CIS is on the brink of an impressive 50 years in the security business and, as part of the programme of activities to celebrate this history, Cathy Deegan interviewed Ken Palmer, (father of Executive Chairman Carl Palmer), who founded CIS back in 1969. CIS is well recognised as a leader in the security guarding business with a reputation for bringing high and innovative standards to the industry. Originally based in London, they are one of the few remaining independent security guarding specialists, growing their business to all parts of the UK.
Ken shares his memories of those earliest days of the business, and the political and other factors that influenced the direction CIS has taken over the years. He talks about how licencing affected the industry, ponders the potential fallout of the current political situation as well as the challenges and potential that lie ahead.
What was the security guarding industry like in the beginning? Was there even an industry to speak of?
“When we started CIS in 1969 the security guarding industry was very much in its infancy and, particularly in comparison with our present day security officers’ and service, quite amateurish. There were one or two companies offering what could only be described as a “night watchmen” type operation and perhaps a couple of cleaning companies offering security as an add-on to their main business of cleaning. There appeared to be little or no training or vetting for the security guards and, in general, really terrible conditions of employment. Very poor pay rates was the norm, and guards were forced to work very long hours (15 and 16 hour shifts were not uncommon) to make anything like a half decent weekly wage, and in some areas working practises could be described as almost Dickensian in their awfulness. To be honest, and perhaps not surprisingly, we were reluctant to get into the guarding area of security, preferring to operate in a more consultative way. In the first months of our business, we were working from the bedroom of my rather disgruntled (at the time) four year old daughter, who has thankfully since forgiven me for temporarily evicting her and her collection of dolls, to make room for a desk and filing cabinet.”
What kind of work did companies need in the early days? How did the guarding function of the business come about?
“In those days when, say, a large wholesale distribution company had an unexplained stock loss and it was reported to the Police as a likely theft, they could be offered advice on how such losses might be prevented. I gathered experience doing this when serving with the Met. Police and when the service was stopped, I decided together with a partner to leave and form CIS, and we would offer a security advisory function. Very often our advice to a client would include a recommendation to hire a security officer to check and monitor movement of stock of desirable items, and fairly soon clients started asking us to actually provide the guarding, so that’s how we began offering a manned security service.”
I assume things grew reasonably quickly from there and you need to look for a bigger business premises?
“Following the bedroom office days, there was a period where CIS occupied an office in Blackheath Village, before we took up residence at our long term base in Lewisham. We have invested in these premises significantly over the years with building extensions in the 1980/90’s. We have also very recently completed a further major refurbishment, which includes new training rooms and an advanced new Control Room, partly to celebrate our 50th anniversary, but much more as a commitment to the future well being of our staff and the Company. I find it hard to believe that we have reached this 50-year milestone and what has been achieved, but I honestly feel that the best for the Company is yet to come.
From there CIS has gone from strength to strength! What do you think were the reasons for the continued success and expansion?
“There are two main external factors that I believe were important to the growth and success of the company. The first was the opportunities that came after the privatisation of nationalised companies and institutions during the Margaret Thatcher government in the 1980/90s, that led much of the security requirements of these organisations to be outsourced. It was slow at first, but as it became accepted that a private security company could perform these services with efficiency and in many cases with greater care than an in-house operation, business took off.
However, this led to many new security guarding companies being formed almost overnight to take advantage of these new opportunities, with the result that many sub-standard firms came into existence. There were absolutely no barriers to being able to start a security company. No licence, no experience, no history of competence was required. With these new companies competing the security business became a cut-throat affair. A new security company, which could avoid the cost of training, and without providing proper supervision or vetting, also paying low wages, was easily able to undercut the charges of a professional company with all these costs to cover. Fortunately, in more recent times the SIA’s licencing system became a legal requirement for guarding officers as well as the company. This is the second external factor that I believe has provided a very beneficial element to improving the status of the security industry, and CIS seized the opportunity with much enthusiasm.
This was roughly the time that I ceased to have an executive roll in the Company, although I remain on the board, and when my son Carl took over as Managing Director. A few years later Neill Catton, who already held a senior position in CIS and had been mentored by Carl, was appointed Managing Director. Carl moved to become the Company’s Executive Chairman.
Both Carl and Neill saw the enormous potential to grow the company by bidding for the much larger contracts, and developing them in a more innovative way. I admired the confidence and optimism they showed as I saw the business growing quickly but in a sustained way.
I can’t imagine what things would have looked like if we didn’t have licensing! What else do you feel CIS did differently that helped towards its success?
“I feel the decision we made to resist the temptation to spend money buying other security businesses, thus avoiding debt, was a good one. We always focused on our own company and used profits to reinvest, always looking for the best affordable technology and bringing forward decisions to attract the best possible people to come and work for us. We created new management positions whenever possible, always having in mind to grow the business and promote from within.
“Another important factor to our longevity is that we have loyal staff that stayed with us. Many in this industry seem surprised that we have personnel who have been with us for 30 years and more. Even in those early days, staff wellbeing was a given, and we never expected our people to have to work long hours without providing good support and conditions. It is so obvious to me that it is in our long-term interest to provide the best possible employment terms but, regrettably, the industry as a whole does not always have a good record in this regard.
What was life like in head office back in those early days?
“In terms of day to day office life, it was nothing like the infrastructure available today where everything is so instant. When we first moved to Lewisham High Street the telephone provider was a nationalised company and we only had one ‘phone line into our office. British Telecom at the time was very inefficient and complacently told us we would have wait six months to get an extra phone line into the office, and then only one extra. That’s a sample of how unhelpful things were for new businesses prior to 1979. No computers, of course, and a manually operated ‘T’ Card system to show where our security officers were located.
How big was the office team?
“Well at first there was myself and my partner, and we had one secretary back then, Helen Aronson, who was a holocaust survivor originally from Poland, a marvellous character who stayed as my secretary and in other jobs in the Company for more than 30 years. Mick O’Keeffe was the first mobile security officer to join us in I think about 1977, and he retired last year as our Health & Safety Director: a fantastic loyal person who was much respected in the Company. Helen was awarded the British Empire Medal in this year’s Honours List for services to Holocaust education.
Our first security contract was in Smithfield Meat Market for a very large firm of Catering Butchers who supplied meat to West End hotels and restaurants. Their high quality and expensive stock was showing large unexplained shortages. A conclusion was that perhaps some dishonest staff members were responsible. We were asked to put in measure to prevent this loss continuing. A 24 hour security guarding cover at the time was not considered an economic one, and a scheme was devised where a number of unannounced security visits, day and night, when spot checks would be made on stock being carried in delivery vans and polite but effective staff searches would be made. We very soon had a good number of companies who saw this service as viable and a useful deterrent or prevention measure. I mention this to show that at a very humble beginning we were devising ways of providing a security service that showed signs of innovation. Admittedly, this is a very long way from what we have now with all the technology and control rooms, with CCTV monitoring etc. and over 1,500 employees, but I believe we have retained many good CIS core values.
It sounds very different for those starting up their businesses today for sure. What do you think the future holds for those starting businesses in the current climate or small to medium businesses trying to sustain their organic growth?
“Things are so unsettled at the moment with Brexit and there is a possibility with everything that is happening there will be a shift in power with a possible change of government. This concerns me in respect of the outsourcing market which, of course, private security companies are heavily involved.
There are those who seem to be outspoken in demonising the practice of outsourcing on the basis that it somehow doesn’t afford workers as good working conditions. However, this is not the case at all. Private contractors have to at least match working conditions when they take over an in-house team. In addition, in my experience anyway, the whole team are challenged to continually maintain or improve the service, where there is always more motivation for the contractor to do this for fear of losing the contract. The knowledge that a contract can be lost is, of course, a very good incentive to maintain and improve the service, and one that an in-house operation may not have to take into consideration.
Looking forward, what would you like to see for the future of the sector?
“My hope for the future of the industry is that it continues to challenge itself and be challenged by all types of clients and sites. I want talented security guarding professionals to be valued by the wider society for the work they do and to have a really worthwhile career in the industry with lots of opportunity for promotion. Security personnel should be seen as equal in value to the community along side those serving in the Police, Fire and Ambulance service.
From what I hear about the development of technology in the sector, the innovation opportunities are many and there is great potential for the security industry to develop in a dynamic and exciting way. This is the best time to be in this business, and particularly with a company such as CIS, but I’m happy to be called slightly bias in this regard.
Finally, I want to say that I’ve worked at CIS with many dedicated people over the years, some now retired, but their contribution to our success is acknowledged and never underestimated by me.
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