The Protector: Robert Burns

When “going postal” entered the corporate lexicon, Canpro King-Reed CEO Robert Burns saw opportunities in private security that went far beyond pat-downs at the stadium entrance.

Robert Burns, Canpro King-Reed | BCBusiness

When “going postal” entered the corporate lexicon, Canpro King-Reed CEO Robert Burns saw opportunities in private security that went far beyond pat-downs at the stadium entrance.

When rioting erupted in downtown Vancouver at the conclusion of this year’s Stanley Cup finals, Canpro King-Reed LP swung into action. Clients leaving Rogers Arena were smoothly evacuated from what was becoming a battleground, unaware of what was unfolding on Georgia Street. And staff of one client, watching the growing mayhem from their highrise offices, were booked into a hotel for the night.

The events were unusual for Vancouver, but not for Canpro, which regularly addresses security concerns for governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations.

“Corruption and lawlessness and a lack of civil order affects a very big part of the world,” says president and CEO Robert Burns. But his company is in the business of making sure its clients are safe, even in the most dangerous spots. “Most of our clients didn’t even see what was taking place as they were leaving the hockey game and escorted to other locations,” he notes of the June 15 riot in Vancouver.

It’s the sort of success that has made Coquitlam-based Canpro one of Canada’s fastest-growing providers of security services to corporations, with annual growth averaging 46 per cent over the past seven years. This summer it completed a merger with Toronto-based King-Reed that positions it for even broader global growth, while head office remains in Coquitlam.

The combined company offers close to 200 services through five divisions, which handle everything from occupational health and safety to risk assessment in locales from Alberta to Zambia. Fees as high as $100 an hour drive revenues of $40 million annually, a step above the average private security firm but just a fraction of a global industry estimated to be worth $100 billion. Security, after all, isn’t just about guarding personnel and property, but includes a complex and rapidly changing set of factors.

A company can’t have one department for security, another for safety and another that looks after legal matters, says Burns. “They all end up working together. Anything that puts the company at risk, anything that would run through a risk manager and the corporate lawyer would be something that would also hit our desk.”

Burns, 48, comes by the business honestly, with careers in policing and corrections running in the family. A long-time practitioner of martial arts, his own interest was business. Graduating from university in 1984 with a major in criminal justice, he entered the security field and established what would become Canpro Global Services Inc. in 1992, partnering with former RCMP serious-crime investigators.

The need for corporate security and risk mitigation

But the shootings at U.S. mail sorting plants in the 1980s and ’90s due to what Burns terms “high-risk terminations” (which spawned the phrase “going postal”) heralded the need for corporate risk management on an uprecedented level. “Workplace violence” was entering the corporate lexicon, and the onus was falling on employers to protect staff from dangerous personalities inside and outside the workplace.

Meanwhile, globalization was taking companies farther afield than ever before. The pressures on companies to take care of employees at home was paralleled by questions of how to ensure their safety overseas. “Canadian corporations on all fronts are accepting risk at a higher level to try and get reward. And the world has become a riskier place to do business and they need to address those risks,” Burns says. A client running an oil and gas company in Alberta’s oil sands, Burns explains, should enjoy the same approach to safety and security, the same level of social responsibility, as it would for its operations in Iraq, Africa or Mexico.

The risks aren’t only to employee safety. Private security may be fine for that, but Burns explains that Canpro analyzes how simply being in a place may affect a company’s reputation, citing the example of public attention arising from Talisman Energy’s involvement in Sudan in the late 1990s. “Most of our clients are very concerned at being seen in the wrong light because it travels at the speed of light around the world,” Burns says, noting that protecting brand reputation is now a significant part of its business. “You don’t want to get into a situation where [you] have an unskilled worker creating an oil spill that costs not just millions of dollars, or even billions of dollars, but that also affects the whole industry, it affects share value, it affects human safety.”

Burns describes Canpro’s comprehensive approach as the characteristic that distinguishes it in a crowded field. He points to Canpro’s management of Robson Square on behalf of the province during the 2010 Winter Olympics as a case in point. The relative openness of the venue – perhaps the biggest public gathering spot in the city – reflected an elegant security plan.

“Someone arriving at the venue just feels like they’ve been greeted by some very polite people, taken their coat, been given a gift, escorted onto the elevator into a wonderful party,” Burns says. “But there [was] a whole series of mitigating strategies put into place to do that.”