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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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GTS - Scotland’s first “social” security firm

This feature is almost 9 years old

As Robert Armour discovers a security firm that aims to use its status as a social enterprise to create jobs and change the culture of the industry

“If your name's not on the list, you're not coming in” – so used to be the expression of many a nightclub bouncer.

Chance upon a door steward from GTS Solutions however and you’ll probably be greeted with an uncharacteristic but a whole lot more welcoming “hello” followed by a jovial bit of banter.

As Scotland’s first and only socially-driven security group, GTS aims to clean up an industry famous for aggressive, unfriendly behaviour while at the same time giving a hand up to young people struggling to get on the career ladder.

From door stewards and major event stewarding, to training and first aid, the Edinburgh-based social firm believes it is taking professionalism to a new level by focusing on its social impact and giving young people a chance where other employers won’t.

Founder Chris Thewlis, who has decades of experience in the security industry, in an industry which has the unfortunate reputation of being ruled by gangsters and criminals, GTS is a refreshing change for those just wanting a bona fide company that can be trusted.

“We’re driven by professionalism and strict business ethics – but we’re not here to clean up the security industry,” he says.

“Our customers, many of whom are charities, come to us because we’re trustworthy, reliable and competitive. It’s a hard sell if you’re trying to pitch business just round the fact you’re a social enterprise. In business people don’t worry about your credentials – they want value and they want good service.”

“Our customers, many of whom are charities, come to us because we’re trustworthy, reliable and competitive. It’s a hard sell if you’re trying to pitch business just round the fact you’re a social enterprise

Part of that trust is being built by showing it is a responsible employer – gaining Living Wage accreditation last year. As low wages and zero hour contracts is the norm for the security industry Thewlis believes it is one of the first things the industry needs to address if it is to be serious about turning its reputation around.

“Zero hours contracts can suit individuals working casual hours but employers have a responsibility to offer secure employment to their staff,” he says.

“It’s the least you can do as an employer. Part of the reason I started this social enterprise was because I saw the low standards in the industry. I also experienced very high standards – and that’s what I aim for.”

A tie-in with the Princes Trust enables young people to get started in the sector. GTS runs a five-week programme alongside the charity designed to give young people the skills, experience and confidence they need to get a first foot on the career ladder.

During the five weeks, young people gain the qualifications needed to start a career in the sector including Security Industry Authority (SIA) door supervision and SIA CCTV licences, first aid at work, and fire marshal training. They also gain knowledge of issues such as substance misuse and understanding diversity before going on to shadow security professionals at high-profile venues and events.

“Training is crucial in the security industry, especially when they are young,” says Thewlis. “Security has traditionally attracted certain types of individuals many of whom were unvetted.

GTS is also encouraging more women to enter the industry. Research by G4S, one of the world’s biggest security contractors, shows women are often better at dealing with potentially volatile situations, remaining calmer for longer than their male counterparts.

Phoebe McRindle who volunteered with the Princes Trust and undertook security industry training as part of a structured employment programme, says she believes security can offer young people a decent career but only if they continue to upgrade their skills and training.

“It’s a very fast moving industry in terms of legislation and regulations,” she said. “So if you want to progress you need to always be up to date with industry standards. That means refresher courses and training whenever you can.

“It works – I’m a Grade 2 supervisor meaning I’m able to manage staff at large events and gatherings. It’s a big responsibility and I want to continue to work my way up the career ladder, maybe one day starting a security company of my own.”

And she says being a women has never presented problems she couldn’t cope with.

“I’ve not seen any real issues with me being female,” she says. “It is a male-dominated world but it just makes you a bit thicker skinned to be honest. I’ve never had any issues I couldn’t deal with myself.

“There’s a lot of banter but that’s fine. If you can’t deal with that, well, you might not be cut out for the industry in the first place because you’ll hear a lot worse when you’re dealing with the public.”

While the industry won’t change its reputation overnight, Thewlis hopes other companies will follow his example and start to be more socially responsible.

“It has commercial benefits too,” says Thewlis, referring to the fact GTS is on the Scottish Government’s procurement list to provide manned guarding services, event safety and security across all 32 local authorities.

“We’re really proud of being chosen. It’s recognition of the work we’re doing and of what we have achieved.”

With business doing well, Thewlis is already turning his head to new ideas, and he’s been captivated by the social enterprise model. So, his next venture is to open a pub in Edinburgh’s city centre – another sector you don’t automatically identify with social enterprise.

Thewlis explains: “It makes a lot of sense because it will employ young people on a decent, secure wage, giving them experience on all aspects of the licensed trade – on the doors, in the bar, in the kitchen.

“Employers can also come and see them in action while they train. It’ll basically be a shop window to show their skills and training to employers.”

The key to Thewlis’ success so far, he believes, is keeping an eye on the business side as being social good doesn’t make you sustainable. Thewlis reckons far too many people think social enterprise means free service.

“You're there to make a profit so that the profit can deliver the social aims of your business,” he says.

“You need to remember that. Don’t let the social aims become your entire ethos. You need to make money every day. So it’s a two way street – people and profit.”