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June 14, 2010

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Profile: John Legge (director, PCL Whitehall Security Group)

“The proudest moment of my life was being selected for The Metropolitan Police Service cadets,” urged PCL Whitehall Security Group director John Legge as we sat down to chat at the company’s Wallington headquarters in the heart of Surrey’s commuter belt.

“At 16 years of age, I knew absolutely nothing about the police service but, nevertheless, was selected out of 300 candidates who attended Peel House for education exams and health tests. I subsequently joined an intake of about 20 at the famous Hendon Training School. Many of my raw recruit buddies were academically skilled and way above my basic educational level.”

That said, by his own admission Legge matched them when it came to common sense and sporting skills. A good footballer – he’s a lifetime Chelsea supporter – and all-round athlete, he was soon spotted by those in authority to represent the police service. “In those days, The Met had teams in every sport and those teams played to a high standard.”

Handily, Legge graduated from Hendon and was selected for the CID. Where was he to be operational? Chelsea, Belgravia, Kensington and Notting Hill and The West End Crime Squad, to be precise. He must have impressed, because a place in The Flying Squad at New Scotland Yard was just around the corner.

“I was only 24, but I’d been a prolific ‘thief-taker’ in the five years I’d been in the police.”

Not afraid of a challenge

Wasn’t The Flying Squad another huge step up, though, and yet another major challenge to be confronted?

“As it turned out, my ‘welcome’ to the Squad consisted of an introduction by the brilliant detective chief superintendent Tommy Butler. ‘You’re on 7 Squad. A great team. Watch your back, son,’ he told me, ‘and walk from side to side to avoid the knives. It’s a tough place to work.'”

In those days, The Flying Squad was a 100-strong team of the very best Boys in Blue, all of them hand-picked detectives comprising ten teams of ten officers and three of the finest drivers the police service could muster.

“Competition between the teams was immense,” explained Legge. “These detectives were real professionals, catching criminals, gathering the evidence for prosecution, attending Court and securing convictions.”

Unlike today, of course, where everything is handed to the Crown Prosecution Service – by general consensus a body that tends to lack individuals with anything like the experience of the cunning detective.

“Serving in the CID and on The Flying Squad for some eight years in various ranks taught me all about teamwork, and how best to achieve the highest standards. We were devoted to our job, often to the detriment of our families,” continued Legge in honest fashion.

“I also learned to appreciate the importance of the personal well-being experienced by my colleagues and their families, and how to deal with the highs and lows that day-to-day living has a habit of bringing your way.”

Towards the private sector

In 1977, having risen to the rank of detective chief inspector, Legge still found himself earning “poor money”. By now the immensely proud father of three young children, he was head-hunted by a former colleague who had left ‘The Job’ a year earlier.

“I was offered GB pound 2,500 more per annum than I was earning with the police service, and the conditions were better as well.”

As it turned out, leaving the police service ship wasn’t an option. Legge’s beloved father, himself a retired police inspector, had suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack at the still-young age of 61. John’s parents had only recently retired to Lympstone in Devon.

“As you can imagine, Brian, this experience had a traumatic affect on my life and my mother needed my support.”

In September 1977, Legge left the police service on a pension with an exemplary character reference and – like many a copper before him – determined to use his skills in the private security world. He duly formed a company by the name of Whitehall Security Consultants.

“To be honest, I felt the private sector had more to offer and was in its infancy as far as bespoke crime prevention, detection and risk management work was concerned.”

Initially working with lawyers, insurers and insurance assessors, the company’s portfolio swiftly began to grow and its reputation increased by word of mouth. Not only that, Legge had trebled his annual earnings. Who says private security sector work doesn’t pay?

Retainer as an investigator

A short year later, Legge was approached by an international company to join them on a retainer as an investigator, and to advise management on the thorny issue of how to deter and/or detect the smuggling of diamonds from Angola into Belgium – a criminal trait at the time.

“This was a very interesting project,” enthused Legge, “culminating in the training of Angolan security practitioners at a hotel in Hertfordshire. We taught them search techniques. The courses in English and Portuguese lasted one month, and eventually proved to be of immense value in preventing this type of crime.”

Alas, history tells us that war broke out between the various tribal groups in Angola and, almost at a stroke, all of the top class educational work would soon be undone. However, Legge continued to work with the company for a further 20 years.

In 1981, a major international corporate law firm approached Legge with a view to him taking over its security guarding business. “At that point I knew nothing about security officers or the guarding function, but as the job was small at 118 hours a week I decided to take it on.”

Even then, Legge was looking out for his team. “I remember increasing the security officers’ pay rate to GB pound 4.75 per hour.” At that time this represented very good money.

One of those security officers was Bill Gardner. “A very loyal team player was Bill,” said Legge with a smile. “Always on time. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. He was never sick and helped me enormously’.

However, Legge soon realised that he himself needed to know how to do the job in case of an emergency, and enlisted Gardner to train him and a few other officers for good measure.

“Over the next two years, I gained further business in the security guarding world and had a pretty good working relationship with Group 4, helping them out on short-term contracts. My next success was gaining a major contract with Northern Foods to provide security at its main milk bottling plants in Tooting, Cricklewood and Ruislip.”

Opening of the first dedicated office

By now realising the potential on offer in the guarding world, Legge wasted no time at all in opening his first office in Beckenham High Street, and recruited a former Welsh Guardsman – one David Clark, a life-long friend – as his dedicated operations director.

“Dave was an excellent choice as he soon began to enlist military officers leaving the Armed Services. He recruited Scott Yeats, Magnus McCauley, Trevor Jones MBE and Jim Kelly MBE. These officers were ‘quality’. Young, keen and very smart. Customers soon began to notice the difference when set against what other companies were offering.”

By recruiting the best in the business, Legge’s operation soon carved its own niche and reputation in The City for providing a quality service. At one stage, the company held contracts with six of the Top Ten corporate law firms resident in The Square Mile.

“As new technology arrived, we decided to ensure that our training and pay would be the best in the business, and we introduced then-unrivalled benefits packages,” recalled Legge with an obvious pride.

Those packages included proper training for security officers and dedicated supervisors’ courses, and a free executive private medical scheme with AXA PPP for all members of staff. “That was second to none,” explained Legge. “Unheard of in the security industry, where the majority operated the ‘Bums on Seats’ attitude, hiring on the cheap and neglecting to train.”

There was a downside to this forward-thinking attitude, though, in as far as the company failed to increase turnover to any great degree since operational costs were now that much higher.

Strategy proved to be invaluable

Undaunted, Legge decided to stand by and stick with his philosophy and policy, ensuring that there was not only a properly-trained array of supervisors and line managers in place but also a team of response officers (all of whom were necessarily multi-site trained).

“This strategy proved to be invaluable,” he said. “Although expensive to run, it was a tactic that afforded peace of mind for the customers and ourselves in that we could cover most emergencies and sicknesses.”

It was decided that, for every 100 officers, 14 additional staff would be needed to cover sickness, annual leave and any additional cover required by clients. “Into our charge rate we built eight days x 12 hours fully-paid sick leave, treble time for Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day” [this allowed for the additional costs incurred by staff in getting to and from work during the holiday periods].

According to Legge, the strategy was acceptable to all clients who appreciated the company’s policy of maintaining good working conditions for the staff. No surprise that this resulted in attrition rates sinking below 5% (set against 25% or more for many other security companies).

Whitehall continued to grow and, in the late 1990s, introduced the 42-hour working week (operating a four days on, four days off, four nights, four days off system and two additional shifts allowed per 16-day cycle).

“We produced a bespoke presentation for all clients setting out the benefits of the 42-hour working week for officers with no loss of earnings,” said Legge, whose ideas were way ahead of their time. “The actual cost to the client was around 16.7%.”

Most of the clients accepted his recommendations and, to smooth the path for this, increases were phased in over an 18-month period.

Vetting and special event security

Legge’s company was now providing additional services in the spheres of corporate investigation, vetting and special event coverage.

“We were selected by Martell to manage the VIP sections and Martell Control Centre for security operations at The Grand National,” he explained. “We took our own team up from London for the annual four-day race meeting at Aintree, always culminating with The Grand National.”

Security was of paramount importance. If you recall (I do, as I watched it live on the BBC), back in 1997 the IRA planted two suspect packages at the course and gave a secret code warning for the police to evacuate spectators from the scene.

“Over 50,000 people were evacuated from the course, with a huge number of vehicles necessarily left behind,” recalled Legge. “Trainers, their horses, jockeys and a large number of contract staff and media representatives had to be accommodated while a meeting was convened on whether or not to re-run the race. My hand-picked staff and police officers were the only people left on site.”

As they say, there was more… An additional problem arose, as two Pullman Inter City trains carrying some 200-plus Martell VIP guests to Liverpool had to be re-engaged for the return journey to London. Apparently, Dave Clark did his best Sherlock Holmes impression and sorted that out.

Martell supported the event for 13 years, and Legge was saddened when the organisation decided to cease its sponsorship of this major sporting spectacle. “Martell had style running all the way through it, and written all over it, from the caterers Messrs Roux Brothers and SBI down to the Silver Service waitresses. A magnificent operation.”

From the horses to the footballers

Undeterred, in 1998 Whitehall had a hand in looking after the FIFA World Cup, with officer teams travelling throughout Europe for the final qualification matches.

The Jules Rimet Trophy was on public display prior to the matches, thus security had to be very tight indeed, and over 20,000 people visited the sponsors’ villages in Madrid and Rome.

“It represented a fascinating insight into working with security personnel overseas,” urged Legge. “It was an eye-opener to say the very least.”

Reflected glory soon saw Whitehall invited to tender for security services provision at the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympics Games. Legge travelled to Sydney but, having viewed the sheer scale of the project at hand, decided it wasn’t logistically possible for the company to proceed with an involvement unless the step was taken to set up shop in Sydney.

“Interestingly,” continued Legge, “the pay rates set were between Australian $8.50 and Australian $10.50 per hour, plus overtime. Those rates were agreed well in advance and formed part of the tender documents. To date, the same arrangement has not been established by the London 2012 organisers.”

In 2003-2004, Whitehall gleefully scooped BSIA Awards for Best Team and Best Newcomer at the Trade Association’s swish Annual Luncheon, and also found itself nominated as finalists for three years in succession at Security Management Today’s Security Excellence Awards.

The company was turning over something in the region of GB pound 4.1 million. Everything was looking good, but regulation and licensing were on the horizon courtesy of the Private Security Industry Act 2001, and costs were going to rise.

After much soul-searching, Legge began to seek a merger deal with a similar company in size and ambition and thus ease his own burden.

Forget the 19th hole… It’s time for squash

Peter Cullen owned PCL Limited. At that juncture, Cullen’s outfit was slightly larger and also family-run.

“Peter and I regularly played squash together,” revealed Legge in another sporting reference. “Our matches were always fiercely contested. I usually ended up losing because of his talent and ability to play soft shots into the corners which just dropped dead.”

Away from the rigours and confinement of the squash court, Legge discussed a merger with Cullen’s company. Cullen’s brother Rob joined the conversations. A sale was agreed and the two outfits merged on 14 October 2004 to form the PCL Whitehall Security Group that we know today.

Legge openly admits that the next two years proved to be “a real challenge” in integrating two companies with differing outlooks on certain business matters. Not surprisingly, those with negative attitudes who didn’t buy-in to the new ethos duly moved on.

“We also lost some contracts to competitors,” commented Legge. “Some of them tried to undermine us by forecasting our demise.” Thankfully, the scaremongering classes didn’t win the day.

“Through the determination of management and a sound business plan, we now find ourselves as one of the few privately-owned, family-run security companies operating within the M25 corridor.”

A dedication to quality – evidenced by a superb and long-standing contract in The City with a top law firm that’s now in its 29th consecutive year – maintains PCL Whitehall Security Group’s position at the forefront of the industry. Put simply, this is an extremely well run solutions provider that does things the right way and has achieved all of the highest standards and accreditations available.

On that note, Legge said: “The company welcomed the SIA’s introduction, and that of licensing. We recognised the benefits that could be had by the industry and its client base. We’re proud to have achieved SIA Approved Contractor Scheme status, and of the fact that we sit within the top 5% of audited UK companies.”

That’s in addition to the National Security Inspectorate’s Guarding Gold accreditation, in turn outlining compliance with BS 7858, BS 7499, BS 7984 and ISO 9001. PCL Whitehall’s also an approved Safe Contractor and a member company of the BSIA.

Staff welfare: at the top of the agenda

“We firmly believe in staff retention, looking after our security officers in times of need and making sure their welfare is at the top of the agenda,” said Legge.

I can personally vouch for that. The company holds annual awards ceremonies at five-star venues to recognise the efforts and bravery of ‘The Office Corps’ (I spoke and presented awards on one of these occasions a few years ago).

“Security officers are not just ‘bums on seats’. At PCL Whitehall, they’re professionally-trained members of staff whom we value tremendously,” urged Legge. Hear, hear.

While fully supportive of the Regulator, Legge still feels there are areas that the SIA can address.

“The initial training for licences was never overseen by independent auditors, and there are many operatives in possession of a license which I would doubt they have obtained on a legitimate basis. I would strongly advocate that the standards and requirements for obtaining licenses should be raised and policed to a far more rigorous extent than is presently the case.”

As far as Legge’s concerned, licence cards issued to security managers and supervisors ought to be of a different colour or design so that there’s some kind of differentiation (similar to the gaming industry, for example) and he also feels a different level of training needs to be implemented by the SIA and qualifications bodies. A higher standard, and one which is recognised throughout the industry.

“The level of standards does need to be raised throughout the security industry, Brian. We need to be investing more in the staff in this sector. Create better benefits, enhance training, boost wage levels and really make a concerted effort to head for the 48-hour working week. That would instantly attract a better quality of applicant to the industry. This is the responsibility of security companies themselves, not the Security Industry Authority.”

Of course, John’s absolutely correct on this issue. A 12-hour shift in central London is actually around the 14 hours-plus mark once you take into account the time spent travelling.

“This is one of the major reasons why members of staff in this sector who work in London resign. Even more so when you couple that with the sector’s abject failure when it comes to putting in place a proper career structure.”

ACS “meaningless”, security buyers “ignorant”

Coming back to the SIA, missives from 90 High Holborn continually state that its mission in life is to regulate the industry effectively and pave the way for a quality security service. Is it cutting the mustard on these conjoined fronts?

“At the present time, I would respectfully suggest that the Approved Contractor Scheme (ACS) is meaningless,” retorted Legge without pulling any punches. “The buyers of security services are, in the main, ignorant of the ACS and it’s audit mark. A 1% audit mark is a lot different from those at the Top End. It’s still the case that the lowest price is usually accepted.”

Without a change in this status quo – and soon – its Legge’s considered opinion that the industry is “going nowhere”. He stressed: “Companies have to make profits to invest in their staff and, put simply, this means the gross margins have to improve.”

Indeed, in many ways Legge feels that some companies were actually better off prior to licensing as they already had the required ‘quality’ standards in place.

“The SIA needs better communication with the industry. We would welcome senior management visiting us to seek our views on the way forward.”

SMT Online also interviewed PCL Whitehall Security Group’s aforementioned managing director Peter Cullen along with operations director Tracey Boult. Look out for that article on info4security/SMT Online

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