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.
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.