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John Proctor, founder of iHR Solutions (LUTHER CAVERLY FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
John Proctor, founder of iHR Solutions (LUTHER CAVERLY FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

REPORT ON SMALL BUSINESS MAGAZINE

For ex-soldiers turned consultants, a different kind of risky business Add to ...

Mr. Bell started out in the 1990s by training bodyguards for Arab royalty and putting together security teams to guard far-flung mines. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, he started advising nuclear power stations and airports on how to shield themselves from terrorist threats. Lately, he's been busy devising strategies to protect shipping vessels from pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

“I don't have to go out and beat the bushes any more. It comes to me,” Mr. Bell says of his success, though he hastens to add that he's at his computer at all hours putting together business proposals.

Mr. Bell remains his own best marketing tool, though over the years he has surrounded himself with other ex-military types whose ranks rise and fall with the workload. Given the elasticity of demand in the industry, there's no need to keep a standing army of staff around - security can be a multimillion-dollar sector when times are good, but for many players it is feast or famine.

“Some guys who get a lot of cash flow, you know what they do? Buy houses. Ferraris. Go to Club Med,” Mr. Bell says. “So they piss all the money away, instead of accumulating for the downtime.”

“While a military career teaches many extremely valuable skills,” says Wayne King, a professor at Memorial University, “marketing, managing finances and the processes involved in starting a business are generally not among them.” To get around these deficits, his business school has launched a program that teams entrepreneurially minded soldiers with chartered accountants.

At a wedding a few years ago, while he was still in the military, Mr. Proctor found himself talking to Chris Skaarup, a serial entrepreneur, about the likelihood of private citizens being kidnapped in war zones. Compared to the Canadian bureaucrats and soldiers to whom he was teaching captivity survival at the time, independent workers in hot spots such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia were actually in greater danger.

What's more, journalists, diplomats and charity workers often fall into the trap of thinking their professions shield them from risk, and are averse to travelling with a lot of security. Mr. Proctor saw an opportunity – he believed more could be done to prevent such scenarios.

“If you can do better, there's a market for this,” Mr. Skaarup told him. “He had to explain this to me,” Mr. Proctor recalls.

Not long after that, Mr. Proctor quit the military to try his hand at teaching civilians about safety and captivity survival, and he brought in Mr. Skaarup as his company's CEO.

Partnering with a business veteran made it a lot easier for Mr. Proctor to concentrate on the core consulting work, which he describes as “soft skills for a hard environment.”

iHR Solutions now has several clients. Some are in the public sector: Mr. Proctor walks government aid workers through role-playing exercises on what can happen after they've been dispatched to dangerous places. He's also courted private-sector clients who, to date, include at least one bank and some industry associations, as well as mid-sized businesses.

Transformix Engineering, a 90-employee company based in Kingston that hired Mr. Proctor to train its workers, sells specialized assembly-line machines around the world. “Because our team travels to South America, I was quite disturbed by what I was reading – stories about the safety aspect of international travels,” says Peng-Sang Cau, the company's president. She says that after meeting Mr. Proctor, she brought him into the boardroom for a day's worth of employee seminars.

His lectures are far more about street smarts and diplomacy than teaching anyone how to be Rambo.

One recent session for a government client was enlivened by the attendance of a Canadian government employee who had been held hostage for months by a terrorist group overseas. The man recounted to the group how his captors “were very happy that he prayed, and respected him for it,” Mr. Proctor says. “He said that if he had been an atheist or agnostic, he would have been killed.”

While iHR Solutions is hardly the only company offering such lessons, Mr. Proctor says that the years he spent within the federal bureaucracy give him a leg up in the Canadian market.

“The key feature, I felt, for our organization was our knowledge of the Canadian system,” Mr. Proctor says.

Too many Canadian companies, he explains, learn captivity survival from American contractors who try to shock-and-awe their clients by staging fake “abductions” at the first opportunity. Mr. Proctor dismisses the competition as hopelessly behind the times.

“Where's the mental coping mechanisms?” he asks. “The bag-on-the-head, shout-at-people stuff - that went out 12, 15 years ago.”

Spoken like a true businessman.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Report on Small Business magazine.

John Proctor has since left Integrated Human Risk Solutions to become a director of consulting at the Ottawa office of Montreal-based multinational CGI Group Inc.

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