Who to call when you’re stuck in a battle zone

Timothy Barber
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IF TIMING is everything in business, then rarely can anyone have got their timing quite so spot on as Ted Jones. The former army officer founded his company, Northcott Global Solutions (NGS), a mere 16 months ago, with the aim of revolutionising the rather exciting world of emergency evacuation – getting people out of global hot spots. All he needed were some hot spots.

And then the Arab Spring happened.

You may remember the media brouhaha about the droves of Brits stranded in the desert when the Libyan crisis kicked off earlier this year. It was those people’s misfortune that they didn’t have insurance details with Jones’s outfit.

“In Tripoli our first plane was airborne in two hours, and the biggest assistance company out there arrived pretty much 36 hours after we’d finished evacuating everybody we were looking after,” says Jones, a blunt-talking 36-year-old who’s every inch the former Irish Guards captain. “In Cairo we had guys on the ground in 15 minutes, and there’s no other company in our area that can say that.”

NGS’s area is a fascinating one, and one that’s been profoundly shaken up by the Middle East’s ongoing ructions. Emergency evacuation is effectively a sub-section of the insurance industry, which contracts expert companies to extract people from situations ranging from skiing accidents to war zones. According to Jones, no-matter how potentially high-octane the work, it’s a business that has fallen seriously behind the times and been found wanting.

“We set up as a medical evacuation company, and that’s the traditional assistance industry model,” he says. “That’s a model that’s 30 years old now, in which at its most basic, you put a doctor on a plane and fly him to the nearest airport.”

In a globalised world, with far more travel to dangerous, hard-to-reach areas than three decades ago, Jones argues a more flexible kind of business was required – one in which you don’t have to wait for people to fly out to help you.

“Any company worth its salt is sending people all over the world now, and the old assistance model is no longer fit for purpose,” he says. His solution reflects the horizontal, network-based models of the modern business age. He employs just 22 people, all highly-experienced army veterans, based in a high-tech City office (think finger-print ID, huge maps and satellite tracking screens) who manage an international database of on-the-ground contacts all over the world. These range from local security companies and police services to coastguards, transport contractors and intelligence operatives. The database currently contains around 7,000 service providers across the globe – Jones describes the database as his toolbox. When things get lively in a particular region, NGS can put together the tools it needs to have people operational instantly.

“After Egypt and Libya, our client list really doesn’t look like a company that’s only a year and a half old,” says Jones. “The existing contingency plans were blown out of the water, and a lot of companies had to hobble together to get their people out, while even some of the biggest high street banks sacked their security guys because they found out that they’re not evacuation planners. That’s what we do.”

Jones’s strength is not just in his military background. After an army career that took him to Kosovo, Macedonia, Ireland and Iraq, he worked for insurance underwriters who specialised in kidnap and ransom, before moving to an insurance brokers and doing his insurance exams. He then set up the operational side of an evacuation company based out of Oman and specialising in the Iraqi market, but realised that he could do something with a truly global reach.

“I just reverted to type, if I’m honest,” he says. “I thought, how would the military work? If a guy gets blown up in Afghanistan there’s a multi-dimensional response, immediately putting together all the elements in the chain.”

Jones estimates that, in the month before we spoke, NGS turned over £500,000 alone. So flexible is the business model that, as well as extracting people, it has been used for activities like securing and shutting down industrial facilities abandoned in the wake of unrest or transporting whole oil-rigs through the desert. Jones has even developed a profitable side-business selling transportable emergency medical units set up in transport containers, just as the military use.

“It’s fortuitous, but really we want the world to be a quiet place,” Jones says of his good timing. “When it isn’t, though, you want grown-ups to sort it.”