Worried? Call the Dick Tracys of the business world

IMAGINE arriving at work one day to find that your office building has been devastated by an explosion and your whole business operation has been rendered useless.

It might sound like something more likely to happen in London than here in Hongkong, but terrorist bombs are not the only things that can cause havoc to a business. Floods, fires, gas leaks - the insurance might take care of the losses, but what about getting back to work? Computer systems must be salvaged, and communications re-established - and time is money.

Heavier reliance on high technology might mean your business is more efficient, but it might also mean it is more vulnerable.

Companies do not only have to guard against the dangers of power failures and computer viruses in the 1990s. Hackers, computer blackmailers and electronic saboteurs are all coming our way.

Add to these potential dangers the more common threats of kidnapping, covert surveillance, and many more, and you have a enough problems to make any executive paranoid.

In Hongkong the threat of encountering a downed computer system is certainly more real than finding out that the company's CEO has been kidnapped. But in other parts of Asia, in emerging and sometimes unstable markets, physical risk to executives is veryreal. Take the spate of kidnappings in Manila during the past year, for example.


Enter the risk consultants. Some might call them scare-mongers, but if you have prepared for the worst, the worst is far less likely to happen. They have been called everything from private sleuths to security managers. They specialise in sorting out your crises, usually before they even happen.

Kroll Associates, once described by the New York Times as a ''CIA for hire'' has identified a worrying trend in the US. According to Kroll Associates (Asia) operations director Steve Vickers, there are growing instances in America of former employees sabotaging company records, doctoring accounts, infecting computer systems with viruses, and generally throwing a spanner in the works.

And in Hongkong the exposure to computer fraud, or sabotage, is growing, as hackers and conmen are making their way east.

Fraud itself is on the rise in Hongkong as well. ''I'm convinced that as 1997 draws near, white collar crime is increasing. Corruption is on the rise both in the government and the private sectors,'' said Mr Vickers, who was director of criminal investigations with the Hongkong Government before he joined Kroll.


The demand for the services of companies such as Kroll is clearly growing. Instances of corporations becoming victims of criminal activities is also growing, but, says Mr Vickers, the police force is already being stretched and its ability to fight crimein the boardroom is limited because of other priorities.

''It's about time big business policed itself,'' he said.


Fraud and ''below-the-table dealings'' are becoming far more sophisticated. For example, with the demise of the former Soviet Union, Russian-made James Bond-style eavesdropping equipment has found its way on to the commercial market, available to anyone who can afford it.

''The amount of bugging in this town is growing rapidly,'' said Mr Vickers, as he flicked through a sales manual featuring cigarette boxes containing electronic listeners, telephone tapping equipment and devices that would impress any intelligence agency.

Consequently, Kroll is doing a brisk trade in ''sweeping'' offices - or removing bugs - and finding out who put them there, how they put them there, and why they put them there.


On another track, one of the best ways to avoid getting ripped off, or ending up doing business with a party which is less than suited to your company's image and reputation, is to have partnerschecked out.

Much of Kroll's work for Hongkong clients is in this field. They call it due diligence, or vetting. At present, about 30 per cent of the group's activities in the territory is concentrated in this area. Long gone are the days of a gentleman's agreement, and hand-shake deals.

The business might all seem like a romantic adventure, but Mr Vickers says the image of private eyes tailing targets down dark streets has no place in his company's operations. ''We understand business, and we promise not to wear rain coats,'' he said.


Raincoat-clad private-eyes would appear to suit the image of Pinkerton, the detective agency that gained fame for chasing bad guys such as Jesse James and the hole-in-the-wall gang. But the 143-year old firm has abandoned its Sam Spade image.

In Hongkong, the company does a lot of investigative work in the field of copyright protection, much of it in China, where abuse is widespread.

Pinkerton is more of a security firm, employing 45,000-plus people around the world providing security guards, drivers, the lot. This is a market that the company hopes to shake up in Hongkong within a couple of years, when it plans to establish a security service complete with armoured cars.

The difference between Pinkerton's service and that of existing security firms, says managing director Dan Grove, will be made by the company's computer vetting system, whereby staff are screened for their suitability. ''The guards themselves are not always the solution. Sometimes they are the problem,'' he said.

Kroll has seen its business snowball in recent years, with the last 12 months the most productive on record. On the other hand, Mr Grove says Pinkerton's operations are slowing: ''We have had a lot of business taken away by people who used to work here, but who have since left and set up their own, small operations.

''We have been doing a lot of work in copyright protection, but anti-counterfeiting business is way down, mainly because companies don't see it as a priority, and because we have lost out to former employees.'' China is a rapid-growth market for the firm. ''There is a lot of work to be done in China in the field of emergency planning,'' said Mr Grove.

''There is a chance of political turmoil, so we have been drawing up evacuation plans for US companies and have been telling them what to do if hostilities break out.'' While Kroll will assess your company's vulnerability to intruders coming in via a computer system, Pinkerton will advise on your office's security on a more physically dangerous level. The recent law-firm mass-shooting in a San Francisco sky-scraper underlines the need to keep undesirables out of the work place, be it an office, factory or other facility.

''In the US I have seen cases where a husband has walked on to the factory floors, and blown his wife's head off. Although there may not be so many guns around in this part of the world, it might be a knife or other weapon, so security in the workplace must be considered,'' said Mr Grove.

Both Pinkerton and Kroll Associates publish risk assessments of countries worldwide. Kroll's service is moving on-line, and Pinkerton is teaming up with a large Japanese research establishment.

Either of these firms can tell you if it is risky to travel to a particular city on any particular day. They also offer more obvious advice to business travellers; advice from how to take precautions against the threat of kidnapping right down to advice about crooked taxi drivers.