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How to Protect Executives and Board Members Against Hostile Shareholders and Protesters

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Google “shareholder meeting attack” and you’ll be amazed at the number of stories that come up. Most of them are about non-violent attacks – protest groups, people launching hostile bids or shareholders complaining about executive salaries or positions. But, violent or not, looking at the Google results (and reading this blog post or listening to this podcast episode) you’ll soon see why it’s imperative for CEOs and prominent company executives to have executive protection and risk mitigation strategies in place.

Can executives and board members really be attacked during meetings?

Unfortunately, there are all too many examples of assailants managing to attack executives at board meetings or events. In recent time, here in Australia, Qantas Airlines CEO Alan Joyce was set upon by a pie-wielding protester. A man managed to walk in, uninvited, to a business breakfast at which Joyce was speaking. He strolled through the hotel, into the meeting room, and made it all the way up to the stage without being stopped by anyone, let alone security, carrying a lemon pie. Imagine what would have happened if that was a knife, or a glass of acid, which isn’t uncommon in places like the UK? The consequences could have been devastating.

Looking at Alan Joyce’s profile, a security professional would have seen there was a high chance of attack considering his previous financial controversies and social commentary. Disgruntled shareholders in financial difficulty might have sought what they perceived as ‘justice’ over the affair. As it happens the assailant, Tony Overheu, was protesting about Joyce’s views on gay marriage which was the topic of a recent public vote here in Australia. But again, a security professional would have known that Joyce’s views on gay marriage could have upset the right wing. It’s a textbook example of why executive protection should be in place for a high-level CEO.

In another recent and related incident, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was head butted by a left wing individual reported to be upset about Tony’s negative stance on gay marriage. And while Tony Abbott, a former amateur boxer, could have no doubt taken care of himself, imagine how things would have gone down if Tony had let loose on a member of the public? It already made front page news!

This attack prompted people to ask whether Australia should consider a protection detail on our former Prime Ministers – there are many nations that do. Though the debate got mixed response, the truth is that any high profile individual would be wise to consider executive protection. We don’t want to see politicians, CEOs or executives embarrassed, assaulted or injured. Security should be seen as an investment in productivity and reputation as well as safety.

What kind of businesses have a higher risk of protest or violent behaviour against executives?

There’s always potential for protesters, issue-motivated groups or politically-motivated groups to disrupt operations, whether that be through attack or causing embarrassment. For example, many people remember the 2010 Nestle shareholder meeting in Switzerland, where a man concealed himself in the rafters, and abseiled down with a banner protesting Nestle’s use of palm oil harming orangutans. Even though no one was hurt, and the intention was ‘good’, it highlighted how someone committed to a cause could go to great lengths and be undetected. It also reminds us that executives and board members need protection not just against physical threats, but the threat of embarrassment and damaged reputation too. That meeting will only ever be remembered for the negative publicity it generated and the ‘scandal’ that Nestle had to manage as a result.

We’ve worked across multiple sectors, financial, mining and construction industries for example, which are generally targeted by left wing and conservation protestors. CEOs in big business and Fortune 500 companies are targets for everything from physical attacks through to embarrassment. Some of the larger construction company executives have a significant risk profile and can be held to ransom by militant unions whose lines of ‘acceptable’ industrial action is somewhat blurred. Such instances include CEOs being targeted physically, by embarrassing them on camera, or by impeding their movements on a site, in their workplace, or to and from their workplace.

In another rather extreme example, Freddy Heineken was kidnapped in 1983, proving that even beer moguls are at risk. So it’s pretty broad.

Do these executives need protection just at meetings, or are there other situations where they might be at risk?

It’s not just at shareholder meetings that executives are open to attack. If the company is in the red, or not doing well, there are likely to be disgruntled shareholders. But even at board meetings, it’s a wise move to have trained static executive protection security checking off IDs as people come and go, making sure the room has the right people in it and the uninvited aren’t getting in, organising secure transfers and transportation to and from the actual location. Many board members who fly in and out of Australia to conduct meetings tend to do other activities outside of work, like going to sporting events. We’ve provided executive protection, secure transfers and transport for those events, which might include going to the event space prior to them getting there and doing a full advance.

If executives are travelling for business, (and we discussed this in episodes two and three of the Wheels Up podcast), it’s always a good idea to either consult with a risk management firm or have someone locally provide them with security and a safety support.

At what point should a board or an executive team bring in a professional to help or at least have their risk assessed?

We suggest the sooner you can start planning the better. Obviously, there are specifics that will take a while to lock down and sometimes this can’t be done until the eleventh hour, but the bulk of the planning should be done well in advance.

Should people attending shareholder meetings or business breakfasts or similar go through a security screening, or is that taking things too far?

Security should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. It doesn’t need to be overly intrusive – a security guy with a wand – but security should always be paramount. It’s not just the CEO at risk, it’s anyone involved in the meeting. And don’t forget, there’s a duty of care to everyone present to ensure they’re in a safe environment.

It’s the job of a security team or an executive protection operative to weigh up the risk of their high-profile person and make a decision whether they need to step in and intercept a potential threat or not. So, whether that be a pie in the face, a knife, acid, or just someone who wants to abseil a building and disrupt a meeting, an executive protection operative will identify that and make the right risk assessment. Without that operative there, you’re leaving yourself open.

For more information about how and when to hire an executive protection agent, readers/listeners are invited to sign up below to download our free book – How to Hire an Executive Protection Agent – Who Needs A Bodyguard And How Do You Hire One? – or to contact us directly.

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