INTERVIEW: KK SECURITY CEO JAMES OMWANDO
KK SECURITY GROUP
Built on a Bedrock of Service with Integrity
Starting off as a small company in Mombasa with barely 500 guards, the Group is now the private security powerhouse of the eastern and Central Africa region, radiating from its Nairobi base. How did KK Security Group grow and grow? The KK Security Group CEO, MR. JAMES OMWANDO, spoke to EA Flyer’s Contributing Editor (Science and Technology) WYCLIFFE MUGA. Excerpts of their conversation:
EA FLYER:So, broadly speaking, Mr. Omwando would you say that KK is one of the biggest security companies in the region?
OMWANDO: Yes, we are.We started under the current owners in 1993,as a very small company in Mombasa, with barely 500 security officers. A year later, we opened operations in Nairobi. When we moved there, the first companies we worked with were the big agricultural estates in Kericho and Eldoret. We provided them with a unique product where we provided teams of expatriates, married up with ex National Youth Service members to train their security teams which were often over 400 strong.The idea was to teach basic security skills so that they were more effective in discharging their duties. Today, of course, we have well over 17,000 security officers in six countries in Eastern and Central Africa.
Q: Let me understand this: In addition to having your own guards you were helping to provide expertise to the people who already had guards?
A: Yes, they had their own security guards. Some of these big organizations -especially the plantation farms like coffee, tea, sugar and so on tended to use their own guards because they thought that it was more cost effective but without training, it ends up costing more . We identified this problem of lack of trained manpower and believed that we could save them money by providing this unique product. When we took over KK from the previous owners, we had one vision: we wanted to create a reputation that would be unique in the industry, a reputation of providing service with integrity over the region where everyone believes in what we do, in terms of honesty and in terms of commitment to the service that we are giving at every level.
Q: So essentially you are talking about the need to create a unique brand within the broader security environment?
A: Yes. What we wanted to do was to create a reputation that people could relate to and the product that we are committed to providing. A service second to none, so that people could see the quality of the service we give and by setting standards that no other security company could be able to offer.
Q: And it worked exactly that way?
A: Indeed, we know that it worked because today we have a well-defined reputation for offering quality service across the region; a service that a customer can believe in. We set out to create trust among our clients and that is what we have done.Our customers know that KK provides a different product from the rest of the industry.
Q: Well certainly starting off as a small company in Mombasa, mostly guards, and then moving to what we have now – a regional powerhouse in the region – obviously your formula worked. Is it a formula you would like to share with other leaders in the sector or is or is it a secret?
A:It is certainly not a secret! When I said, at the beginning, that we wanted to provide service with integrity, I did so because that is something that we are passionate about and we realised that once people could see this,they would be attracted to it. That is our unique selling point: the honesty and the training that we give our people, to be able to provide a service that is different in terms of public relations’; in terms of how we relate to our clients; our emphasis on honesty, integrity and values that can be appreciated.
Q: What would you say is the difference between a KK Security guard and, some small company with just, say, a dozen guards? What is the difference between your security guard being at my gate and a much smaller, less organized company being at my gate? Other than price of course.
A:Firstly, let me say that we don’t employ guards – we employ ‘security officers’,- men and women who have been taught more skills than just the ability to sit at a gate. Our recruitment process is very vigorous in the sense that we start off by very specific vetting. We ask for specific details – we need to know their level of education, we need to know what they have done before, we need to insure that recruits have Certificates of Good Conduct from the CID and we need to conduct background checks. Once vetting is over, interviews are carried out. These interviews are also very rigorous. We have two to three teams interviewing potential candidates every week at the training school. Each team consists of a senior manager, middle manager and a junior employee. We involve everybody. The senior management interviewers include the Chairman, me and other senior managers. That is the seriousness and attention to detail, that we give to the vetting and interview exercise.
Q. So right from the beginning when an employee, even a junior employee, is coming to the KK system you want to be sure you got the right person?
A:Of course we want to be sure we have got the right person.The training course for Security Officers is intensive, covering a range of subjects from Criminology, fire-fighting, terrorism recognition, surveillance detection, defensive techniques over a 12day period. Ours is a ‘Pass/Fail’ course. If they fail the exams, I am afraid that they have to go home. That’s crucial. It doesn’t matter how good the initial vetting is,if they do not pass the exams during the course.
Q: And after you get these people and empower them in this way, what’s to prevent them from running to other security companies with the security training you’ve already given them?
A: That is where we are unique. We don’t take, except in exceptional circumstances, employees from other security companies. And I can tell you for a fact,that when we terminate an employee, with the certificates they get from KK, they get jobs in other security companies overnight. It’s a qualification in its own right. So that shows how different we are and how unique we are when compared with other security companies.
Q: In other words the training you put them through and the complicated selection process guarantees that the security officer on the ground is someone skilled to do a first-class job once you let them out in to the field?
A: Yes. And during the passing-out parade, we give them accolades. We invite our clients to officiate the passing-out parade. It’s like a graduation ceremony, really. The new security officers are so proud of what they have achieved, that they bring their families to witness the pass out. We make them proud because we are creating a career for them.After the training, they look at things in a new light and we have a product that we are proud of.
Q: So if I am a KK guard, what do I have to look forward to, if I work really hard and apply myself?
A: We have a policy that, before we start recruiting from outside, we recruit from within. Our HR department has got clear instructions. They send out an internal memo for available positions. The exercise is transparent and interviews are done by senior managers. We have an amazing amount of talent within; security officers with degrees and diplomas in a variety of skills. We have a chief accountant who started off as a Security officer; we have a lady branch manager in Tanzania who likewise started off as a security officer. One of our General Managers used to be a controller in our control room. We have a technical manager who once again, started as a security officer and who then invested time and money and became qualified. Within the organization we have taken people through our own management training course which takes eight months to complete. Even new managers, who are hired, go through this training. Some of our best Country managers are those who have gone through the entire course right from a security officer’s training, to a supervisor’s course all the way up to contract management. We, and they, believe that it gives them an advantage as they understand the whole system.
Q: So you could say that once you get your foot in the door at KK Security the opportunities open up? No one will limit you?
A: There are great opportunities. You see it’s also our job at management level to identify talent every day within the organization. Every time we go to an assignment, be it a shopping mall or a factory, we look at how our people are doing things and one of the things we are looking for is talent. ‘What talent does this guy have? How can I tap the talent that he has?’ We have 9,500 people in Kenya. Surely there must be brilliant people within that group that can make a difference in the organization. With that number of personnel within the system who are loyal, we should be able to tap into that before going outside. It’s cheaper for the business and you have a loyal person who already understands it.
Q: So you have never had your own people coming up with some elaborate scam, like the robberies committed by people working for one of your rivals? It was always in the news that they had that problem of people within the organization planning and executing a series of elaborate cash-in-transit thefts?
A: In as far as cash-in-transit is concerned, we have been lucky, I would say. Let me tell you, the way you handle your people is very important: in our organization we do not just say‘Service with integrity’ as an empty phrase. We practice it. We respect our people. I must respect my security officer for him to respect me – that is very important within an organization.So any human being that has affection towards you, will not steal from you. But that being said, in every organization, just like in any family, there will be a few black sheep. As we see it, it’s not so much the problem or the mistake of what happens; it’s how you react to the problem – and how you deal with it- that makes the difference and keeps you on good terms with your client.We do not condone anybody who commits a crime; if someone is guilty,we have the obligation to send that person into the criminal justice system.
Q: But in the case that I mentioned– like you said, there are bad apples everywhere; there is a black sheep in every family –the fact is that it just continued; the thefts went on and on; which suggested a systemic problem not just a supervision problem.
A: As I said, it all boils down to how you deal with your workforce. How you nurture the relationships. If you treat your staff with respect, it is very unlikely that you will have problems with them.However, if you find yourself dealing with a serial situation like that one, it means something fundamental must be wrong.
Q: I would like to shift the focus to regulatory and legal barriers for opportunities for investors in Kenya. In the long run, what Kenya needs is more people investing in more business,and thus the economy growing. That is the only way forward, and not just in Kenya but the whole region. Investors always talk about security as a big problem. If you could talk to Parliament, for example, what would you tell them? What would you say is needed for the private sector of security to effectively support the national security apparatus?
A: Firstly, the Private Security Regulation Bill is a Bill that regulates how security companies work. It’s supposed to have a regulatory authority that instills discipline within the private security companies.Things like meeting the minimum standard of wages that are required; training security officers to the standard levels that are required; so that you can all provide a service that is standard.The regulatory body should set private security standards across the board, to enable a level playing ground. At the present, we do not have that. Security has moved from what we used to have 15 years ago – we have highly technical equipment now,we have people who think differently, we have thieves who are more technically savvy. So we need to improve our security operations to deal with those standards. You can’t deal with these new levels of sophistication among criminals by the standards we used to have, based on the watchman with a rungu.We need Parliament to bring in laws where everybody can play on the same level and also bring credibility to the industry.Right now there is no level field, so it is difficult to create a professional private security standard that falls within everybody’s standard.
I would add that we do not want to see weapons in the hands of private security companies. Doing that could see the escalation of violence to the levels seen in South Africa. We have ‘no weapons’ policy across the region and indeed, in Uganda, where virtually all security companies are armed, that is one of our key selling points
Q: Would you say that if the Bill was passed it would be a milestone in the provision of private security services?
A: It would be a milestone because once it is done, it will help interaction and communication with the police,we want to reach a level where we can share information. Once you have those standards it’s very easy, even for the police, to deal with private security. But for now, that is still a problem.If the Bill is passed, it will bring about an improved interaction with the police. The police are strained right now. They need private security to supplement and assist them. They can’t be everywhere at the same time. If we had that level field,we will be able to create a better security environment countrywide.The private sector has almost 300,000 security officers – the police have 40,000.
Q: As I was listening to you I was thinking what used to happen with the banks in the 1980s, where anyone could start a bank. There was no regulation and the public would be fooled into putting money in these banks thinking they are going to get better returns. Usually Parliament acts only when there is a disaster, as eventually happened in the matter of bank regulations. In the case of security, if that Bill is not passed, what will be the net negative impact on the country?
A:Insecurity keeps off investors. If that Bill is passed and we have a body that checks the standards of security firms, immediately you get a more secure environment. With better training standards,you will have people who are able to gauge and detect terrorism threats;who can identify a potential terrorist because of his behavior. (Typically, he is edgy; his body language will give him away). Criminals, like most people make rational choices, and will tend to go for an easier target. So if Kenya becomes a difficult target, we get a better security environment. If Parliament can see that, and put this Bill in place, it will make Kenya a better place for everyone.
Q: Where do you see the security business in the region and in Kenya going in the next 10 to 15 years? What is your long-term vision as Kenya changes?
A: There will never be a shortage for security services. As the economy improves, there will be a need for more security. Security is not all about manned guarding. We have electronic equipment, access control, CCTV and so on. Security is becoming more electronic now and as the years move on and as manned guarding becomes more expensive, people will start moving more into electronics. Security will keep on getting more sophisticated as criminals and terrorists also improve their way of doing things. All we need to do with that regulatory body, is to find a way for the police and the private security sector to work together. I think we will have a safer place in the years to come if we can achieve that cooperation. We aim to find ways to reduce client’s costs by providing more effective security services or solutions . It’s a partnership and,by reducing costs for your client,by providing more effective solutions, you create a better, loyal client as you focus on better service. Right now,with the rates having gone up after the mandated wage increase in Kenya; we have to come up with ways of cutting down costs by using electronics and reduced manpower
Q: Some of the largest security companies in the industrialized nations are even quoted on the stock exchanges. Are such things anywhere on KK’s horizon?
A:For the last 15years we have done very well in our regional spread. We are now at a stage where we are consolidating what we have. That doesn’t mean that if there is an opportunity for an acquisition,we will not take it, but we have gone a long way in expanding over the region. We would like to concentrate on our performance so that we can get our shareholders to start benefiting. We will focus on further improving our performance in the next 3-5 years– and this might – I repeat might -involve us going public.