BDO Latvia founder Vita Liberte: “We truly do think and see globally, but act locally”

  • 2023-01-17
  • Linas Jegelevicius

With many other companies in the legal and accounting consultancy sectors gone a long time ago, BDO Latvia, steered by Vita Liberte, is persevering, adding strength and expanding. “At BDO Latvia, the last major change took place five years ago, when we significantly expanded the range of advisory services under the BDO brand, offering audit, accounting, and financial advisory services alongside legal and tax advisory services. This has been our fastest leap of growth so far, and consequently the most responsible moment for us, due to the increase in workload, size of projects and team,” says Vita Liberte. Having obtained a master’s degree in international law from prestigious New York University, she has recently started philosophy studies at the University of Latvia.  “To expand my horizons. For example, reading Plato, reminds me to be innovative but simultaneously humble and inquisitive,” the well-known Latvian woman entrepreneur told The Baltic Times Magazine.

BDO has over 20 years of industry experience advising Latvian businesses on complex business issues. Over the course of your distinguished career, you have worked with public, private and non-profit entities in widely diverse industries including manufacturing, distribution, technology, financial services, healthcare and real estate. Yet what are BDO’s major milestones for you? How have the company, and you, transformed over the years?

With the last major change five years ago, when we expanded the range of advisory services under the BDO brand offering audit, accounting, and financial advisory services alongside legal and tax advisory services, our team has grown from 20 employees to a team of around 70 employees, which implies a different management style and vision. Although the change was challenging and not always easy, the decision has paid off as we are finally able to work in a multidisciplinary way and provide our clients with a multi-faceted view and solution to their problems – from the legal, tax and accounting angles.

However, unlike other large consultancies, BDO is still owned by us and not by unknown foreign partners who sometimes have not even been to Latvia. BDO is a global company with solutions tailored locally. We truly do think and see globally, but act locally.

BDO Latvia is a part of BDO, one of the largest accounting and consulting networks in the world, which extends across 1700 offices in 167 countries.

When you think back to the inception of BDO, is there something that you remember with a smile, perhaps? Why?

Recalling the first day of the company truly brings a smile to my face and warmth in my heart - together with my partner Jānis Zelmenis we often mention this moment, when we were enthusiastic and brought office equipment and flower pots from home to work to brighten up and improve our newly acquired company premises.

Your career was connected with two international audit firms before you founded BDO Zelmenis & Liberte. You achieved your first professional success at the New York firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Having worked hard for three years and gained valuable experience in legal work, you went on to lead Deloitte’s Tax and Legal Practice in Latvia. At what point, and why, did BDO and Zelmenis merge?

We realized quite quickly that Zelmenis & Liberte were not going to get very far. We were used to international networks, which is a great benefit. We were not interested in working in such a closed, national environment. It's interesting to work with international colleagues and clients. For example, if you had to start working with a client that had a branch or clients abroad, you had to look for colleagues abroad, but if you don't have that network, it's actually not that easy.

We started looking for such a network because we were tax advisers and we mostly did structuring deals where this was mandatory. We found BDO, which operates on a franchise basis and was then owned by Dainis Tunsts and Andris Deniņs, but they had not developed tax consulting. We started working with them, they allowed us to use their network, and we liked it. The Big Four are, however, an integrated network, it is essentially a big partnership, and senior partners can go as far as New York. This is not the case in BDO, it is a franchise, owned by local partners in each country. We pay a franchise fee on revenue, but being part of the BDO network means we have access to all BDO offices worldwide, conferences, quality monitoring and so on. We follow certain standards, have regular training and quality checks of the network. That level is thus higher than it would be from swimming in your own soup.

With many other companies in the sector gone a long time ago, BDO is persevering and furthermore – adding strength and expanding. What have you been doing essentially differently all these years?

We have taken decisions that are strategic and important for our business by carefully assessing the risks and the resources available to us - for example, before we expanded our business, we assessed whether we had the resources to make it happen and achieve what we wanted. We never rely on luck and hope, but carefully assess whether we can really do what it takes to grow. And once a decision has been taken, we implement it confidently, without deviating from our objectives. 

The company's growth is also supported by a team that is now led by young and professionally strong managers, who are able to both strategically manage projects and rally and inspire colleagues, which guarantees successful work and satisfied clients. 

Do you think finding a global law expert, one with the knowledge of the local law, tax and business environment, one able to do insightful due diligence and one with outstanding networking, all of which you can boast of, is a lot easier these days? Due to prevalent social media and the abundance of lawyers to pick from?

Social media certainly makes it easier to find specialists based on criteria that are already important to us.

At a time when strict gathering restrictions were used to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and face-to-face meetings were not allowed, social media was one of the main ways to find industry-savvy professionals in general and I think the role of social networks in the recruitment process will only increase. Many professionals are already using social networks to build their professional brand by writing various publications and creating content to showcase their knowledge and expertise. 

However, as regards the increase in the number of professionals, the number of people working in the consulting sector may have increased, but I do not think that an increase in numbers guarantees an increase in quality and knowledge. 

We should think more about bringing back Latvian specialists who have left and attracting foreign specialists. Estonia has worked hard to improve legislation governing the entry of foreigners into the country, with simplified procedures for registering employees, support for transnational cooperation in academic research and simplified procedures for attracting international students. A program to attract qualified, experienced staff has also been developed. However, there is also no separate national program to attract highly skilled foreigners - and these are the most valuable foreigners to attract.

When does being in constant decision-making over the years, how much has your sixth feeling, intuition that women are said to have more pronounced than men, been important to you?

This is quite a masculine profession while there can be emotional moments, but we cannot associate ourselves with the client and we have to be able to remain neutral and impartial. For this reason, I try to limit my feelings and intuition in my work. I deal with situations by asking questions and seeking answers, but not by blindly following my feelings. I believe that success is based on effort and not luck. Of course, there are many other factors that can ensure or at least contribute to success, but only work - deliberate, sustained and of good quality - will deliver what we want. 

You regularly participate as a speaker at local and international conferences, reporting on current legislative issues. As Latvia is going through formation of a new Cabinet as of the time of writing, what would you expect from it? Where do you see room for improvement of the legislative process? And is there something that makes you proud of it?

Now, there are no known fundamental changes in the main areas of taxation, although all political parties have made a number of proposals for tax changes in the run-up to the elections. Proposals were mainly made on topics of greater public interest – value-added tax (VAT) on certain types of services and products, as well as a reduction in real estate tax (RET). No one is currently proposing to change the framework for corporate income tax and personal income tax (PIT).

Historically, in Latvia we expect storms of tax changes of one kind or another after every election. Usually, tax policy changes are one of the items on the pre-election agenda, and later politicians often work on implementing what they have promised.  Unfortunately, the outcome is unpredictable and the initiatives may turn into other types of proposals as the work progresses. For example, the corporate income tax (CIT) reform introduced in 2018 was not initially considered as a possible way forward for tax policy, but there was sufficient support for it - resulting in the adoption of a completely new CIT law.

What does your regular workday look like? Do you have any rites how to start a day in your office?

I consider my day to be of a great start if I manage to do some exercise for 30 minutes and reading for at least 30 minutes on some non-professional subject. I just started my studies in the Faculty of Philosophy to expand my horizons, and for example, reading Plato, reminds me to be innovative but simultaneously humble and inquisitive. For example, in the work Apology Plato stresses the importance of skepticism, and proposes instead that the realization of what one does not know is of primary importance.

Being on top of things at a big multi-layered company like yours, requires proper physical, emotional and spiritual balance and shape.  How do you manage to sail through tons of tension and stress daily smoothly and graciously? What keeps you driving? And how do you wind down at the end of a day?

To maintain my ability to make rational judgments and to be critical of what is happening, I cannot allow myself to be overwhelmed by emotions, so I also try to use the stress at work to my advantage and let it organize me rather than disorientate and exhaust me.

Of course, I also accumulate emotions and I need to regain the balance that I achieve through sport and art. I see a private coach and play tennis - it's a very psychologically interesting game and it's liberating. I like the one-on-one competition in tennis. This activity is very dear to me. When you are in control of the situation and there is no one else to ask. This is what sets tennis apart from other sports. Plus the sheer excitement.

How important is women’s empowerment to you? What message would you have to a girl who cherishes big dreams anywhere in the world?

To not be afraid and to be confident in your choices. There is no denying that my profession is a masculine one, and I have also encountered various stereotypes in my professional environment, but I deliberately chose this career and purposefully pursued it by dedicating time to studying, improving and working. You can't rely on luck in business, and I have achieved everything I have so far through hard work and conscious choices. 

At a time of personal freedoms and ongoing cultural changes – and sometimes, raging cultural wars, how important to you are the traditional values, like the mom-and-dad traditional family, Christmas gatherings and things like this?

I cherish every moment I spend with my family, and organizing sit-down dinners is one of my favorite pastimes. There is always a Christmas tree in our house, and I decorate our garden and each room in the house to bring in the feeling of joy and warmth.

You have also been active in a leadership capacity for many community, charity and professional organizations. Why is that important to you?

Art and culture are very important to me. After returning from New York, I was involved in various projects, including participation in the production of films, support for the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra (LNSO). One of the projects that is most dear to me is Kim? , at the Contemporary Art Centre, on whose board I serve.  I find their work truly essential. They introduce freedom into our provincial art world. At Kim?, we have introduced a training program for children and young people, to get them used to art, which helps develop thinking and reasoning. This is sorely lacking in Latvia.

I am also the co-founder of the VV Foundation, which was created in 2018. Our aim is to promote the accessibility and education of contemporary art in Latvia. We have also established an artist residency in Pavilosta, an international and interdisciplinary place for creative people - artists and other professionals - providing time, space and other resources for research, experimentation and professional development.

How did BDO help and is helping to address needs of Ukrainian refugees? Did you employ any Ukrainians in the wake of the war? I understand the work culture environment they are coming from and the preparedness they have may be different from yours.

BDO Latvia took a clear stand against the military aggression in Ukraine at the beginning of the war. At the outbreak of war, we offered free legal advice to Ukrainian war refugees. We also offered support and job placement in Latvia, opening additional vacancies in our company. As a result, a new colleague from Ukraine joined our team. I am pleased to say that she has been with us for eight months and is a part of our team now. 

Who are some of your big-name clients besides the ones mentioned by the media already, like the world famous opera singer Elina Garanca, the pop band Brainstorm, and the National Symphony Orchestra of Latvia?

We are proud to work with all our clients and the quality of our services does not change no matter how well-known the client is. Some of the latest clients that we worked with are Brinks, Deichmann, Rietumu Bank and Signet bank. We are regularly servicing the pharmacy industry with clients like Grindex and Olainfarm. Another client dear to us is Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga.

As International Liaison Partner for BDO, you are also responsible for communication and international business development across the BDO worldwide network. That is also the reason to ask you, where is BDO moving next?

BDO will continue its mission, both globally and locally, to be people helping people. We see our employees as our greatest asset and we will focus on their development, as they are the ones who will be able to help our clients and who will contribute to BDO's future growth. As an international company, BDO's goal is to foster cooperation and knowledge sharing between BDOs in different countries, allowing our employees to work on projects in different sectors and countries. 

Our vision is to be the leader in exceptional client service and this means a laser focus on quality in all of BDO’s offices in 164 countries and territories, in order to ensure the consistent delivery of exceptional service worldwide. For us, exceptional client service is based on five key components that define BDO today: client needs, communication, commitment, people, and value.

Our top priority is to be clear, open, and swift in all our communication. In practice, this means ensuring short lines of communication so our clients always know whom to talk to. Our client teams, including our senior professionals, are easily contactable so their experience in offering in-depth industry expertise and commercially astute insights is readily available.

Our goals and ambitions have always been big and challenging. We also budget for growth of at least 20 percent every year. If a colleague writes +5 percent, we always ask: how about 20 percent? And I have to say, this is coming true, because it is all based on a strict plan to achieve this growth. 

We certainly don't plan to stop, we are always thinking of ways to increase the volume and quality of service. This can take many forms, both in terms of market expansion, where, of course, we still have a lot to do, and in terms of qualitative and quantitative development of the existing and new departments. In addition, we are considering offering clients HR and IT consultancy.