John Proctor had just finished the first part of his lecture when a familiar thump shook the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan.
“Everyone knows what it is,” Mr. Proctor recalled.
A car bomb had gone off and hit an American convoy on the route the former soldier had just travelled in an armoured sports utility vehicle. It was 2009 and Mr. Proctor had come from Ottawa to give survival tips to a room full of diplomats in Kabul.
Without missing a beat, he made the explosion part of the presentation.
The envoys, many of them young bureaucrats on their first overseas assignments, had plenty of in-house security - but this lesson was about what to do should they ever be captured outside the wire.
“We explained that a car bomb is often just a precursor to something else,” he says. “Once the bomb goes off, everyone just leaps out of their cars - you're vulnerable now. It doesn't mean there aren't other people out there who aren't going to grab you.”
Potential threats occur on the streets of Kabul about as often, and as quickly, as Mr. Proctor can come up with ways to mitigate them. He served 20 years in the British and Canadian military, devoting much of that time to imagining worst-case scenarios for top brass and senior bureaucrats. Though he's no longer a soldier, Mr. Proctor is still doing it today.
Last year, the 44-year-old father of two started his own security consultancy, which brings a different set of risks than the ones he faced in the field. Integrated Human Risk Solutions ( iHR Solutions) helps companies prepare their employees to work in an increasingly volatile and dangerous world.
Headquartered in Ottawa, iHR's six-person team complements Mr. Proctor's military expertise with business knowledge, selling lessons in how to deal with overseas crises to clients with employees all over the world.
He won't disclose financials, but he says the consultancy is breaking even and poised to grow after only a year in business.
As Mr. Proctor points out, it's not only concern for the well-being of their employees that motivates companies to seek his services - legal liabilities and insurance premiums skyrocket when workers are sent overseas without adequate training.
You need only to look at recent headlines to see how fast the situation on the ground can change in a hot zone, he says. With relatively little warning, for example, the revolution in Libya prompted Ottawa to evacuate hundreds of Canadian workers from the country, though many decided not to wait and fled on their own.
“The markets opened up,” Mr. Proctor says. “Suddenly people are interested in having training [for a situation]that goes beyond what they thought it would.”
Former soldiers have always traded on their expertise to sell safety where anarchy reigns. But even the most battle-hardened commandos are humbled by the challenges of starting a company.
Running a small business is not for the faint of heart. Security is a crowded, competitive field that forces ex-soldiers to navigate market niches with an agility that wasn't often needed in the bureaucratic leviathans from which they hail.
Trying to find ways to stand out from the competition can seem counterintuitive, given that their past bosses prided themselves on stamping out individualism.
And how do you market yourself when, in many cases, discretion is a necessity? To say nothing about acquiring a new set of business skills and jargon.
Clients can be more demanding than drill sergeants, a realization that doesn't come easily.
“'So you can jump out of an airplane at 40,000 feet. So you can kill people with six different weapons and blah, blah, blah. ...I'm a mining CEO. What are you going to do for me?'“ says Alan Bell, a British special-forces soldier turned entrepreneur, mimicking the typically skeptical reaction he's had from clients that he eventually won over.
Mr. Bell says his line of work is nothing like serving in an army. He recalls being on the ground in Afghanistan recently, working with local security forces to safeguard infrastructure-construction projects.
“You're on your own,” Mr. Bell says, bluntly describing the difference between military and private work. “If you haven't brought all the ammunition you need to fight your way out of a situation, you're going to die. And because you are dead, your company is going to crash and burn.”
An established player who's now something of an industry in his own right, Mr. Bell has spent the past 20 years building his brand, Toronto-based Globe Risk Management, after first cutting his teeth with another security contractor.