In conversation: Stephan Crétier of Garda

On becoming the Wal-mart of security, and what exactly Garda is doing in the middle east
On becoming the Wal-mart of security, and what exactly Garda is doing in the middle east
Photograph by Vincenzo D'Alto

Stephan Crétier stumbled into the security industry in 1994. Five years later, with a $25,000 second mortgage on his home, he bought and radically revamped the Montreal-based security firm Garda, best known for its armoured trucks and pistol-packing guards. Today, the company is one of the largest of its kind in the world with revenues last year of over $1.1 billion. Roughly a year after moving into the fraught security industry in the Middle East, four employees of GardaWorld, Garda’s global security wing, and Peter Moore, the man they were protecting, were kidnapped in Baghdad. Only Moore survived.

Q: You were actually on track to become a baseball umpire. Why the career change?

A: I was doing some minor league baseball in the U.S. It was really a question of looking down the road and asking, “Am I going to make it?” It’s a long road, and at the same time your friends are out of university and getting real jobs. One day, I decided it was enough, and I went back to Montreal. I worked for a small mom-and-pop [security] operation, and after five years I decided to start my own. The rest is history.

Q: You acquired Garda in 1999. What were the dynamics of the security services industry at the time that led you to believe you could make a serious go of this thing?

A: When I started the business—I don’t want to insult anyone, but it was security people in business instead of business people in security. We had security people trying to build a police-type model. We tried to replicate a model that existed in Europe in the early ’70s. Those companies really accelerated their growth when Europe discovered terrorism; [Europe] needed the help of a more modern and professional private sector to help take care of national security.

Q: In 2002, you said that you wanted Garda to become the “Wal-Mart of security.” What exactly does that mean?

A: It’s what I would call a one-stop shop. Before, the model was, when you wanted a security guard, you’d call one company. When you want an investigation or an armoured truck, you’d call another. I wanted a model where you call one number and find everything without having to pay a premium.

Q: You bought Garda in 1999 and 9/11 happened two years later. Your entry into the business couldn’t have been better timed, it seems.

A: I said, in an article six months before 9/11, that if I had a department that could put trouble in the world, I’d be a millionaire. Unfortunately, 9/11 has been good to us, not necessarily in adding more business, but it forced the industry to become more professionalized in North America.

Q: In 2006, after decrying the lack of security in Canada’s corporate headquarters, you bought Intertec Security, which specialized in office protection. How much do you think Canadian corporate security has improved since?

A: Corporate security is better. People at least think about it. But if you go in any building in Boston, Chicago or New York, there’s screening done at the lobby level. Today, in many Bay Street offices, you can practically go directly up to the office of a CEO. We like this image that nothing will happen in Canada, and I hope nothing does. But I think it’s a question of when, not if.

Q: It almost sounds like you need some sort of calamity to happen to get people to react.

A: We don’t wish that. But I don’t think people understand that there are things happening in the world, and that Canada could be a target.

Q: Between 2005 and 2006, Garda spent roughly $250 million acquiring various security firms in America and the Middle East. Why was everybody selling at that point?

A: Most of those acquisitions were in the cash and armoured car business. The reason for that is because the barrier for entry is quite difficult. You can’t just buy a few trucks, buy a vault and call Jamie Dimon at J.P. Morgan Chase and say, “Mr. Dimon, I’m going to start transporting your money.” These acquisitions were key to competing against Brinks. As far as the Middle East, we got into the region by acquiring a company in 2006 that was providing security to an oil and gas team in Kurdistan. It went from three to 1,300 employees covering the oil and gas sector there. We needed more support, and saw the potential because the industry wasn’t very professional there.

Q: Why the Middle East, given that it’s so fraught with danger and potential PR disasters?

A: You’re right, but at the same time you can have a PR disaster at Toronto Pearson, you can have a PR disaster in the shooting of armoured trucks. We’ve been extremely selective. People say, well, you’re just another Blackwater. But companies like Blackwater and Triple Canopy work as subcontractors to the U.S. government and army. We don’t. We work for NGOs in dangerous areas—oil and gas companies, reconstruction companies. We don’t work in war zones. When Iraq was at war, we weren’t there. We were in Kurdistan. We came in with the reconstruction of Iraq. In Afghanistan we are working almost exclusively with NGOs. We’re very specific about the type of business we want to do. We could do the same business as Blackwater, but it’s not the kind of culture we are looking at.

Q: The company made news again with the hostage situation in which four GardaWorld employees were killed in 2007. The man they were protecting, computer consultant Peter Moore, has been fairly critical of the company. He said that the four men hadn’t been killed by gunshots to the head as you alleged. For the record, what exactly happened?

A: This was a very unfortunate event, and we respect Mr. Moore’s opinion, but we need to remind everyone that he’s publicly praised our four men for help during his captivity. I think he was upset about things that were said, and he’s gone through a rough time. It’s a terrible incident, but unfortunately things like that do happen. We’re not necessarily in contact with Mr. Moore. As I said, it’s unfortunate what he went through, but the good news is: he was released, thanks to efforts from the British government, the U.S. government. We’ve respected the families by not commenting on the situation.

Q: According to an article published in the Independent, the British Foreign Office was surprised to find out that Garda didn’t have kidnap insurance at the time of the kidnapping. Is that indeed the case?

A: I would say that kidnap and ransom [K&R]insurance is not relevant in this situation. We have K&R insurance that is related to our business, and we’ve got an undertaking with the insurance company never to comment on the kind of insurance that we have. Sometimes there are statements that come out of government that are misleading. I wouldn’t say this one is misleading, but I wouldn’t comment more than that.

Q: But is the $100-million contract you have with the British Foreign Office still in effect?

A: Yes, this is in Iraq, for diplomatic protection in Baghdad and Basra and Irbil. It’s going very well.

Q: It also came to light that Garda was hired to guard Saadi Gadhafi during his visit to Canada. I realize you had nothing to do with him coming here, but from a PR perspective how much damage does it do to your image when incidents like this come to light?

A: First of all, we work for clients. Sometimes we protect VIPs that are in-country—the Saudi [royal] family in America. For Gadhafi, we worked four days for a client [SNC-Lavalin] to offer driver services. This client decided to take things internally. We didn’t work a lot with Gadhafi while he was in Canada. We can’t always be worrying about the PR risk. We are in a high-profile business. There was a labour disruption at Garda in Toronto, and we were top news for two days across Canada. We had an employee killed a few weeks ago in the U.S. in a shooting. It’s quite unfortunate, but it’s part of the business. We were working with a publicly traded company [SNC-Lavalin] which had, and still has, an excellent brand in Canada, and it’s not for us to judge the government that let him into the country.

Q: You also recently hired Daniel Ménard, the Canadian general who resigned in disgrace in 2010 following an intimate relationship with a subordinate. What does Mr. Ménard bring to the table?

A: Unfortunately, I would say that Mr. Ménard screwed up. I think he had a great career in the military here, and was probably one of the top soldiers in Canada before he really screwed up. I would say that, in my personal view, I think he’s a talented expert with tremendous expertise, and he’s helping our operation in Afghanistan.

Q: The stereotype of Quebec is that’s it’s a government-heavy entrepreneurial graveyard, and you seemed to have bucked that with Garda. Given this, how much truth is there to that cliché?

A: It is very difficult to do business in Quebec. We never got grants, we never got equity. The U.S. and certain parts of Canada are easier. And it’s tough when you’re as labour intensive as we are. I’m a big promoter of Montreal and Quebec, but if we want entrepreneurs to continue growing businesses, we need some major changes. There should be many other stories like Garda coming out of Quebec.