.”
THE RIGHT MINDSET
Raidla is also excited about things closer to home. Not only is he growing a new business, but just two weeks ago, he was invited back into government as an adviser. Having sat on committees and played expert for years, his strong convictions have ensured that he’s built a team who can “contribute more widely”, providing expertise nationally and internationally. He has been pivotal in initiating Estonia’s National Reform Programme, known as Estonia 2020, which has the two main objectives of increasing productivity and upping employment. In conjunction with the EU, the state initiative is a vital step for a small country with an ageing population, says Raidla. An empassioned speech in 2009 made him one of the first people to put forward the view that Estonia, which has a population of 1.3m, needed a “more efficient and less expensive government. I had very few allies when I started saying it, but I’ve always been happy to play public opinion!” Back in March, Estonia held its parliamentary election. Turnout may have only been 33 per cent, but state reform is “firmly on the agenda”, says Raidla. “Stability does not mean stagnation in Estonia.”
The country is trying to keep nimble in other respects too. Estonians enjoy an “e-environment”, with many businesses treating online banking, tax declarations, document signing and invoicing as the norm. Indeed, you can now register a company via an online platform in minutes – with the record currently at 17 minutes, 32 seconds. The point, says Raidla, is to make business easy – to encourage entrepreneurship. The government has even rolled out an “e-residents” scheme, which allows foreigners, who can be based anywhere in the world, to set up a business in Estonia.
Much of this push is in response to the country’s problem with emigration, particularly among young people. “It’s getting the mindset right which is important. If that’s entrepreneurial, results may come later, but they will come. We want more direct investment, we want to encourage our talent to stay here, and we want to encourage those that have left to come back and set up here. I have to admit that young Estonians aren’t always ambitious, but that can change. If I had not had big ambition, I would not be here now – this interview would never have happened.”
And even though he’s tickling 60, Raidla has no intention of slowing down. “I want to develop and better my business, and I want to develop and better Estonia.” More recently, he has found a new impetus: “I’ve got two little grandsons now. I want to make a better Estonia for them. That’s my ambition. I have a better country now than 50 years ago; in 50 years’ time, it can be even better for their whole generation.”
JURI RAIDLA CV
Company name: Raidla Ellex
Turnover: €5.5m (£4m)
Number of staff: 42
Job title: Senior partner
Born: Parnu, Estonia
Lives: Tallinn, Estonia
Studied: Law at Tartu University and St Petersburg University
Drinking: Everything from water to whisky, but in moderation
Eating: Most things, but I prefer seafood
Currently reading: Germany Does Itself In, by Thilo Sarrazin
Favourite Business Book: Economic Man and Political Animal, by Hardo Pajula
Talents: To see the wider scope on everything
Heroes: My father
First ambition: The long-term sustainability and prosperity of Estonia
Motto: “Speed, quality & sincerity”
Most likely to say: Everything is possible
Least likely to say: Nothing is possible!
Awards: Two high-ranking state decorations from the President; EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2014; Chambers & Partners Star Individual