The mt interview - Nick Buckles

After a swift rise up the ranks, which culminated in leading a big merger, Group 4 Securicor's CEO is one of Britain's youngest top bosses, presiding over a £3.8bn turnover. Part of his success lies in his natural appeal to frontline staff and a focus on team-building.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nick Buckles walks into the room with the confidence of a Footballers' Wives star. Looking trim, handsome, early forties, with an Essex estuary twang and an easy humour undercut by watchful, dark eyes, he shakes hands with a smile and a nod like those used by opposing captains before kick-off.

He's not, he says, used to doing interviews, but he knows it comes with the turf. This month he takes over as chief executive of Group 4 Securicor, the recently merged security giant now boasting 340,000 employees, a £3.8 billion turnover and a spread of operation that covers guarding, prisons, cash services, tagging and more, in 106 countries. As its chief, Buckles, 44, will be one of the younger big-company bosses in Britain and one of the better paid - his predecessor took home £620,000.

Yet ask him on what he'll spend his pay package and he looks perplexed. Nope, he can't think of much, outside of family and holidays. Maybe his growing collection of cars: Aston Martin, Porsche, Volkswagon split-screen bus ... What? 'Yeah, I just like it. I've got a VW Beetle too as my day-to-day car. I've only got into cars in the last couple of years. I tend to lend them out to other people.'

He laughs. Buckles is something of a surprise package - youthfully sleek on the outside, rather more thoughtful underneath, never quite what you expect, or ever completely revealing his hand. He has risen to the top after two decades at Securicor in which he started as an accountant, and is now established as an accomplished people manager and strategist. Last year, he led Securicor into its merger with Danish rival Group4Falck. Buckles emerged as deputy chief executive to Group 4's Lars Norby Johansen in the newly merged entity, and the Danes moved their head office over to the UK.

That seemed a good balance. Now, less than a year later, Buckles has popped up on top, and the head office, it turns out, is 90% staffed by ex-Securicor employees. Hmm. Was this a merger or a takeover?

Buckles gives a dimply grin. 'Sure, the head office is weighted toward Securicor, but on the other hand most of the field operations are run by ex-Group 4 executives. I have three divisional presidents reporting to me and two are from Group4Falck, and they cover 85% of the group.'

He shrugs as if it really doesn't matter what everyone else thinks. Buckles was, until recently, an ardent Sunday league footballer, turning out for his local team in Sussex, and he is not quite as predictable as some big-company bosses. Sitting in the first-floor London offices of his financial PR, he checks his watch occasionally, looks bemused by quite a few questions, throws glances at his communications director sitting opposite.

The body language is relaxed, but the eyes speak volumes: do I really have to do this? 'Blimey,' he says a couple of times, when I ask him what motivates him, or where he got his management skills. Self-analysis is not, you imagine, high on the Securicor priority list.

And why should it be? The firm has run itself according to its own rules for half a century. Originally set up as Night Guards Ltd in 1945, it changed its name to Security Corps, shortened to Securicor, in 1951. Thereafter, it expanded from factory guarding into alarms, hotels, cash movement, package delivery and cellular telephones (50% of Cellnet). Anything its senior management fancied, really. At the same time, it developed a reputation for looking after its own, promoting from within, rarely recruiting professionals from outside, and always establishing a distinct Securicor way of doing things. In 1985, when Buckles joined, entrance qualifications were not a priority.

'In fact, I think they had an aversion to anyone qualified in any way,' he laughs. He joined as project accountant, even though he was not qualified as an accountant. He had completed a business studies degree at Coventry Polytechnic, sponsored by Dowty Engineering, and had done a stint as a business analyst at Avon Cosmetics. More importantly, he had a mate who worked at Securicor, who told him it was all right, and the job offered him a company car. 'Yeah, blue B-reg Escort. Ha!'

From there, it took Buckles little more than a decade to start making himself felt in senior roles at Securicor, working his way up through a series of important cost-analysis jobs before moving into management. He was managing director of cash services in 1996, chief executive of the security division in 1999, and by 2001, at the age of 40, chief executive of the whole company, when he started looking for merger partners to push it into the top tier.

That's some rise, and testimony, perhaps, to the legacy of Securicor's distinct way of doing things. 'They say at Securicor that if you stay for a couple of years you stay for ever,' says Buckles. 'I have done 20 years, our HR director has done 25, our finance guy 10.' That long-term experience means he understands every wrinkle of the business and has experience of nearly everything, especially the costs. 'That's been the cornerstone of my expertise,' he beams.

Those who work with him, however, say he is more than just a costs expert: good at numbers, yes, but also good at people and expert at simplifying the complex. 'Nick is very good at seeing the wood for the trees,' says Irene Cowden, Group 4 Securicor's HR director, who has worked with him for 15 years. 'What needs to be focused on is focused on and what doesn't isn't. And he's team-oriented.' In a business that employs a lot of people, that's important.

He will need all that to lead a huge company that is spread so widely across the globe. Split into three main divisions, Group 4 Securicor still makes most of its money from manned security - £2.7 billion of its £3.8 billion turnover; cash services account for £768 million and security systems for £349 million. Those diversions from the 1990s, Cellnet and Omega parcel delivery, have long since gone.

Europe and America, the biggest markets for security services, are its principal areas of operation. It now has a sizeable, highly profitable subsidiary in the US, Wackenhut Corporation, which Group4Falck bought in 2002 and which provides more than 30% of manned security revenues. Growth elsewhere is speeding up too, particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

But it is a business that benefits from scale - hence the emergence of super-size multinationals such as Swedish-owned Securitas, the world number one. Most mergers don't work, but Buckles is adamant that Group 4 Securicor will be one of the exceptions. Post-merger integration is going better than expected, he insists, one of the reasons why he moved up to chief executive in quicker time than planned initially. The man he replaces, Group 4's Norby Johansen, was a political science professor in Denmark before remodelling himself as a top corporate leader. You can't say this business doesn't attract characters ...

So why has Norby Johansen moved off so quickly? Nothing underhand, grins Buckles, just everything going better than expected, and it was always intended that Norby Johansen would leave once the process was near completion. 'Integration should be finished by the end of the year. Later this year, we will be going through a rebranding exercise to get the same values throughout the company.'

The culture of the group will remain 'fairly nationalistic', he says. By that he means that national subsidiaries won't be required to do everything in a similar manner. 'We would respect the way people do business in different countries. What we hope to bring from the group perspective is a culture of fairness, treating people well in business, and having fun. I certainly don't want any stuffiness.'

Is it more of a British company than it was at merger? Buckles shrugs. 'A lot of the Danish shareholders have sold out, but that is because the larger ones could invest only in Danish-domiciled businesses, so you did see quite an exit late last year. That's why the share price went soft. If you exclude our chairman, who is Danish and has a large shareholding, only 20% Danish shareholding is left. So we are UK-listed, but with strong Danish representation.'

And has it played well with the City? Buckles nods. 'I have spent a lot of time communicating over the last 18 months, doing joint presentations with Lars. I think it has been OK. There haven't been any misconceptions, but there hasn't been huge excitement about it either. I think the service sector has just become unglamorous. We are a bit "late-cyclical", as they describe us. If there is a recession, we are one of the last to suffer; but we are seeing signs of improvement in Europe. And we are happy with the synergies and the strategic rationale, and that's been factored into our significant re-rating. Shares were 100p before merger; now they're up to 140p.

'I think what people are waiting for,' he adds, 'is to see if we can deliver our numbers in the next 12 to 18 months, and see if integration is going as well as we say.'

The money saved from post-merger synergies, he says, is likely to be invested in new acquisitions, probably nothing too big, just additions to where Group 4 Securicor already has a toehold in a local market. 'Bolt-ons are very earnings-enhancing,' says Buckles, 'and we have got the ability to take on more debt to bulk up some of the businesses where we have a reasonable position.'

Then there are the major countries where Group 4 Securicor would like to start operations. 'We need to get into Spain, Portugal, Australia and Brazil, and we need to build up electronic security. We have got a reasonable start, but I think we need to invest in alarms, CCTV and access control.'

And there's the expected growth in electronic tagging to be exploited. 'We have 8,000 tagged prisoners run by us in this country,' he says. 'The UK is the biggest market and the only one with full service, but we are large in the US too - probably number two there.'

Other countries are studying the possibilities for tagging, and the market is expected to grow rapidly as many conclude it is a better option than prison. 'It could be in three, five or 10 years, but there are a lot of big strategic reasons for being in tagging.'

And prisons? 'Yeah, we manage one prison in the UK and seven youth offender establishments in the US, and we want more. We have made a conscious decision to keep that side of the business in the merger,' says Buckles. 'We have capability in two of the biggest geographic markets, and if any other country shows signs of moving down that line (privatising its prison services), then we can bring them to the UK and show them what's going on. We see it as a possible major growth area.'

He talks through the options so clinically, with a matter-of-fact briskness, that it's easy to think he is just chatting through yet another back-office service. But of course it isn't: the prison service is part of the justice system, and most countries in the world feel it should not be allowed near any commercial influence. That, you suspect, is a debate from which both Group 4 and Securicor have long since moved on. For executives such as Buckles, running prisons probably seems little different from providing manned security to government installations.

Does he ever have moral doubts about what his business gets involved in? 'Yeah, of course,' he says, clasping his hands, 'that's why we are careful to draw the line at the markets we operate in. There are a lot of places in the world where we could grow fast, but we don't because we have a strong way of doing business.'

Such as where? He narrows his eyes thoughtfully. 'Russia. There is huge opportunity there, but not many customers we can do business with legitimately.' Why? 'Let's just say there are different levels to the economy there.' He puffs out his cheeks, then laughs. 'Oh God, I'll probably get shot now!'

But there are other, thornier, issues waiting to ensnare the new Group 4 Securicor boss. Wackenhut is involved in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over pay with US trade unionists representing security guards, which could spill over into Europe. The union has circulated negative publicity about security breaches at installations manned by Wackenhut; the company, in turn, is suing the union.

Last month, union activists made threats to disrupt Buckles' first AGM in London this summer. They know that Group 4 Securicor has been careful to downplay its ownership of Wackenhut, which has a number of US government contracts. The subsidiary needs to appear as American as possible to maintain those contracts, and is run semi-autonomously.

'The fact that it's British-owned could be an issue,' agrees Buckles, 'but it has kept its name and management. It's got a strong service mentality and a great management team, and its customers are strong referencers.'

The irony is that Buckles normally has natural appeal to frontline staff. 'Nick's very inclusive, not hierarchical at all,' says one. 'He also understands that in a business like ours, which is a service organisation, keeping frontline people engaged is very important.'

That ability to relate to frontline staff comes in part from his background. The younger son of an Essex policeman - 'chief inspector, uniformed, ran our local police station' - Buckles grew up imbued with law enforcement. 'My dad was just a good cop, respected by the troops,' he says.

His parents - his mum was a hospital administrator - were never particularly ambitious for him and he was no academic star. His big brother went to grammar school, while he went to the comprehensive. 'The grammar school stopped taking people,' he says.

When I ask about his business studies course, he emphasises that it wasn't at university but at polytechnic - his point being that he didn't start in business as a highly qualified whizzkid. He succeeded because Securicor is a meritocratic environment - you get on if you're good, regardless of how many exams you've passed - and that, you imagine, is a message he likes to keep sending out.

But he was also lucky, he admits, in that when he joined, he had a job that immediately sent him around the company and gave him access to senior managers.

'My job was to design a system to assess the contract profitability of all our cash-in-transit contracts in the UK. It was very hard in the UK to set a level and hope to make money when you did a contract, and the cash-in-transit business was loss-making despite having a strong market position. But I read every trip-sheet and designed a programme to do the processing. We had to go to every branch across the country; they had to complete the documentation. An incredible amount of work had to go into it.

'I had to present to all the branch managers, and in some meetings where there were no senior managers present I got quite a lot of abuse. But the important thing for me was that I was heavily backed by senior management to get it done, and getting it done meant we put a few million in profit back into the organisation.'

After that, the rise of Buckles was assured. He moved from projects to management, eventually becoming director of cash services in the UK. His skills in problem-solving, he says, are just rooted in common sense. 'It's about getting the right people in the right place, and tightening up an operation.'

But it must be more than that? 'Well, I think I am good at organising things in a way so that everyone understands what we have to do, and what we are trying to achieve. Then making sure we have the right process to ensure we achieve what we want.'

Like organising a football team? 'Yeah, but sometimes you have got to do things a bit differently. However well you plan things, sometimes you just have to do things to create an impression, like putting in a tackle: you don't know if you are going to win the ball, but ...'

He makes a face - perhaps we're stretching the sporting analogy too far.

Does he think teams need to get on with each other? Some say the best teams are full of opposites who would never be friends but have a mutual respect for each other. That doesn't sound like Securicor.

'No. I think team-building is very important and everyone has to be like-minded. You have to create an environment where people are challenged, and everyone has to have their own views as an individual. But I do think it important that everyone gets on, otherwise you don't have an environment where people can be open and look forward to coming into work.'

But does he think his senior executives may be discouraged by his youth? In big organisations, when a young executive gets to the top, ambitious colleagues often leave fast.

'Look,' says Buckles, 'I was MD of the UK cash service at 34, and that was a £150 million business. Everyone was older than me, and I've never really thought about it. The key issue is to make sure the businesses continue to improve. So long as they continue to improve, that gives you a nice base to do other things.'

How does he relax? He sighs. Well, there are those cars to collect and a bit of football to follow. He was brought up a West Ham fan, living just down the Thames from Upton Park, and yes, it has been miserable recently, and no, he is not joining one of the groups circling the club, hoping to take it over. But he was approached. He's just not interested - he goes only two or three times a season.

And he hasn't played football in a bit. Why? 'Lethargy, really,' he says. And he's not sure he'll play in any of Securicor's internal tournaments again, either. Too much sycophantic passing to the boss? He laughs. 'More like passing me off the pitch! It was pretty rough. I had to pretend I was someone else in the end.'

But he's laughing as though he secretly enjoyed it. There is an easy charm to Buckles that's really rather winning. When I ask him that motivation question, apart from an attack of the 'blimeys', he has an almost comical struggle to put together an answer.

'I think it is about creating something ... No, that's not the right way of putting it, it's a very difficult question, really ... I couldn't say ... I mean, I could make up something bland, but don't really want to ... I mean, it's funny, it's not the money for me, it's more the challenge ... The intellectual challenge and the people challenge - yunno, the people in the group.'

His communications director, anxious to help, chips in: 'It gets under your skin.'

'Yeah,' says Buckles finally, 'it does.'

Then he checks his watch and says he has to go. 'Blimey,' he says again, shaking my hand. 'I've not done a interview like this before. I feel I have been laid bare.' And he offers another laddish smile and makes a dash for the door.

THREE TOUGH CHALLENGES FACING BUCKLES

1. Ensuring the merger of Group4Falck and Securicor is completed

smoothly and brings real benefits

2. Pushing the newly merged group into areas of the world where it has

no presence: Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Australia

3. Challenging Swedish-owned Securitas for the world number one slot

BUCKLES IN A MINUTE

1961: Born 1 February. Educated Gable Comprehensive, Coringham, and

Coventry Polytechnic

1982: Trainee, Dowty Engineering

1984: Analyst, Avon Cosmetics

1985: Project accountant, Securicor

1996: MD, cash service division, Securicor

1999: CEO, security division, Securicor

2002: CEO, Securicor Group

2004: Deputy CEO, Group 4 Securicor

2005: CEO, Group 4 Securicor

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