Home Opinion The Risk Xtra Interview: Anton Pieterse (Safetell) (Part One)

The Risk Xtra Interview: Anton Pieterse (Safetell) (Part One)

by Brian Sims
Anton Pieterse: managing director of Safetell

Anton Pieterse: managing director of Safetell

Anton Pieterse is the managing director of Safetell, the specialist physical security provider of counter-terrorism and target hardening solutions for risk mitigation professionals serving organisations, Governments and businesses alike. With over 30 years’ experience, Safetell provides a consultative one-stop shop for standard and bespoke physical security solutions and services. Here, in the first instalment of a two-part series, Anton offers his views on our ever-evolving security industry in the UK and also provides some insight into his own career background while outlining key lessons learned to date.

Risk Xtra: To set the scene, can you share some of your personal career history details with the readers of Risk Xtra and also outline what you feel were the most important factors that brought you into the security industry?

Anton Pieterse: I completed my two-year national conscription in the South African Army Signal Corps in 1982, but it wasn’t until six years later that I became involved in the security industry when I joined the leading provider of safes and physical security products in South Africa, namely Austen Safes based near Johannesburg.

My mother worked for Chubb Safes (now Gunnebo) for more than 25 years, but when she and my stepfather joined Austen Safes, I was offered a job in the ATM installations team. During the late 1980s, the banks in South Africa deployed thousands of ATMs and Austen Safes provided the equipment needed to securely fix them in order to prevent and deter ram raids and physical attacks.

Risk Xtra: Looking back on your career to date, Anton, what are some of the main highlights from your point of view? Also, what was the move from South Africa to the UK like in practice?

Anton Pieterse: After spending a few years as a service and installation technician at Austen Safes, I started studying towards a diploma in manufacturing. This resulted in me moving from installation work to manufacturing where I held several positions and eventually progressed to become manufacturing manager, whereupon I was in charge of the entire manufacturing division of Austen Safes. That division housed 173 members of staff.

The urge to move to Cape Town resulted in me taking up a sales position with Austen Safes, but I then returned to Johannesburg a year later to manage both the Service and Installation Departments as general manager for operations. It was at this point that I also began studying for my MBA.

In August 1998, I decided to take the big step and started my own business buying and selling second-hand safes. However, I was then approached by Barrier Security Limited in February 1999 to join the business as general manager tasked with looking after what was an expanding company specialising in security cladding for ATMs. I became managing director of the firm in January 2000.

Attacks on ATMs escalated in the late 1980s as criminals realised that the locking system on them was extremely weak. In truth, ATMs could be breached within seconds. As we focused on securing ATMs against attacks perpetrated with angle grinders and smaller hand-held tools, those attacks shifted towards the use of explosives stolen from the mines. At one stage, at least one ATM was blown up every day somewhere in South Africa.

Barrier Security Limited became the leading provider of ATM retrofit security cladding in South Africa and we developed other physical security products to compliment the ATM offer. It was while searching for additional products to provide protection against violent bank robberies, which escalated to number several each day, that we discovered the Safetell Rising Screen and became the South African distributor for the product in 2006.

The Rising Screen is a ballistic-resistant screen hidden within counterwork. When activated, it presents an opaque, bullet-resistant barrier within 0.5 seconds. It was an ideal product for use by the banks to protect members of staff against ever-increasing violent attacks. Early success with First National Bank saw the first Rising Screens installed in South Africa in 2007.

A year later, I decided to expand my work experience and actively sought employment overseas. It was then that I was offered the position as managing director for Safetell Limited in the UK.

Risk Xtra: What was the biggest difference that you witnessed between South Africa and the UK in terms of security, and how do you believe this impacted your approach to security in this country?

Anton Pieterse: Anybody who’s aware of the security situation in South Africa will be conscious that crime is particularly violent, while access to high calibre guns like AK47s and other assault weapons is easy. Explosives used in the mines are controlled when delivered and stored, but once issued for use in the underground works they’re not controlled and easily removed from the mines due to a lack of proper policing and security. They’re then sold on to criminals who use the explosives in an attempt to attack Cash-in-Transit vehicles and their crews and ATMs.

Everybody in South Africa has access to guns. Sadly, guns often fall into the wrong hands. I feel the term: “A life is cheap in Africa” is very true as criminals would kill anybody who comes between them and their target.

I’m certain that corporates in South Africa do everything possible to protect their staff and customers against these violent and senseless attacks, but the task of a security manager is limited by funding, while no business can operate effectively in a fortress-style environment.

I would lay the responsibility of the high crime rate and senseless killing in South Africa squarely at the feet of the Government and the lack of political action to resolve the issues that result in violent crime. In my view, the South African Government is in denial about the high crime rate and the effect this has on the everyday lives of each and every individual in the nation.

When I took up my position as managing director at Safetell, I was impressed with the seriousness that corporations and businesses in the UK view the Health and Safety of their staff and customers. Security solutions are installed at all premises regardless of the security risk, while the Trade Unions look after their members and insist on only the best security solutions for protection.

Being new to the UK and coming from a very violent country, it was strange to be in a place where access to guns was limited. I was also very surprised at the high levels of abuse suffered by people serving customers over counters.

Although there was a very high threat of robberies, it didn’t have the violence attached to it like it did in South Africa where criminals would shoot the minute they walked into the premises and invariably carry on shooting until they left with the cash/valuables. To some extent, the level of protection for staff and customers was higher than that in South Africa, and yet the degree of violence was far less. However, that was back in 2009. I think the recession that started then changed how corporates and businesses viewed their expense on security. We’ve seen a reduction on security spending (or rather the level of security provided) to protect staff and customers.

In the last few years, we’ve noticed businesses moving towards a reactive approach to providing security and often reducing their security provision to save costs, only to ramp it up again after an incident. Businesses are relying more on covering the cost of the incident with insurance policies than installing effective security solutions. This is a trend we’ve seen. It’s not a criticism. I recognise that the job of an in-house security manager is extremely difficult. Deciding where to spend any available money from what might be a limited security budget is far from an easy task.

I believe that, much like the South African Government, the UK Government is lagging behind the rest of the world in implementing effective legislation to enforce corporates to implement and provide effective security solutions for their staff and customers. Unless they enforce a step-change and employ more police officers who can show a visual presence on the street, they will have to force businesses to provide better security for their staff and customers.

In Spain, all banks must have a man-trap regulating entry into the premises. Recently, legislation was passed in France that all Shopping Centres must have a safe area (or areas) installed to provide shelter for staff and customers in the event of a terrorist attack.

Buying and providing security equipment is a grudge purchase and, unless the UK Government enforces these expenditures through legislation, companies will look to make greater profits at the expense of implementing effective security. In my opinion, the Trade Unions are not as strong as they used to be and are not effectively fighting for the improved protection of their members.

Risk Xtra: What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your time within the security industry?

Anton Pieterse: I’ve now worked in the physical security industry for 30 years and the biggest lesson I’ve learned in that time is not to take anything for granted. The only constant in this industry is change. Unless we keep pace with the trends in the industry we’ll remain behind the curve. Criminal activity is evolving faster than the solutions we can provide. We will never solve criminality. Rather, we simply displace it from one sector to another.

I remember when we installed the first time delay locks on the safes in the banks in South Africa. This move had such a dramatic effect. Bank robberies reduced and, pretty soon, criminals shifted their focus to very violent attacks on Cash-in-Transit crews and vehicles. The installation of Rising Screens at banks in the UK was part of the solution to reduce bank robberies from more than 800 in 1992-1993 to less than 100 a few years ago, but this figure is increasing again as banks move towards open plan counters.

The shift in crime back to banks and petrol retailers is as a result of better protection systems and equipment installed in other sectors. Therefore, banks and petrol retailers in the utilities sector have once again become the easier, less risky pickings for criminals.

The deterrent is still the best form of defence and, if you have better secured premises than your next door neighbour, the criminals will migrate to the premises with less protection even if the ‘offer’ in terms of what they can steal is less attractive.

I’m astonished at the lack of signs and advertising used by businesses to promote the fact that they take security seriously and use security systems to protect their staff and assets. Before I joined Austen Safes, I worked for a very large car rental company in Johannesburg in the days before car alarms were a factory-fitted security device. The company didn’t want to incur the expense of retrofitting alarms in all of the cars and simply applied stickers in the windows stating that each car was alarmed. This drastically reduced the number of cars being stolen.

I’m not advocating false advertising by any means, but this is an example of the power that a simple sticker can exert on deterring criminals from attempting to take a vehicle. They would rather move on to the next car that doesn’t have the sticker. This practice should be used by all businesses and is an effective method for deterring crime.

Risk Xtra: Both in terms of its recent past and the present day, what do you think about the current state of the security industry?

Anton Pieterse: The physical security industry is an exciting sector in which to work and has overseen rapid changes in the development of security products. As a business, Safetell is mostly involved in the supply of physical security equipment backed up by electronic security products and CCTV. We’re confident that our products – or hybrids of our products – will have a place in the industry for many years to come.

Safetell has always worked with its customers to develop products that suit their unique security requirements. We believe every customer is different and that their requirements are bespoke to their business model. Having said that, we’ve seen a trend in the industry that started around 2010 where corporates “farm out” the security planning aspect to third party contractors in an attempt to cut overheads. This has led to a drop in standards and ineffective security products being installed to save costs.

While I was at Austen Safes, we lost a service contract to service the safes at one of the Top 5 banks after the bank in question employed a new security manager whose remuneration package was highly geared towards cost-saving bonuses. He decided to use local locksmiths in the towns where the bank branches were located and must have made considerable cost savings as he wasn’t burdened with the expense of travelling time being added to the repair jobs.

Needless to say, though, after a few years the bank’s estate of safes was in a state of disrepair. For the sake of saving pennies on travelling costs, the bank had to replace its entire estate of safes across the branch network. As for the security manager, he had left the year before after earning pretty big bonuses for several years.

The arrival of e-bids is another flawed development. This tactic is used by corporations and businesses to save money. Unless it’s tins of baked beans that you’re after, this isn’t an effective way in which to manage your security requirement and protect staff and assets. Managing a company’s security portfolio requires experienced, highly-qualified individuals. This aspect cannot simply be lobbed into an e-tender along with toilet paper and stationery. There’s far too much at stake. Dare I compare this practice to the shambles we’re experiencing within the rail networks at the moment?

I have to say that, at the same time, there are companies who take security and staff protection seriously. They consult with businesses like Safetell to develop products that are fit for purpose and do what it says on the tin.

In Part Two of this exclusive interview with Risk Xtra, Anton Pieterse focuses his attentions on business strategy within a highly competitive UK marketplace, the importance of product certification and testing, the global rise in terrorism, Brexit and the main hurdles that the security industry could be facing across the next few years

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