Many British businessmen consider the bodyguards employed by their US
counterparts as unnecessary, but there are signs the safety-first attitude is
taking hold. So where does HR fit in?
The British have always had an ambivalent attitude towards overtly heavy
security, often viewing such ostentation as sensationalist and perhaps even
suspect in its own right. When Tom Bower published his unauthorised biography
of Mohamed Al Fayed, some of the more compelling passages related to his use of
armed bodyguards – or "donkeys", as Al Fayed calls them – who were to
be seen accompanying their boss on his daily rounds through Harrods. At one
point as many as 40 donkeys were employed. They were so well paid they joked
they could not fold their wallets. No doubt this private army gave Al Fayed a
greater sense of personal security, but others claimed baser motives. As Bower
concludes, "They were retained not as bullet-stoppers, but to reinforce
his sense of power."
But despite boasting one of the oldest and most respected secret services in
the world, "Brits don’t like to admit they need close protection,"
says former Special Branch officer Phil Brown, who now runs his own security consulting
firm Philip Brown Services – an independent operation affiliated to Security
Consortium International. Brown claims the reason for this is that stereotype
of the stiff upper-lip is still much in evidence. "But Europeans as a
whole seem less paranoid, with the exception of the Italians."
Thus the staple of Brown’s commercial – as opposed to diplomatic – business
continues to be visiting US executives. "The Americans are very windy [ie,
frightened]. They seem to think the world stops at the shores of the US. More
and more business executives are getting protection just to visit Europe. We
usually do a threat analysis on them, and apart from the fact they are very
wealthy, there is usually no perceived threat. But they want the security anyway."
There are signs, however, that this safety-first attitude is beginning to
trickle down to the ranks of non-US organisations. Perhaps this is the result
of globalisation; or perhaps it is due to what might be termed the
Americanisation of business culture – but figures show that UK companies are
assigning a growing chunk of their budgets to personal security. This might
take the form of providing "close protection" for executives
attending special events – product launches, merger announcements and so on –
or of sending those deemed most at risk on security awareness courses. Either
way, business is booming in the bodyguard recruitment area. At London-based
Excel Security, for instance, annual turnover has mushroomed to £6m in recent
In some industries the driving force behind the need for heightened security
is straightforward crime. For example, the computer distribution industry has
recently been dogged by the threat of armed heists, with gangs, bearing
sawn-off shotguns, descending on premises in search of valuable commodities
such as chips and memory boards.
But Brown believes another reason for this increased awareness of security
issues is a perceived resurgence of some of the "anarchist, nihilist
groups" which so terrorised business and government alike in the 1970s
"They died away in the 1980s and 90s – the head of the animal was
chopped off – but they seem to be coming back. It seems to be cyclical:
politics in Europe is beginning to swing to the right again, so you will get
left-wing groups coming through." As evidence of this he cites increased
activity by groups in France and Northern Italy.
The recent violent grass-roots demonstrations in London and Seattle have
also provoked concern in business circles. As one security source in the
pharmaceutical industry points out, "They show what appears to be a
growing distrust of the relationship between large global corporations and
governments – as if we are operating hand-in-glove against the interests of the
masses. That is clearly not the case – there are no such conspiracies. But the
fact that some of these groups believe they do exist is cause enough for
Christopher Grose, director of information at London-based security group
Control Risk, agrees. "At the moment there is concern about anarchist
groups and extreme advocacy groups such as the Animal Liberation organisations.
Companies have to consider who they are investing in – there are examples of
bank executives suddenly getting hate-mail and threatening phone calls."
Nonetheless, it is still the case that "we don’t see much of that"
in the UK. Thus the bulk of Control Risk’s work with British executives is
still taken up with advising on the scale of risk for those travelling or
moving to foreign locations. "People want to know about the countries they
are going to and who they are doing business with."
Intelligence considerations like these aside, "We provide personal
security advice, which is usually tailored to individual executives and their
families," says Grose. "Once they are in their new location, we will
send out our people to go through every physical element of risk and
But when it comes to bodyguards, Grose advises using people on the ground in
a given territory, rather than importing a bunch of hefty ex-squaddies. Such an
approach is hardly subtle – indeed, in common with many other members of the
security industry, he is down-beat about the use of bodyguards per se.
"Some people do use bodyguards but there are disadvantages – they are very
high profile, very expensive, and you need to have them with you all the time.
For the great majority of people they are not a practicable option."
A far better option, given that 99 per cent of kidnappings and murders take
place near the victim’s car, is to invest in a good driver, trained in
Other providers are keen to stress the distinction between bodyguards and
"Mike Tyson has bodyguards, most of our guys are ex-Special Branch or
special services," says Brown. "The biggest, heaviest thug is about
as much good as an ashtray on a motorbike. Our customers want discrete
protection." For this, expect to pay between £300 and £500 a day. Brown is
also keen to promote discretion when it comes to the choice of vehicle.
"We have got an armoured BMW. You can see an armoured Merc three miles
away, but our BMW is very discrete."
This emphasis on presentation is also found at Excel Security, where
trainers claim that 80 per cent of bodyguards lose their jobs, not because they
are found wanting in the physical hardness department, but because of their
lack of protocol. Consequently, the organisation devotes a large slice of its
training programme to ensuring that recruits are as schooled in the arts of
presentation, etiquette, and discretion as any 1950s debutante. With corporate
dress-codes now tending towards the more informal, the chances are that the guy
in the pin-striped suit is not the chief exec, but his bodyguard.
Unsurprisingly, few organisations will speak about security arrangements. As
one chief of security says, "I wouldn’t be thanked by my senior colleagues
for drawing attention to how they travel."
A Microsoft spokeswoman adds, "We do not have any specific measures in
the UK, and we will not comment on high-profile visitors like Bill Gates or
Steve Balmer, it is a slightly sensitive subject."
Most concede the practice of hiring external bodyguards is becoming more
widespread. Some believe, however, this is as much a result of the burgeoning
security industry’s marketing programmes as it is a reaction to a real risk
increase. "It is becoming more common, because more people are offering
services. There has been a growth in consultants," says the security
director of one high-profile organisation which has been targeted by protest
groups in the past. "Business executives are travelling more and few would
say, ‘I’m bullet-proof. I don’t care’."
He believes companies should undertake formal risk assessment programmes to
determine which executives most merit personal protection. Factors to consider
include the subject’s past track record, public profile, personal allegiances
and whether they are affiliated to any other potentially controversial
organisation. When posted abroad the vulnerability of the family is also a key
consideration. "But in most companies it doesn’t work like that: these
rules aren’t followed and protection is often assigned not on the basis of a
risk assessment, but rather more informally. Those board members who shout
loudest tend to get their way. Some certainly consider it a status
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those executives "who don’t
like to feel they are being watched by the company" and tend to avoid
protection at all costs. This can pose problems for the security department.
"If we get a call on Sunday and hear Fred Bloggs has gone missing it is
very difficult to act if we have no idea of his habits or movements."
Many senior security officers believe this is one area where HR can make a
positive contribution to security arrangements – if the two departments can
pool information relating to the habits or lifestyle of individuals which could
be drawn on in an emergency, the job of protecting them becomes much easier.
"It comes down to scratching backs," says one.
Although security staff concede looking after employees is clearly the
number one priority of the HR department, few believe HR should take the lead
in formulating security policy, let alone recruiting protection personnel.
"It might appeal to HR directors as a good thing to do – I should know, my
wife’s one," says one source. But in his experience companies prefer to
leave these matters to the experts.
That said, "Security and HR have a lot to talk about when it comes to
crisis management should the worst happen. A lot of companies are less
security-focused than us, and they would benefit from forward planning. They
need to ask, what would happen if the chief executive were kidnapped? What
measures would kick in? Who would take over? And so on"
He believes another issue which organisations should investigate is
insurance to cover payments if an executive is kidnapped. "However, a lot
of companies are questioning the wisdom of this. Is it sensible to become known
as a company that insures its staff? And most big corporations these days could
afford an upfront ransom demand."
A far better idea – particularly for organisations operating abroad – is to
keep a firm of international security consultants on retainer. As well as
providing general information on potential risks in a given territory, they
would have people on the ground to act quickly in an emergency. "It costs
you a huge amount of money to hire these people on an ad hoc basis, but if you
pay them on retainer it works out much cheaper and you also get the benefit of
their intelligence services on a regular basis."
High-profile business cases
* Baader-Meinhof, The Red Brigade, Black September, The Symbionese
Liberation Army (slogan: "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the
life of the people").
These were some of the groups which inspired terror in the international
business community in the 1970s – an era which might be dubbed the golden age
of kidnapping, were it not in such questionable taste. Although some observers
claim there are signs of resurgence in such groups, others maintain they were a
one-off product of their time. But as the tragic deaths of four Granger Telecom
engineers in Chechnya demonstrates, the issue of kidnapping remains a permanent
black cloud hanging over Western business organisations. The causes may change,
but the threat remains.
1971 Angry Brigade bombs Secretary of State for Employment Robert Carr’s
house. It had previously planted bombs near a BBC van in protest at the Miss
1972 Four members of the Angry Brigade jailed at the Old Bailey for a series
of bombings and attempted kidnappings between 1968 and 1971. The judge told
them, "Undoubtedly a warped understanding of sociology has brought you to
where you are."
1972 Argentina: abduction of a Fiat director.
1972 Three British hostages killed in Turkey as police storm their
1972 The arrest of Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader is seen as a major step
towards the end of a reign of terror in Europe
1973 Head of Marks & Spencer Joseph Sieff shot by a gunman at his St
John’s Wood home in London. The Arab group Black September is held responsible.
Sieff survived. He was probably shot for his support for Zionist causes.
1973 John Paul Getty III, grandson of US oil tycoon, set free by Italian
kidnappers who had held him for six months. They cut off his right ear and
exacted a ransom demand of $750,000.
1973 Oil giant Exxon announced it would pay a $10m ransom to Argentinian kidnappers
for the release of US executive Victor S Samuelson, kidnapped at a Buenos Aires
1974 Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst kidnapped by a US group styling itself
the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Months later she was filmed robbing a
bank with members of the group.
1975 Patty Hearst captured and jailed for seven years. Released early by
President Jimmy Carter, she later married her bodyguard.
1975 Lord Sainsbury’s name found on a list of prominent potential targets,
including Yehudi Menuhin and Bernard Delfont in a London "safe house"
used by international killer Carlos the Jackal.
1977 The body of kidnapped German industrialist Hans Martin Scheleyer found
in a car boot in Alsace.
1980 The family of electronics engineer Rolf Schild kidnapped by Sardinian
bandits. Daughter Annabel held for seven months. Schild’s negotiators handed
over L500m (about £262,000).