Mike Bluestone is making sure that training is at the heart of Initial Security’s strategy to redefine contract guarding. Margaret Kubicek reports
Pressure is on the private contract security industry to get serious about training. Legislation launched by the government last year means the industry is adapting to the requirement that all contract guards be licensed from March 2006.
Security has traditionally been a commodities business – supplying personnel on the ground for clients. As recently as the early 1990s, clients were not all that interested in the training of guards – the market then focusing more on CCTV and simply having personnel on the ground.
Initial Security Limited is in the top five of security contract guarding companies in the UK, and is at the forefront of a sea change in how the industry defines itself and the service it provides.
With an annual turnover of £135m, Initial employs 5,500 security officers who are supported by some 300 management and sales staff. The last year has seen the company make a board-level commitment to rethinking its business strategy and position in the market. At the centre of that commitment is the role of learning and development and the launch of a training academy. To be known as the Central Academy of Security Excellence, it will be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Initial, offering a wide range of learning for both the industry and non-sector companies needing to invest in security management training, says Mike Bluestone, who joined Initial in March 2005 as director of training.
“We really call it security solutions now,” says Bluestone. “We offer a solutions-based service on top of contract guarding.”
A major driver of Initial’s re-positioning was the Private Security Industry Act, which was launched in March 2004 in response to what the industry’s regulator, the Security Industry Authority (SIA), saw as a disparate approach to training across the sector.
The SIA has designated a mandatory four-day programme of training and an exam that all security officers must pass along with criminal checks to be licensed to practice for three years.
“There were some dinosaurs who didn’t want the government regulation,” says Bluestone. “We’ve endorsed the process. Some companies were offering a few hours’ training to their operatives and then sending them out on the road. That’s completely unacceptable.”
The government is demanding a big commitment on training from the industry – a cost of some £200 per licence to Initial, which negotiated with existing clients to meet the requirements of compliance. Bluestone’s team of 14 City & Guilds qualified in-house trainers are delivering the mandatory four-day programme.
At the same time as Initial is responding to the requirements of the Act, the company is developing additional training for contract guards tailored to the specific sector in which they are placed – in other words, in direct response to client needs. “I hate the term ‘minimum standards’. It implies that once you’ve attained the minimum standard, you don’t really need to think about it,” adds Bluestone.
Called Training Plus, this new programme will supplement the generic, mandatory training. “Training Plus will give our officers at least another one to two days’ training a year, which is client and company-specific,” explains Bluestone. “The impact on training is that it’s becoming more tailored and bespoke. We’re designing programmes that are sector and client-specific – and we’re initiating it.”
So, for guards working in roles with a high-public interface, training could focus on customer care, while those in warehousing could build skills in maintaining ‘sterility of surroundings’ and dealing with suspicious packages. Training will be provided mainly by Bluestone’s in-house team, but external providers will be brought in where there is a specific need.
Most critical to the delivery of Training Plus, though, will be a team of 13 in-house ‘support trainers’ supplementing Bluestone’s team of day-to-day trainers. “Our support trainers’ normal duties are as contract managers or portfolio shift managers out in the regions. Last year, these people were identified as potential trainers and they are now all City & Guilds qualified. A lot of Training Plus programmes are delivered on site, and these people are based on the ground, in the business, with detailed knowledge of the business.”
Impact of training
Bluestone is passionate about the impact training for contract guards can have not just on the business, but on employee satisfaction. “They’re often in static guarding roles. It’s easy when you’re stationary to get bored and de-motivated. The training reconnects them with their raison d’tre. When you train security officers, they’re born again.”
Interactive sessions, particularly scenario exercises, such as with improvised explosive devices, prove most popular and motivating. “It helps rejuvenate them about why they’re doing the job. It re-kindles them.”
Alongside the investment in training to meet the licencing requirements for contract guards and the enhanced offering under Training Plus, Initial is improving training for its 300 sales and contract management teams that manage client relationships on the ground – training that was previously limited to conventional management skills and behaviours, says Bluestone. “The one weakness was security management, our core business, so we needed to do more to upskill our sales and management staff.”
He explains: “We know our clients are sophisticated, with many of our buyers having detailed knowledge of security management. They want to deal with someone they know understands their professional issues, which means our people need to be able to talk about the threats to clients’ businesses and understand how to respond.”
The investment in training at Initial has, not surprisingly, seen the company’s training spend increase significantly, particularly in the last year. “Our annual training budget is approaching 1m – part of it driven by the regulation, coupled with our plan to take it a stage further, well beyond the minimum requirements.”
It is an investment Bluestone describes as “a central focal point in our business strategy”. In these security-conscious times, training is becoming more of a priority for potential clients, and it is increasingly the norm for Bluestone to be included in the team of senior managers bidding for new business.
“A lot of companies will talk up training in their marketing material but not go the extra mile,” he says. “It’s just smoke and mirrors. We’ve shown it’s a very real and tangible resource.”
There are commercial drivers to the strategic priority Initial is giving to training as well, with the launch in June 2005 of the Central Academy of Security Excellence providing training services for the industry – the first enterprise of its kind to be undertaken by a contract guarding company, says Bluestone.
That means, for example, Initial’s mandatory training for contract guards, and its suite of security management courses for sales and management staff, can be marketed to external security firms as well. “We know there’s the opportunity to train other people’s people. A lot of smaller companies aren’t in a position to run in-house training.”
The academy will also add gravitas to the bespoke training Initial can offer non-sector employers to help them instil a security culture – for example, bringing in an Israeli security consultant experienced at guarding sites vulnerable to suicide bombers to lead a session with senior managers of high-risk organisations here in the UK.
Bluestone, who is also an accredited trainer for the British Institute of Facilities Management, is head of faculty for the academy, and his core team of Initial trainers are all faculty members, along with an external adviser from a university.
“All our training, in-house and otherwise, is being brought under the auspices of the academy,” he says. “It gives added weight to the value of that training, in that having an academy means we can bring in external specialists and provide training on a much broader range of topics. We think those trainers will feel more comfortable being part of a collegiate environment. We also see opportunities for external accreditation with colleges and universities, and we’re pursuing that at the moment.”
Initial is also sharing skills and knowledge with the industry, says Bluestone. “We see ourselves as setting the standards and we know we’ll get commercial recognition for that, so there’s a payback,” he says.
The new legislative requirements have increased client expectations, and the July bombings in London have further emphasised the importance of security for clients.
“Contract security officers, when deployed on client sites, almost become part of the company. They might wear our uniform, but they are seen as part of the client company. They need to be able to demonstrate that they’re staying ahead of the game in terms of skills. There’s nowhere to duck and hide.”
CV Mike Bluestone
- 2005 Director of training, Initial Security Limited
- 2004 Director, Integra Security Solutions Limited
- 1998 MA in security management, Loughborough University (part-time)
- 1996 Managing director, BSB Group
- 1990 Head of security, Community Security Trust