The Oracle: Taking the Long Way
What bomb disposal taught JLT's Justin Priestley about risk
Justin Priestly just happens to have those two accomplishments on his CV. Once a captain in the British Army and a graduate of Sandhust, Britain’s prestigious military academy, Priestley specialized in bomb disposal at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham. And, back in late September of 1999, he found himself with another officer dealing with an emergency—an experiment gone wrong—at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment near Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Local schools were emptied, kids taken away, a blast perimeter set up. And there was Priestley, dealing with “a very unstable compound that literally, if you bang a table or create any sort of [loud] movement… crystalizes, and it can detonate. So the job was really to go and render that safe.”
Walk too hard, the stuff could go off. Talk too loud, the stuff could go off. So Priestley and his team set up equipment in the room with the compound, then had nitric acid pumped through a 50-metre tube into a tank with the dangerous compound. Obviously, it worked; Harwell’s still standing, the birds are still singing, and Priestley’s still alive. In fact, he was awarded one of the UK’s highest decorations for his effort, the George Medal for gallantry.
“If you are… over a ticking bomb, your actions and reactions in the heat of the moment, when your rate is racing, could potentially be fatal.”
Talking about the episode prompts some of that famous British reserve— due credit to the team, et cetera. “You literally plan before you go down to where the device or the compound is, and you go and do a specific task, and then you go away and you regroup and rethink… And that’s one of the things that I suppose the UK has led on with regard to bomb disposal: the fact that it is a very planned process. And it needs to be that because, clearly, if you are over what effectively is a ticking bomb, your actions and reactions in the heat of the moment when your heart rate is racing could potentially be fatal.”
Aldgate is a long way, relatively speaking, from Oxfordshire, and while there, your heart will only race over the traffic snarls of inner city London. It’s the capital’s Insurance Mecca, with brokers and underwriters working in the shadow of the world’s most famous glass and steel pickle (“the Gherkin” building). As head of analytics and crisis consulting for JLT Group, Priestley prefers to take a very long view. “We don’t assume things. There are certain sections or parts of the world against particular industry sectors, and I think what we try and do is pare them back to understand what the operating environment is, and then what clients’ exposure to that operating environment might be. And only then can you start to look at where their exposures might be, how clients are potentially mitigating those risks, and how, ultimately, they are going to be able to operate in a safe environment.”
Terrorism, political risk, extortion, piracy—these are all in Priestley’s wheelhouse, specialties he’s worked in for JLT and, prior to that, as Aon’s CEO of crisis management. And he says they’re areas where boardroom executives have to think outside the box. While the oil and gas industries have long had exposure around the world, the hospitality trade, for example, has not. Priestley points out that the biz is generally perceived as a “soft” target. After all, no one wants to feel like they’re going through the TSA gauntlet at Reagan International when they check in.
“So when hotels get targeted, and leisure industry gets targeted, the word innovation really needs to come to the fore.” He says his company has helped clients “put measures and procedures in place that still make it a very accommodating environment for people to be in, but clearly don’t have necessarily the over-security presence that you may well see at military installations or embassies.”
Some people, he says, think terrorism resilience is about CCTV cameras, fences and access control. But for many clients, it’s not about all that. “It’s more about softer issues, about training for people to look for things that are out of place, and when these groups come and do reconnaissance, [the industry is] perceived as a harder target, because all of these organizations want to succeed in their attacks, and therefore any potential risk mitigation measures that are in place… will be much harder.”
Maybe because he’s talking to one, Priestley thinks of journalists as another example. “By the sheer nature of what they do, when most people are evacuating out of a place… journalists are actually going into places. But all news bureaus have a duty of care for their employees, and even though they may well be sending them to a war zone or a place there’s civil unrest, or there’s been a terrorist incident, they still have to demonstrate that they have the duty of care interests of the people they’re sending at the forefront of everything they do, and need to be able to demonstrate that through a sensible risk management program.”
It’s an interesting point, considering that foreign correspondents can be adrenaline junkies. Canadian reporters are known for being willing to go anywhere—including hotspots where Americans won’t go. (Reporters like to quip that ABC News is “America By Canadians.”) How, then, to mitigate the risk? Priestley says training for a hazardous environment is important; so is awareness. “So journalists are moving around in, let’s say, unmarked cars that are not necessarily armored. And it’s a balance between the tradeoff being overt—where you’ve got that big security presence but everybody knows you’re there—to a more low profile event, profile standing, where you’re trying to… not necessarily raise a big white flag and say, ‘And here is where we are.’”
“We don’t template… What we do is listen.”
Having worked in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, Priestley is all too aware of how some places and cultures are less hospitable to foreign operations than others. “I think the first thing that we do is we abide by our principles, and integrity and honesty come through in everything that we do.”
“You’ve said that before, but I’m looking for the more practical,” I shoot back gently.
“But I think it’s an important point to note,” argues Priestley. “Because in certain countries local practice might contravene some of the principles that we stand by.” He says that doesn’t necessarily mean the company can’t achieve its aims and give good advice to clients: understanding the environment is where they excel. And, when things go wrong with big publicity fallouts, he adds, “I think sometimes that is very much because the controls and the pre-work haven’t necessarily been done. And you know, a lot of the time people get comfortable with their surroundings. If you’re operating in a country that has a very different culture and a very different governmental system, and you’ve been there a long time, you start to get numb to the sensitivities of that. And I think what we can do is bring a very objective view, and provide advice to our clients on how to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
He underscores that the client also needs strong management that can “absolutely put a hand up and say this is wrong”—to provide moral courage.
Priestley says his clients vary enormously, so the company has to be flexible to suit their needs. “So we don’t template—you’re operating in Egypt or Nigeria, this is what you must have. What we do is we listen. And I think that’s an important skill that some people forget.”
Since the aim of our new feature, “The Oracle,” is to focus on innovative thinking, I was intrigued by the wording in a brochure for one of JLT’s risk model products: “…macro-urban jihadi terrorism therefore remains the most consistent area of focus for terrorism and political violence models and, as a corollary, there is little consideration by these models of events with other scales of impact, incidents committed by groups with differing intent, or the potential impact of any of the core political violence perils.” When I ask Priestley to break that down for me, he points out that such models look at “big things going bang in city centres” but it has to be remembered, “there is no model-to-model terrorism and political violence prior to September 11th. So the first model that came about was as a result of September 11, and so you can excuse them for looking at macro-jihadi terrorism.
“What we’re saying, though, is actually, if you look at the losses over the last five years, they haven’t come from those types of events. They’ve come from smaller attritional losses, which some models may well not look at… What we’ve basically said is, look, yes, bad things can still happen, and we still need to be able to model those, but… equally, we need to be able to model a Mumbai style event.” The bombs and shootings in Mumbai in 2008 lasted four days and killed 174 people. “So, two different things: one is a model that’s looking at financial risks, the other is advice to clients on how to operate in these environments, [and] understanding how that risk actually moves around.”
Priestley says he and his team are trying to bring an ability to look at a wider spectrum of possible attacks— suicide devices, handheld devices, biological, nuclear—“as opposed to maybe just 10 or 11 jihadi urban terrorism events. So it’s just a different play on it, and I think it’s useable more for insurance markets. It does enable us to look at clients’ exposure and give us a feel for the likely losses in the event of some of these scenarios happening at some of their key locations…”
A recognition, in a way, that sometimes the bombs do go off.
Thinking back to how Priestley took care of that potential nuclear disaster years ago, I suggest that the incident serves as a perfect analogy for risk management. “I totally agree with that,” says Priestley. “I think, you know, it’s very much like a crisis where information at the early stages is very limited, and through investigations, through communication, through fact finding, you get more facts, and that crystallizes the approach and the way you’re going to deal with a particular crisis.”
Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the July 2014 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine