Sukhi Ghuman gets back Octavian
WHERE do corporate lawyers go when they decide they don't want to do law any more? The security business wouldn't be most lawyers' idea of a second career but this is exactly where Sukhi Ghuman went when he decided that he wanted more out of life than City law firm Nabarro Nathanson could provide.
Ghuman, a graduate of Nottingham Trent University, set up Octavian Security in 2003 and through a blend of aggressive growth and helpful publicity the firm has gone on to become almost a ubiquitous name in local and regional security.
Despite almost going under when his bank pulled the rug out from under his feet, Ghuman bounced back with the help of a seven-figure investment from a friend and quickly began to rebuild the business and expand abroad and into other areas of business.
He has now set up security operations in the USA and last year established Octavian Pharma to distribute medical aids abroad.
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Yet despite this, the bluechip customers and the fast cars that Ghuman likes so much, the Octavian name may be best known because of publicity over his employment of large numbers of ex-Gurkha soldiers. That was in 2005 but the story resurfaced in 2012 when it had all the benefit of public sympathy for the Gurkhas, who had fought the Government for the right to stay in Britain after retirement.
"We camped outside their barracks and took around 40 at once, trained them and then let them loose," Ghuman recalls. "Their discipline was amazing."
The Gurkhas' first task was security at the Ikea car park near Eastwood which, at the time, says Ghuman, had a reputation as the being most crime-ridden car park in the county. The operation was, by all accounts, a success.
Since those days, Ghuman's business interests have widened considerably. Octavian is now based in Nottingham, at Riverside Business Park, following a move from Derby, and employs 800 people.
The company provides all security for Nottingham City Council, while private sector clients include Prologis, Lend Lease, BNP Paribas and Laing O'Rourke,
A few days after we met, Ghuman was off to the USA to keep up to date with Octavian Security USA, which operates out of Oklahoma and Arizona.
Ghuman admits that the USA has been a harder market to break into than he expected and Octavian has encountered some resistance from homegrown security operators who didn't want a British firm on their turf.
"What we realised is that we needed local partners," says Ghuman. "We started in Tulsa, Oklahoma and that was very old school. We've now branched into Arizona which is a bit more cosmopolitan."
The ten-year story of Octavian's growth is all the more interesting because of Ghuman's career origins as a City lawyer.
This can hardly be called humble beginnings and it is inevitable that one asks why he felt the need to move into security. Although it had something to do with not wanting to be "subservient" in someone else's business, Ghuman's response is that his lawyer's salary was not enough for his lifestyle and he wanted another business to supplement his and wife's income.
He is, he admits, a high-flyer with a passion for fast cars. At the age of 35 he currently owns four including the Porsche 911 GTS he drove to our meeting. He is also an unabashed self-promoter (on the Sukhi Ghuman website he bills himself as 'International entrepreneur, charismatic and engaging keynote speaker.')
All of this, perhaps, is arguably the natural corollary of being an entrepreneur – and a very successful one at that. Ghuman now sits on the development board of Nottingham Trent University, where he graduated from in 1999.
Although the consortium of which he was part failed in its bid to take control of Notts County FC in 2010 – Ghuman claimed the bid was rejected – his ambitions in sport are reflected in India where he is commercial director of 20/20 Football India.
How, though, did a lawyer set up a security business from scratch?
Since Ghuman, then aged 25, was wise enough to realise he wouldn't be taken seriously in the business when he went on knocking on doors, he teamed up with a former Nottinghamshire police chief superintendent called Mick Burrows.
The late Burrows (he died in 2009) was the experienced older head while Ghuman was the young gun with legal experience. The gap in the security market that Ghuman identified lay between large and relatively unresponsive operators and small firms who were unable to provide a service to bluechip clients.
Octavian, Ghuman saw, would be small enough to talk to but big enough to provide a professional range of services to corporate customers. Ghuman himself wasn't a total stranger to the practical side of the job, either, having paid his way through university by working as a security guard a few nights a week in Leicester.
"I learned what to do, and what not do to," he says. "I knew about shortcuts in the job because I had done them myself."
The first Octavian job? "Security at a Sainsbury's car park in Wakefield which had a problem with heroin addicts. It was a complete tip. There'd been a death there. None of the big boys would touch it because of liability reasons."
After that: "The business grew because we had a topdown approach. People usually start from the bottom up and build up. But we started knocking on the doors of the BBC, Sky TV, FedEx, the larger companies. We had no fear."
The growth was abruptly halted at the end of 2009 when a volte-face by Yorkshire Bank left Octavian with what Ghuman calls a "week of no money" for his employees. Into the breach stepped Derby entrepreneur (and 'Secret Millionaire') Kavita Oberoi, who invested a seven-figure sum and joined the company as a director. Oberoi, who was also part of Ghuman's Notts County consortium, has since had her investment repaid and departed.
Ghuman's proudest project with Octavian was providing two dogs, trained to find narcotics and alcohol, to DHL in Dubai. His satisfaction with the project stems from dealing with and overcoming the considerable resistance that was put up by the Dubai police and port authority. Octavian? Ghuman chose the name because, better known as Augustus, Octavian was the first Roman Emperor and ruled Rome fairly – but firmly.