Nick Buckles: The security supremo at large

He's acquisitive, he's confident and he's going back into Iraq
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The Independent Online

Nick Buckles, the Essex-born chief executive of Group 4 Securicor, is generally an affable, open sort of gent. Acquisition plans? What do you want to know? he replies. The perils of working in Iraq and Afghanistan? Only too happy to discuss. Accusations of anti-union behaviour? Water off a duck's back.

It's just collarbones he has issues with.

After blurting out that he has broken his, he clams up. A tired-sounding PR woman prompts: "Well, you brought it up..." But Buckles remains tight-lipped.

The PR ends up telling the story - about how he bought a bike for his daughter, was using it (demonstrating, surely?) in the back garden, fell off and spent Christmas Day in casualty.

Evidently, children's bikes are not his strong point. But his grip over G4S is far steadier. The company was created in July 2004 through the merger of Securicor and Denmark's Group 4 Falck and provides manned security and justice services such as criminal tagging and cash handling. Buckles, who turned 45 a fortnight ago, took over as chief executive last year after helping steer through a speedy integration, which took just 15 months instead of the expected 24.

That done, he is taking G4S on a shopping spree. Recent rumours have linked it to Spain's Prosegur, which has a market value of €1.4bn (almost £1bn), and last week two more targets emerged. The first was Rentokil Initial's Manned Guarding security division. The troubled rat catcher is selling the business, and analysts have attached a price tag of £85m to £100m.

Shortly after this, Securitas announced it was spinning off three businesses that contribute a third of group sales - meaning G4S, according to Buckles, is set to knock its Swedish rival off the sector's global number-one spot without doing anything. But could it go even further? He says he was surprised by the scale of the Securitas overhaul and that it is too early to say if he will seek to buy any of the businesses. There's no hiding his glee, though - nor that of the markets, where shares in G4S have leapt.

On Manned Guarding, he says: "We have always said we're interested in building up the manned services side. It's certainly something we would have a look at." However, he later reins in his enthusiasm and clarifies this as only "the type of asset" G4S would look at.

It isn't just the big deals that are grabbing Buckles' attention. He is also looking at bolt-ons worth up to £5m each, and medium-sized deals that will take G4S into new countries and markets. These will be funded by debt, currently standing at around £600m. Buckles is happy to let it grow to £1bn.

Meanwhile, he is also pursuing organic growth in various countries and sectors, with the Olympics high on his agenda. "We did a lot of work in Athens and we're now developing our plan for how we will help in Beijing and London," he says. The 2012 Games will involve a lot of construction work, and Buckles is optimistic G4S will get guarding contracts as soon as the building starts. The July bombings highlighted security issues in the capital. As he points out: "There's bigger awareness and a bigger demand for our services."

At the Beijing Games, the state-controlled Public Security Bureau is expected to provide the guarding services, but Buckles is hopeful G4S will be involved in "management and consultancy".

Nearly all security services in China, including cash handling, are provided by the state, yet he sees scope for growth. "It's certainly very difficult. But we have around 1,000 security officers providing reception services for Western multinationals, and we're the only Western security company there. So we're well placed if the legislation were to change - and we're hopeful it will in the next 12 months."

One region less bogged down in red tape is the Middle East. Buckles says this part of the world is performing well, so much so that the group is now entering war-torn areas such as Iraq.

Both Group 4 and Securicor pulled out of the country prior to the merger, as the "risk-to-reward ratio was not right". But even though the conflict shows no signs of abating, the combined company is moving back in. Its US subsidiary Wackenhut started the process late last year, providing fire and para-medic services for American bases, and Buckles says the group now has bids in for "major contracts" with the US and UK governments. G4S is also considering a move into Afghanistan.

With so much going on, it is not surprising that the group, with a market value of £2.2bn, is knocking on the door of the FTSE 100. The sanguine Buckles, who spent 17 years working his way up through Securicor's ranks, is unfazed about the prospect of leading a blue chip. "We don't believe it will make that much difference," he says, arguing that another acquisition will probably be needed to make the final leap into the top flight: "The hurdle keeps moving as the market moves up."

You might not think he would keep his cool so easily on other issues. G4S is embroiled in a spat with unions and is being sued over 9/11 (Argenbright, one of Securicor's US subsidiaries, handled passenger screening for two of the four flights). It is also having to contend with whistleblowers who claim that the technology used in tagging does not always work, meaning criminals are able to reoffend.

But Buckles isn't taking the bait. On the unions' complaints of poor wages and conditions, he points out that only a very small proportion of the group's 400,000-strong global workforce are involved in any action. "In the UK and Europe, we're the most unionised security company. I'm pretty confident we pay above market terms and conditions, and if people want to be recognised as a legal union, we're happy. There's no issue at all.

"In the US, we have just had a lot of difficulties forming a business relationship with the SEIU [Service Employees International Union, the leading campaigner against G4S]. We cannot reach agreement about how we do business with one another."

On 9/11, which has resulted in around 40 people suing the group, he is also phlegmatic: "Some [cases] have been settled, but we have always said it won't be sorted out for many years. We don't really see it as an issue."

He gets slightly more rattled about tagging but is swift to defend the group's record: "Tagging is 96 per cent reliable. It's not designed to stop people doing anything - it's designed to supervise people at home rather than in prison. It's not our role to stop people going out and committing crimes. It's very much how it's used, and who goes on it, that's the bigger issue."

The group is currently developing tags that use satellites to track criminals, and is planning on selling the service overseas. Israel is one of around 20 countries considering pilot schemes.

Buckles, it would appear, takes most things in his stride. A dedicated company man - "with our market position and our capability, there's not a better job to be in" - he is happy to talk about G4S and hard pressed to think of what he does outside work (he eventually settles on playing football, supporting West Ham and ferrying his kids round). But then a one-track mind helps when there are deals to be done, government contracts to win, criminals to keep an eye on and athletes to protect - and you're set to be the world's number-one security group.

BIOGRAPHY

BORN: 1 February 1961.

EDUCATION: Studied business at Lanchester Polytechnic (Coventry University).

CAREER

1984: analyst, Avon Cosmetics.

1985: project accountant, Securicor.

1996: managing director, Securicor Cash Services.

1999: chief executive, Securicor Security.

2002: chief executive, Securicor.

2004: deputy chief executive and chief operating officer, Group 4 Securicor.

2005 to now: chief executive, G4S.

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