To some they are the latest accessory, along with a gold Rolex or S reg BMW. To others, close protection staff, or bodyguards, are becoming a corporate necessity.
Back in June, the president of Chanel decided to visit Italy. Chanel's security thought that the trip might entail some risk, so they called in Alberto Gallazzi, an Italian 'close protection specialist' - what used to be known as a bodyguard. 'She doesn't really like bodyguards,' says Gallazzi, 'but she doesn't decide. Most of the time these people don't realise how important they are - but the people behind her at the company do and they call us. Y'know it scares me - I'm walking in and she's the president of Chanel.'
Alongside pop stars and politicians, it is now fairly common to see business top brass accompanied by executive close protection staff. Their duties range from detecting bugs to ensuring their charges stay alive. Actually, says Dave Roberts, president of US based British American Security Consultants, corporate types are pretty good to work for: 'You can say to the head of a Fortune-500 company "You're not going down that street" and they're fine about it. Whereas a well-known singer will say "I want a KFC" and then insist on getting it themselves.'
Business executives may be preferable to celebrities, but this says little in itself: after all, Sir Dominic Cadbury rarely has his jacket torn off by screaming 12-year-old girls. More to the point is: do executives need close protection at all? It depends not only on who they are and what their company is up to but also where they are. A relatively obscure FTSE-100 chief executive can stroll around the City all day with impunity.
But wandering through, say, certain areas of Azerbaijan or Georgia is probably not best done alone. Equally, if the company is embroiled in some sort of controversy or the individual enjoys an unusually high profile he or she may want a little 'company'.
The comparison with those higher-profile groups who are likely to get shot at, kidnapped or to have less-than-desirable forms of attention lavished upon them is instructive here. Like celebrities and politicians, the corporate top brass is wealthy and 'important' (or at least important enough that someone will pay to prevent extremities arriving in the post). But unlike celebs and politicians most business executives are near invisible: everyone can name a few top government officials and any number of 'entertainment workers'. But ask the average person to name five business chiefs and they'll be lucky to get beyond Richard and Anita. Business people are not normally a tabloid mainstay and relative public indifference makes for a low level of exposure. For those who are not natural egomaniacs or exhibitionists this can only be a good thing: 'Anonymity,' says Roberts, 'is always better than the alternative.' Moreover, anonymity is something that even the most important company chiefs in the world may enjoy. A little over a year ago Gallazzi was looking after Panasonic's world and European presidents in Italy. 'For the Japanese,' he explains, 'it was a big event and for them it was very important to have someone to follow (the two chief executives), but I can say that the threat level was very low. Because, for the people in Italy, they looked like normal Japanese going around taking photos of monuments.'
Of course, a businessman's visibility (pace Branson) is largely a function of the media. Michael Baron, external director of the self-explanatorily named Control Risks Group makes an allied point: 'If, say, your chief executive has just made it onto the Sunday Times Rich List and they publish a nice big photo of him he suddenly develops a higher profile.' Using resources such as Companies House anyone with a little determination can dig up a chief executive's address; moreover, among the numerous iffy web sites there are now those set up by 'single issue groups' that specialise in publishing the names and addresses of top business folk. In truth, this kind of attention will often fade soon enough, although former British Gas boss Cedric Brown may feel that celebrity status lingers interminably.
Paradoxically, any security employed is likely to raise the user's profile, though some people seem to actively welcome this. It is unlikely, for instance, that Mohamed Al Fayed is wholly oblivious to the attention his 12-strong entourage attracts. Still, in certain parts of the world businessmen consider it de rigeur to have a couple of 16-stoners at their sides. This is particularly apparent in Russia where the reason for it is a combination of a genuine need (shootings are routine) and the current gaudy gangster trappings favoured by wealthy Muscovites.
It is also catching on in the States, where, in some cases, it is just about vulgar ostentation. As Baron says, 'It can be as much a status symbol as buying a car or yacht. It's obvious that this highly visible security costs money.' But, he continues, 'on the other hand, it can buy peace and reassurance as long as its effective, the people are properly trained and are not just there because they're very large.' Of course those who adopt this do make themselves more of a target: 'You can have highly visible security, but then you're highly visible - you obviously have something that needs protecting.'
Most respectable western businessmen and women (if 'at risk') will usually eschew bodyguards who conform to the popular public stereotypes in favour of rather more discrete protection. Explains Roberts, 'They look for someone who the head of the company can introduce as their "executive assistant" and who will be regarded as such. Your bodyguard needs to be someone who will blend in the principal's community. Large individuals with a broken nose and dark glasses are out. You want someone who can articulate without grunting but if the chips are down will respond accordingly.' Gallazi agrees: 'In the past it was a big guy - you'd get martial artists, ex-members of Mossad, the Foreign Legion, whatever. Now it's more brains than muscle - most of our job is prevention, prevention, prevention. You don't walk around with a machine gun in your hand.'
Gallazi's CV backs this up: he was once the Italian kick boxing champion, but he is also speaks three languages; he's qualified in small arms and edge weapons - but is also PC literate. So, true to the spirit of the '90s, being a bodyguard is much more about using intelligence and information to minimise the risk of an incident happening than being able to react if one does. Gallazi's duties might involve making several hotel reservations and choosing one at the very last minute and ensuring that sensitive information is secure - as well as the more obvious checking for bugs and bombs and being able to use firearms.
Having said all this, Britain is a relatively safe country - especially, as Gallazi points out, 'now they've taken all your weapons away'. Celebrated public figures like Branson may need a few assistants, as might those whose companies attract the attention of potentially violent groups like animal liberationists. However, businessmen and women in general are only really 'at risk' in the sense that any wealthy person is. This goes for the whole of Western Europe, except southern Italy and Sicily.
Even so, protection and risk assessment are big business. Dave Abbot, director of Defence Systems Limited (DSL), says that the real danger spots are Eastern Europe and the Confederation of Independent States (CIS), where crime is the principal risk, South America (kidnapping) and Africa (minor wars).
The US, despite the gun-toting horror stories we hear is really much like Britain, just more so: there is little danger unless visitors do something naive and ill-advised like jogging in Central Park after dark. 'You'd be surprised how many people do that kind of thing,' says Abbot.
That businesses like DSL prosper attests to the compelling reasons to do business in genuinely dangerous areas. While a software or rug-making business can set up almost anywhere, companies in some sectors have little choice: British Petroleum and Mobil executives do not hang around Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, because they like the beaches. Oil, gas, diamonds, gold - unfortunately all these highly desirable extractables are often to be found beneath countries which are currently staging re-enactments of age-old conflicts using ground-to-air missiles. Moreover, says, Baron, 'Even if a country's safe the discovery of a huge deposit can raise old tensions - it's often called "the curse of oil."'
There are also the emerging markets, particularly in Eastern Europe - places that forward-thinking companies want and need to be established in. Although compared to Africa or South America, these are far more like the West, unfamiliar visitors can often find real trouble. Again, it can vary with sector: a company looking to muscle in on the Mafia-dominated alcohol and tobacco industries is likely to run into entrenched opposition.
As Abbot says of Russia, 'It's not unknown for an ex-patriate to be shot as a warning. There was an American company a couple of years ago which got into bed with the wrong people.' Things went very well for over a year with the company showing (surprisingly given the time scale) a small profit. This, he adds, should have set alarm bells ringing. Eventually a dubious invoice was queried, the Americans realised that something was amiss and shortly afterwards the chairman was murdered as he got out of a lift. He was replaced by a considerably less conscientious Russian. 'We were then called in to investigate and they were in it up to their necks. They asked us for help too late, they should have done it before they moved in.' Shortly after DSL finished its investigation a car bomb exploded outside one of the company's shops in Azerbaijan and the company was forced to withdraw from the CIS altogether.
Gallazi is similarly blunt about the perils for all concerned in Russia: 'I knew two (close protection) teams who worked for the same man and they both had people shot - one of the guys last year and one in '95 - they got killed, they worked for the same association as I do.' He himself has been fortunate: 'I see a lot of violence but thank God never gunfire - I hope I never do. I was cut a couple of months ago but that's something you are trained to deal with.' He prefers to avoid firearms but 'sometimes the threat level is very high and you cannot just work with your hands, though I try to'.
Peculiarly though, the biggest single risk in Russia, according to DSL, is traffic accidents. Locals in oil burning Ladas who see westerners cruising the Muscovite boulevards in a flashy, western car will sometimes crash into them deliberately in order to demand money. Russian road rage is quite something: 'You get people hitting each other with spanners.' DSL provides a 24-hour call out service for its clients because traffic disputes can be terrifying for European or American businessmen and their families, the vast majority of whom do not speak Russian. Abbot recalls one such incident that involved a local Mafia boss who sustained whiplash - impressively, it was resolved through the normal insurance channels.
There is also the question of who to protect: there are easier ways to get at a business than by, say, kidnapping the chairman. If someone, such as a disgruntled former employee, is targeting a business, says Baron, 'they may not be too choosy about who they target. As far as they're concerned, they're after XYZ plc and incidents further down the chain can cause just as many problems.' This affected Shell during the Brent Spar debacle.
Here, the chairman and headquarters may have been subject to demonstrations and public displeasure but, on the Continent, it was the filling stations that were petrol bombed. 'What we do,' Baron continues, 'is look at the wider picture, not just one individual person - put it in their business context and a social and political context as well. How much security you need and whether top people need bulletproof cars goes back to the initial risk assessment.'
Where protection is definitely required, as with Versace, there will usually be a team of four or five that works solely for the family and follows all their movements. The corporate side of things is dealt with by a more conventional security firm. While the two will liaise, and their remits may occasionally overlap, they are effectively separate. As Roberts says, those who look after the family should know everything: 'If one's looking to target an individual, one looks for the weakest link - wife, kids - they might even snatch the wife's lhasa apso and send an ear back.' In this country, such incidents remain rare but, says Baron, executives are nonetheless targets: 'Bill Gates and the custard pie - there have been a lot of incidents like that. People hold grudges and powerful people have enemies - then there's the power junkies. Certain individuals like to see big companies get into a panic and say "I did that". Mostly these are just silly, disturbing things, but some top people may feel very threatened.'
IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR TROUBLE ...
COUNTRY POLITICAL RISK SECURITY RISK TRAVEL RISK
Afghanistan extreme extreme extreme
Burundi extreme extreme extreme
Congo high high extreme
(high-risk areas: north of Goma, Bakavu-Uvira routes SW of Bukavu)
Eritrea low extreme extreme
Ethiopia (Tigre) medium extreme extreme
Georgia high high extreme
Lebanon extreme extreme extreme
(South of Awali River)
Russia extreme extreme extreme
Sierra Leone high extreme extreme
(Freetown, Eastern province)
Somalia extreme extreme extreme
Sri Lanka high extreme extreme
Sudan (south) extreme extreme extreme
Extreme means that the government has more or less ceased to function, the
economy is in ruins, and civil war could be underway or imminent.
Clearly these are not conditions conducive to business - protection is
difficult or impossible to arrange, travel is extremely dangerous and any
foreign companies already there should look very seriously at pulling out.
SOURCE: Control Risks
IS THIS GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND TURNING INTO CRUEL BRITANNIA?
Most of Britain's business elite - quite rightly - do not worry too much about violence on home ground. This is a sensible attitude: despite newspaper horror stories this country remains a relatively safe place.
That said, there is no reason for complacency. Wealthy business people make tempting targets for sophisticated criminal and opportunist bag-snatcher alike.
The main problem is that robbery, traumatic enough in itself, is increasingly accompanied by violence. Earlier this year, for example, Sir Patrick Sergeant, a 74-year-old businessman, and his wife were attacked outside their north London home: not only was her £30,000 engagement ring stolen, but he sustained a fractured ankle and required plastic surgery.
In a similar vein, in 1997, a Greek businessman in London was stabbed and relieved of his £11,000 watch; while RyanAir's Tony Ryan was beaten and robbed by assailants who had waited for him in his Chelsea home. Indeed, last year saw a spate of such incidents. Carlton's Michael Green was slashed across the face at his Mayfair home and jewellery, cash and credit cards were taken. Lady Weidenfeld, the wife of publishing magnate Weidenfeld, although not hurt, had £110,000 worth of jewellery stolen on the doorstep of her Chelsea flat.
Two years ago, also in Chelsea, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his wife were ambushed by their house and had a £650,000 ring stolen.
Even more distressing was an attack on Stephen Burke, the head of a City recruitment company, at his Hertfordshire home. The thieves took £15,000 worth of watches and threatened the family with abduction and murder.
Finally, last year's attack on the home of Sir Desmond Pitcher, then the United Utilities chairman, was perhaps most chilling of all in that it was not financially motivated. While Pitcher was on holiday, the house was firebombed. A caller told police. 'All fat cats are terrorist targets.'
The common thread running through many of these incidents is that they took place at the victims' homes. Their attackers knew their movements, where they lived, and that they were worth robbing. This does not mean that every FTSE-350 chief should run out and get a bodyguard, but it does suggest that an increased awareness of attention to security could substantially reduce the risk of it happening to them.
HEINOUS CRIMES IN FOREIGN CLIMES
Kidnappings are very rare in this country. This is largely because it is a crime which requires organisation; and in recent years, the only large-scale UK criminal organisation has been the IRA, whose members have agreed to a cease-fire. Elsewhere, things are rather different. On the Continent, kidnappings are more commonplace. Naturally business people - and their families - make good targets. Even if they cannot afford hefty ransoms, their companies may be able to.
Kidnappings so far this year have included the son of a German businessman (who cannot be named for legal reasons).
Fortunately, he was released and the police arrested the kidnappers. Less fortunate was Giuseppe Soffianti, a 62-year-old Italian businessman who was freed in February after being kidnapped last year. Before receiving the $2.75 million ransom, his captors withheld his heart medicine and sent part of his ear to a television station.
In Spain, the duo who snatched Anabel Segura, a businessman's daughter, from a fashionable Madrid street in 1993 were also jailed this year, for 39 years apiece. They had hanged her even before issuing a ransom demand.
Likewise, 1996 saw quite a few abductions. Italian businessman, Ferruccio Checci was freed by his Sardinian captors upon the payment of a $4 million ransom. In Germany the body of abducted multimillionaire Jakub Fiszman was found in woods outside Frankfurt.
On a more positive note, Marshall Wais, a 79-year-old American Steel tycoon was kidnapped in San Francisco. Upon the payment of the $500,000 ransom, he was released and his abductors considerately gave him $20 to take a cab home. Most kidnaps do not have such cute endings. If a group is prepared to kidnap someone, they are quite likely prepared to kill them, too.