Safety first: Close protection officers need to provide their services to high net worth individuals without employing strong-arm tactics. Picture: ISTOCK
Safety first: Close protection officers need to provide their services to high net worth individuals without employing strong-arm tactics. Picture: ISTOCK

There is a stylised snake on Gaboon Protection’s company logo. Gaboon vipers are attractive creatures, geometrically patterned, placid and excellent at blending into their surrounds. When riled, however, their bites can be lethal. It’s an appropriate analogy for a close protection officer (CPO).

In SA, R45bn a year is spent on private security and the industry employs nearly 500,000 people. But expertise varies wildly.

At Gaboon’s inconspicuous office in a quiet Cape Town suburb are several men who are specialists in the protection business — bodyguards, essentially, but not standard-issue specimens. They are highly trained, often former military or emergency services personnel with a raft of skills, ranging from medical expertise to tactical driving.

Their services — such as accompanying film crews or corporate engineers to remote areas, baby-sitting celebrities, taking business executives to meetings across Africa or wealthy families on safari — cost $200-$2,000 a day, depending on risk factors and logistics. They all have the necessary industry licences and accreditations.

These are the people who "extracted" executives from the vicinity of the Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. The clients were not in direct danger, but their companies wanted them out, fast.

They salvaged laptops with sensitive information on them from a site in Sudan after an nongovermental organisation had to evacuate in a hurry. They organised security for an international gathering of 450 generals and top brass, attending an arms maker’s showcase of technology in Bredasdorp, where state security clearance was needed.

The job does not require the stereotypical "big brutes". Alan Conley, who has trained many close protection officers, and his partners Sean Sarstedt and Daniel Theron look like ordinary people. Discretion matters in this industry, sometimes more than muscle.

"A good CPO should be as comfortable and competent sitting in an observation post in the middle of the bush for two days being bitten by ants, as he would be in a fine dining, tuxedo, wine-and-caviar type environment," Conley says.

"The CPO is like a Rottweiler that’s well-trained. You can take him anywhere."

Theron says it is essential that their employees are well-rounded people who can converse with clients and their friends with whom they spend up to 20 hours a day.

A business executive may need a close protection officer who can help with translation at a board meeting. A family that pays for someone to accompany them on holiday wants someone who can chat at dinner, and interact with the children. And of course, all clients want someone smart enough to rescue them from potentially dangerous — or embarrassing — situations.

Conley says one of their male clients had too much to drink, invited a young woman to his hotel and didn’t want her to leave. The close protection officer stepped in and ended up locking the furious client in his room for the night.

"In the morning, the guy was like, ‘I can’t believe what I did, thanks for saving me from myself’," Conley says.

"You need the self-confidence to be able to put your foot down with someone who is paying the bills," he says.

Some clients live with specific risks, such as kidnapping. Others want the peace of mind of knowing they have someone close who can handle anything life throws at them

Strict professional boundaries are essential. Gaboon’s close protection officers don’t drink on duty. "There’s no ‘after hours’ on this job," says Conley. "If you’re busy for two months on a job, you don’t drink for two months."

Gaboon’s new medical division is headed by Ralph le Par. Some of their personnel are skilled medics with "thousands" of hours of emergency experience, able to manage snakebites, injuries or illness. Conley is about to start a job with an energy company that aims to cut a road through remote bush in Zambia, to a site where they will build a hydropower plant. "They’re concerned about being in a very remote area with no cellphone signal, and having medical issues," he says.

Some clients live with specific risks, such as kidnapping. Others want the peace of mind of knowing they have someone close who can handle anything life throws at them.

Looking after high net worth people on holiday from the US, Middle East and Europe is a growing business for Gaboon, gaining clients mainly through word-of-mouth referrals.

Corporate clients require less of the personal touch.

"In a corporate setting, you’re an asset and a tool," says Conley. "You get the client to meetings on time and make sure that if there is a risk, you’ve assessed it.

"You’ve done your planning and homework and checked the venue … and your interaction with the client is minimal. You facilitate their day," he says.

All clients’ needs are analysed before a job begins. The close protection officer checks out everything from threat risks to a client’s likes and dislikes.

Contingency plans are made for more hostile environments; routes are driven in advance to check on travel times and the state of the roads.

A good close protection officer avoids confrontation and undesirable circumstances well before they are encountered.

As Conley says, it’s about anticipating Murphy’s Law – "if something can go wrong, it will" – and making sure it doesn’t ruin the day.

So, a close protection officer in northwest Kenya with a film crew shooting a documentary sees a local child collapsing with seizures and, despite not wanting to drive the bandit highway after dark, sets off in search of treatment.

When the vehicle breaks down, he sends the client and the child in the other car, and stays behind with the dodgy one to protect the valuable equipment. When machete-wielding bandits appear and try to kidnap a journalist and steal the equipment, he gets the car going, and drives through the bush in 500m increments as it overheats and stops.

They make it to safety, just. That’s the job. That’s telling Murphy where to get off.

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