This year, The Shield Guarding Company Ltd won the Security Excellence Awards Best Security Guarding Company. In an exclusive interview Editor, Bobby Logue spoke to the Managing Director of The Shield Guarding Company Ltd, Rob Platais.

We have to start with The Shield Guarding Company Ltd (Shield) winning the Security Excellence Awards Guarding Company of the Year. Why did the judges select The Shield Guarding Company, and how did it feel?

It was a great night, the whole evening but especially how it ended. We were very happy to win the award. Culturally the company has always been very modest, perhaps to a fault. We have never really gone in for this sort of thing much before. Perhaps we should have started sooner! I thought it especially pleasing to see the judges recognise what we feel we do well. They noted our staff turnover, commitment to vocational training and client retention as being key to our success. In our industry a staff turnover of less than 10% is not something you see very often.  These indicators are the result of our ethos, wider policies, management skills and points of focus. We have always worked hard to provide the best possible conditions for our staff and continue to be focussed in putting the client’s needs first. We were delighted to see these efforts recognised by the judging panel. There has been a big smile on everyone’s face in head office since the announcement and it is now clear to us why previous winners were so keen to shout about it. It certainly feels good.

In a recent study Logue Corporate estimates the security guarding industry has more than halved over the past five years. A recent trend is security guarding companies failing due to the economic conditions and unsustainable margins. How is Shield adapting to these factors in the current climate?

Across the industry prices were competitive even before the financial crises took effect. The recent market conditions however, have seen us tender for contracts for companies which are enforcing wage freezes and in some cases making redundancies. These firms are searching for cost reductions wherever they can find them and unsurprisingly expect lower margins from their contractors. We are not immune to the effects of this but key to us is working with our clients whilst sustaining our standards. This is consistent with the relationship focus of Shield. It is becoming clear, however, that as the pressure on prices continues certain other companies may begin to fail, this is particularly so as the cost of regulation and  employment benefits, notably increased holiday pay, are incurred by contractors.  In saying that, we have found, we are buffeted from this to an extent. Shield has always been run in accordance with sound operational and financial principles, we were strong going into the recession and we will be strong coming out on the other side. Our clients appreciate the benefits of longer term relationships built on high levels of client contact, commitment and service emphasis. We have certainly been responsive to the needs of clients which might be suffering at this time and have been keen to adapt our solutions to suit. Whatever the conditions of the wider economy, there remains genuine security concerns for firms which will need addressing, currently, perhaps even more so. For high-profile targets and those businesses viewing security as a high priority, the retaining of a top tier provider is still a must. In those areas of the market where security is deemed a necessity but not a priority by clients, the effects are more keenly felt.

Whatever the prevailing conditions we have been keen to keep pushing forward and focus on investing in our own infrastructure. As seen by our recent investment of over £300,000 in our HR, training and administration centre and cumulative spend in recent years exceeding £500,000 in IT and developing our control centre. What has not been at all affected at Shield is the consistency of our ethos and our team. With the addition of those we promote as we grow, I still see the same faces when I arrive in the morning as I did when I first joined 14 years ago. It’s still a unique atmosphere and great place to work and so providing we concentrate on providing the best service we can, we are convinced we will get through to the other side of this crunch in a stronger position than when we entered.

The Security Industry Authority (SIA) and the Approved Contractors Scheme (ACS) have been political and industry hot issues since inception. Debates continue about the effects and future of industry regulation. Has Regulation affected your business and what role should the regulator play in the future?

We have always felt that good regulation is of benefit. As was no doubt the case with other high-end suppliers, the undertakings required to gain ACS status were things we were already doing. The process further provided us with a framework within which we could seek to constantly improve and to incorporate procedural best practice within the fabric of the organisation. Therefore the forcing of other firms to have to catch up and place the resultant expenditure within their margins was only good for us. The cost of licensing our officers, something we absorb entirely, was the only real change this process initially entailed.

If there has been any disappointment with the scheme it is that it does not go far enough and there is perhaps a feeling that there is insufficient differentiation between companies actively seeking constant improvement and those satisfied to merely retain an ACS registration. We are therefore keen on the ACS scoring system becoming public and expanded, the numbers aren’t quite enough. We believe that reports publicly available on the web should form part of the external auditing and reporting process. These would refer to the company ethos and culture, strengths and the areas for improvement. The result would leave end users, staff, shareholders, clients and prospective clients better informed. Obviously it would be beneficial to us as a high scoring company, but it would, in my opinion, assist in making audited quality a more tangible feature to better compete with pricing as a motivation for award of contract. This would surely help improve standards across the industry and also provide a stronger incentive based tool with which the SIA gets to regulate the industry.

The scoring, as it is, at least gives some independent indication to the stakeholders as to the performance capabilities of your company. As such Shield has worked hard to get the best from this scheme and was therefore very happy when our recent audit assessed score of +131 out of the possible 158. Any opportunity we have to openly compare our service we will take. We are happy to open our doors and compete through an independent system. Again, the more the better. I for one would also advocate seeing the SIA use its influence and authority as part of the government to better consolidate the various sectors that deal with security. We hear of a ‘wider police community’ but we rarely see it on the ground. It may be a trivial example but what benefit is it to anybody that having paid a congestion charge in London the licensed patrol officer whilst responding to an emergency alarm call receives a parking ticket? The advent of the SIA was a good thing and has bought positive benefits to the industry. There is more to do.

Technology is rapidly changing the security guarding industry, how have Shield been able to utilise this?

We have been keen to exploit new technologies to drive back office efficiencies. The greater the investment there, the more management time is available for face to face meetings with clients and staff. In this area we have been working with Innovise as our software developer. When we first purchased their system in 2002 it was strictly a rostering program. The efficiencies gained by fully computerising this aspect of the service were clear and we were keen to expand the capabilities to other areas. Investing heavily on development, we have seen the system expand to include our entire financial and HR applications. The advancements made have been of major benefit both to internal efficiencies within Shield and the service clients receive. These developments form a continuing process. As outside technology advances, so does the potential for new innovative solutions. The improvement in handheld unit technology, PDAs, has meant that their use as security industry tools has become a practical reality. Shield has been quick to realise this potential and exploit it. Now the option of fully adaptable, live electronic reporting of patrols and incidences are increasingly available to the client.

Finally, its Crystal Ball time, how do you see the future?

Making what assumptions we are able to regarding market conditions, which are not that many at present, we are very confident about our future both as a company and as a leading member of this industry. The requirement for security is only ever increasing as is the demand for higher levels of service to match the increased threats. There are some trends that seem to be evolving and should be identified. The first regards the specialisation of sectors and their requisite skill sets. At Shield for example we have segmented our Shopping Centre and Front of House Reception service businesses. For shopping centres we recruited from outside the company and brought on board an experienced retail property management specialist to head the division. All staff within these segments work exclusively within the sectors and the staffing, training and development schedules have been adapted accordingly.  Clients are increasingly feeling that their sectors require specific solutions and we agree with them.

Similarly there are increasing numbers of clients who have management responsibility for property portfolios comprising multiple sites and are seeking to appoint service providers to operate in all aspects of security on that portfolio. Because of our experience and ability to tailor a security service solution and to deliver what we promise to, these are of particular interest. An appointed senior manager with his team takes individual control over the whole contract and all the various services included within it. This approach simplifies internal communication, and coordination of resources and specialisms, whilst providing the client a single point of contact. There is a clear rise in the use of total FM services. This is not the first time this has occurred and it seems it is becoming a regular cycle in the evolution of outsourcing. A concern is the potential for service levels to fall in the longer term as the structures set up drive for savings that are realistically not there. We are specialists at what we do and are happy to work with other likeminded specialists. We keep things pretty simple at Shield and stick to the basics. Management focus is on the client and on treating our staff as we would wish to be treated. The quality and history of our client relationships is the principle source of our competitive advantage that ultimately cannot be copied.