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. In the second instalment of a two-part exclusive interview series for Risk Xtra, Anton 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.
Risk Xtra: Where do you feel Safetell fits into the wider security industry?
Anton Pieterse: Traditionally, Safetell’s products were geared towards “protecting staff where they service customers” (Safetell is an acronym for ‘Safety for Tellers’) and we’ve duly developed counter-based security solutions for customers over the years, but in the last five years or so we’ve expanded more to become a security solutions provider offering security solutions that incorporate blast, bullet, manual attack and fire-resistant products.
Our motto is ‘Deter and Defend’ as our products don’t fit into the ‘Detect and Respond’ scenario in terms of physical protection systems. The deterrent value of our products is very high if advertised properly by the owner, while at the same time providing protection for staff and assets in the event of an attack.
I believe that CCTV is a good deterrent to crime, but unless it’s monitored 24/7 and a reaction force can act immediately once a breach has been identified, it simply records the crime. Most of our customers require physical security products that ‘Deter and Defend’ and that’s the market upon which we have a keen focus.
In 2013, Safetell acquired the CSI division from Gunnebo in the UK and this has enabled us to move into the high end ballistic, blast and fire-resistant segment of the physical security market. Since this acquisition, Safetell has moved away from protecting counters towards safeguarding the building envelope. Just recently, we’ve secured orders for a perimeter wall around a school to provide bullet protection up to FB6.
Risk Xtra: Is it somewhat difficult to stand out in what is such a competitive marketplace?
Anton Pieterse: You need to be a leader and not a follower and develop niche products. Be aware of what’s happening in the industry and don’t keep all of your eggs in one basket. Product development is costly. We have a cupboard full – more than likely a warehouse full – of product developments that didn’t work for whatever reason, but we would rather fail at getting it right the first time than fail without having tried at all.
Risk Xtra: What strategies have you seen succeed for the business while operating within a difficult macroeconomic climate?
Anton Pieterse: Historically, recessions have been good for the security industry as crime rises due to the associated job losses, but the recession that started around 2009 provided no financial benefit to us at all. The Government stopped ordering security products, banks reduced the number of branches and cancelled maintenance contracts and larger projects requiring our products simply dried up.
We had to adapt and, once again, we maintained business by refocusing on cost saving, product re-engineering to take out costs and working with clients to ensure that our products remained relevant. Safetell boasts a cocktail of products in each category and this allows us to offer a solution for every budget.
It’s amazing how the initial discussions on a project start with “We want the highest level of protection and cost isn’t an issue” to us eventually being tasked with providing a solution that’s relevant to the protection required and within budget. Safetell’s consultative approach towards projects allows us to understand in great detail the customer’s needs and then provide a cost-effective solution, whether that involves supplying blast, bullet, manual attack or fire-resistant security products.
Risk Xtra: In an evolving industry, what are some of the tricks you’ve learned along the way to make sure you’re always thinking ahead in terms of the next big opportunity?
Anton Pieterse: Safetell has successfully partnered with great companies to supply security solutions that work. Our design capability allows us to use products from several partners to complete a project to the satisfaction of our customers. Our marketing campaign has also ensured that we make use of every opportunity to promote Safetell and the security solutions we provide.
Risk Xtra: With testing and certification so important, how is this managed within the custom and bespoke solutions space where a given solution can be constructed of certified materials, but if developed into something unique for a client, the value of a certification changes?
Anton Pieterse: Testing and certification are both very expensive exercises, with Safetell having invested thousands of pounds here in the last few years. We believe that testing and certification is key to ensuring that a product is reliable and able to do what it was designed to do.
Our biggest challenge is making customers accept a standard, tested product. As you would expect, when architects, security managers and, in some instances, marketing professionals join forces to make the final decision, the product that’s finally approved is often nothing like the certified product.
Our first option is always to convince the customer to pay the cost for re-certification, but nine times out of ten they will not accept this and then make the decision to use the hybrid solution with all the risks attached to that. In these circumstances, Safetell will always ensure that the client is fully aware the hybrid solution falls outside the scope of the certified and tested product. We will advise customers as best we can and make them aware of the risks if there are any. We’ll also consult with experts who can provide us with assistance on the effectiveness of the product chosen when it’s slightly outside the scope of the original.
Safetell conducts a good deal of internal testing on products, normally at the request of customers to satisfy them that the product in question is fit for purpose and will provide the degree of protection they require. We firmly believe in developing products to suit each customer’s security requirements and facilitate working with other specialists to achieve customer satisfaction. Our products are only a part of the entire security solution employed by the customer and all elements of the system are considered when advising the client on the best solution.
Risk Xtra: With the global rise in terrorism heightening the need for physical security solutions, in what direction do you see the business moving in the future?
Anton Pieterse: The attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 changed the face of security forever. They brought about the addition of different elements to physical security and altered how security managers themselves view effective security. Terrorism in any guise is still a crime and businesses must protect themselves against the new forms of attack that we’ve witnessed.
The location of a business is the crucial element in deciding what protection will be required, but I think we might be underestimating the role terrorist activity will play in crime prevention in the future. Terrorism has only one lifeline and that is money. Without funding, it will not survive. All over the world, everybody’s focused on cutting off the monetary supply to terrorists. This tactic has proven successful, but the fanatical elements within terrorist organisations will always recruit ‘foot soldiers’ who are not willing to kill or act as a suicide bomber, but are willing to commit a crime to provide funding. Converts will be required to obtain funding in any way they can and any business that has money in the till will become a target in the next few years. If your business doesn’t have better security measures than your neighbouring businesses, you’re going to be viewed as – and become – a soft target.
Safetell has developed blast and ballistic-resistant products to protect the larger organisations against organised terrorist attacks, but the new danger lies in attacks on smaller business in the rural communities where the local police station is perhaps understaffed and underfunded. For a terrorist organisation, the resource of hundreds of foot soldiers providing a few hundred pounds at a time is a good alternative if the bigger funding dries up. Safetell’s original counter protection products provide simple solutions at low cost to safeguard these isolated businesses from the new crime wave that’s set to sweep the UK.
I’m often asked to provide a forecast on the potential value of counter-terrorism business, but soon it will become difficult to distinguish between crime orchestrated to fund terrorism and traditional forms of criminality.
Risk Xtra: Will ongoing globalisation or national developments, such as Brexit, have an impact on the type of security projects or service requirements going forward?
Anton Pieterse: Safetell has definitely been affected by Brexit and the funding cuts announced by the Government as a result of it. On the other hand, we’ve also seen an increase in demand from other private businesses for counter-terrorism products. These requests often follow immediately after a terrorist attack in Europe.
There are certain factions that are specifically targeted, such as religious buildings and schools. The horrific events at Westminster and Manchester Arena last year highlight the fact that terrorist attacks are not limited to bombs and guns. Fanatical groups will use any form of attack to intimidate and disrupt society. It’s extremely difficult to protect against that. As discussed, the UK Government needs to follow other European nations in passing legislation to force corporations to protect staff and the public to the highest level.
Risk Xtra: Looking at the bigger picture, what hurdles do you think the security market is going to face over the next few years? What should the physical security market be preparing itself for in times hence?
Anton Pieterse: There’s no doubt that crime in general will increase. The error made by the UK Government in reducing the number of police officers on active duty on the streets will enable petty crime to escalate into more serious criminality as small-time criminals realise they can derive bigger rewards.
Responsibility for the protection of staff and customers alike will become a burden on companies. The smaller companies will find it most difficult to fund the cost of additional security systems to ensure they’re adequately protected against an ever-increasingly dysfunctional society. People are critical of the fines issued for littering in town centres, but if you can still police the small issues, the large problems are managed effectively. It’s when you have to pull resources from one aspect to solve a crisis in another because there’s not enough resources available that matters can spiral out of control. This is where the UK’s heading unless drastic changes are made and our police service is adequately funded. Once you lose control of the small issues, the larger issues in society become unmanageable and crime escalates. That’s evident in the entire African continent, not to mention several other parts of the world.
We have to face up to the fact that terrorism is here to stay. Current thinking around the ‘Severe’ threat level posed by international terrorism on the UK mainland is that this will be in place for the next 20 to 50 years as a result of trained terrorist and religious fanatics returning to the UK (and, indeed, elsewhere in Europe). Undoubtedly, this will fuel crime and violence perpetrated at will against innocent citizens.
The present collaboration between the UK Government agencies and public sector companies to develop new products must be commended. We must endeavour to make sure that the funds made available for product development and certification are well spent.
There are several publications available to businesses containing good and detailed advice on how to protect staff and assets and how to react to crime or violent attacks, but my strong belief is that the Government needs to go one step further and legislate security requirements to safeguard the public at large.