LONDON – The boss of British security group G4S said Saturday he was sorry that his company had bungled the contract to help protect the 2012 Olympic Games, a humbling televised apology that followed days of ugly news about his firm's failures.
Nick Buckles spoke to the BBC as British newspapers were filled with accounts of chaotic recruitment, sloppy security, and even an allegation that some G4S staffers weren't fluent in English. The firm has not been able to provide enough guards, and some 3,500 British troops are being called in to help fill the gap in security and police have been put on notice that they may need to help fill the breach.
"We're deeply disappointed and we certainly are very sorry for what's happened over the last week or two," the chief executive said. "It's a very complex process. No one's ever undertaken to recruit 10,000 fully-trained security staff for such a lengthy period of time."
In December G4S PLC promised to provide that number of people to help keep the games safe, although in reality far more than 10,000 people need to be recruited in order to compensate for attrition, sickness, and absenteeism. Buckles said that the operation was a "mammoth undertaking" involving a complex recruitment operation in five or six different stages, adding that, as of Saturday, some 4,000 people were on the ground and that about 9,000 people were still in the pipeline — which still leaves a significant shortfall.
Buckles added that he only became aware of the problem eight or nine days ago.
His comments came as the British unearthed one episode after another of apparent incompetence at the Crawley, England-based company.
The Daily Mirror tabloid quoted Sarah Hubble, whom it described as a former G4S recruiter, as saying that background checks were skipped to meet targets and that sensitive recruitment material was left lying around the company's offices. Its right-leaning rival, The Sun, quoted an unnamed former police officer as saying that some security guards couldn't speak English.
In earlier comments to BBC radio, Buckles couldn't guarantee that all his staffers spoke fluent English, saying it was a "difficult question to answer."
"I am pretty sure that they can, but I can't say categorically as I sit here today," he said.
Buckles has said his company would foot the bill for the last-minute military deployment, putting the loss on his company's 284 million pound ($442 million) contract at up to 50 million pounds ($78 million.) That includes paying penalties of 10 or 20 million pounds for failing to live up to his company's end of the deal.
The costs aren't just financial — they also are a hit to its reputation.
G4S manages prisons, transports cash, and installs surveillance systems across the in some 125 countries. Its inability to get enough people to secure the world's biggest sporting event has left some observers wondering at the wisdom of doing business with the company elsewhere.
"This is not a dodgy builders' firm," said opposition lawmaker Keith Vaz, whose committee plans to quiz Buckles on his failure before Parliament next week. "This is the biggest security firm in the world. They have hundreds of millions of pounds of contracts to deal with policing, prisons, detention centers, which (Britain's) Home Office has given them. The worry for me is the long term," he told the BBC.
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter