Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Security is important — but you often have to keep a very close eye on the guards

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Good security for physical assets is worth having but generally expensive. Questions of affordability often turn on what level of protection is needed or wise. Cheapest is a locked door on an anonymous building. Most expensive is an armed guard with a salesmen’s eloquence for articulating risk.

Gurkhas, they had the unnerving habit of appearing unexpectantly at your elbow

One day soon patrolling will largely be done by robots, but I suppose there will always be the need for the assurance of a person to watch the sentinels, whether they be guards or cameras. Mostly nothing happens, and therefore there is a constant need to guard against boredom and sleep. One of our filling stations’ storerooms was broken into recently under the unwatchful and yet recording eye of the camera and the remote access Control Room.

Local youths wearing balaclavas and hoodies rapidly helped themselves to cigarettes, spirits and sweets. The nightwatcher later admitted to being asleep. Ideally, they should work in pairs during the nightshift but that is twice the cost. Anyway, she lost her job.

Last year we had an issue at one of our properties which necessitated contracting a security firm to patrol for several weeks. We had to provide accommodation in a spare house close by. Gurkhas, they had the unnerving habit of appearing unexpectantly at your elbow and came with a justified reputation for toughness and charm.

My full-time security chap loved having them around, attesting to their delicious curries. However, they were fiercely expensive and that cost incentivised us to upgrade the fencing, gates and cameras as soon as we could.

Also, another irritant was their retired-officer manager who, wanting to relive old Night Ops adventures, spent his time crawling around the perimeter at 3am, “testing the defences”, and then recommended ever more expensive schemes for us to construct impregnability. Litigation lawyers suddenly began to seem better value in comparison.

We had a yard in Jordan once, in the free trade zone outside Zarqa, a little below the Syrian border. I had tried to persuade my father to buy an office tower under construction in Amman, the capital, which was partly pre-let to the local franchise of Deloitte.

It was clearly going to be a prime commercial property asset (in, admittedly, a secondary real estate market) and back in England I swept into his office, full of enthusiasm and research, to find out that he had just agreed to buy, for the same amount of money, 50 Russian cement mixers in Damascus. (This was before the war). Made by Kamaz, they were large construction vehicles, new and seemingly cheap. It was one of the Chairman’s last deals before he retired, and he was confident of making a good turn.

I was sceptical but became less so when the first 10 sold quickly at a decent profit. The next 40 took two years to shift, barely made us any money and meanwhile Dad was spending more time with his Purdeys. I thought I should go and look at them when next in country and so our fixer drove me to inspect the yard.

On arrival it became apparent that we employed a security guard to sit there all day and show the occasional prospective purchaser these dust-covered, unused white machines. The seats were still wrapped in plastic covers.

I remember being surprised by that and impressed at the quality of the vehicles. The problem was that we had bought in the wrong part of the cycle.

The security guard was a cost well spent

The local construction boom was over. Kamaz is not an internationally renowned brand outside Russia’s spheres of influence and these cement mixers were too big for most projects. Eventually we sold most of them, in ones and twos, at auction in Dubai.

Still, the yardman/security guard bobbed with huge enthusiasm and was eager to demonstrate how frequently he turned the engines over, how diligently he swept the yard and how trustworthy he was. He talked much and, my Arabic being poor, I could understand barely a word.

As we left I slipped him 20 dinars and he burst with joy, frenetically babbling something that caused my fixer to start laughing. Halfway back to Amman he was still chuckling, so I asked him to explain. The guard had been overjoyed to receive the generous sum, the equivalent of £20, because it meant that when he next visited the brothel he would not only be able to afford his favourite but could do so with the use of a bed, rather than standing up outside in the corridor.

Years later on another visit to that fine, honey coloured city, Amman, I had lunch in the restaurant opposite the Deloitte building and the fixer gleefully told me that it had recently been sold, for three times the amount I could have brought it for.

I sighed, but so often when trading assets you just have to shrug your shoulders and look for the next deal. At least, while we did not make much on the cement mixers, they were not stolen and we did trade through. For that, in small part, the security guard was a cost well spent.

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