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Risk Lessons from an Ex-Cop

Why risk consultant Chris Mathers swears by The Godfather

Chris Mathers occasionally thumps his palm down on the bar table when he punctuates a really cool story or is making a point. And he’s laughing now as he’s coming to the punch line of the latest yarn. He’s in Nigeria, see? For more than a couple of years now, the U.K. government has retained him to provide training and technical assistance to Nigeria’s anticorruption agencies. “When we got there, we couldn’t get these guys in the same friggin’ room.” But that’s all changed. “Everybody is a pal now, and I always say to them at the end of these courses when I’m over there, ‘See these guys—they don’t have horns, right?’” He tells them, “The first thing you guys all have to do is go and watch all three of the Godfather movies, because there’s not a life lesson that cannot be learned from the Godfather movies.”

But, in the middle of teaching their staff how to conduct interviews, maintain evidence and take witness statements, something occurs to him. A good portion of the agents are Muslim, so he asks one of his contacts, “What the hell do you guys do when you’re doing surveillance? You have to stop and pray.” The answer back was that “most of the guys we follow are Muslim, so they pray, too.” And if they’re not Muslim? “‘If you’re doing God’s work, you don’t have to stop and pray,’ he said, ‘so we’ve got it covered, coming and going.’ It’s like a loophole in the Koran.” Mathers laughs. It’s a rich, deep laugh with no malice in it, just a good belly laugh at the occasional surrealism of crime, of cops, of life. “They’re good guys, right? The coppers that we deal with over there and the federal guys, they’re really good guys…”

It’s fitting that Mathers meets me in a landmark Victorian bar in Toronto’s Corktown neighbourhood, all wood paneling and slightly shrill vintage rock on the stereo in the background. He’s in shorts and sandals this afternoon, but the real giveaway to his retired law enforcement status—besides the flinty James Coburn look—is the DEA T-shirt. As we down a couple of Grolsches, our conversation sounds at times like dialogue out of The Departed. But, take my word for it, Mathers “cleans up nicely.”

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In a couple of weeks, he’ll be in a sharp suit and tie, talking to executives at RIMS Canada in Winnipeg on corporate fraud, extortion and other topics related to crime and risk. He can just as easily dress down and hop on a plane bound for a nation in West Africa, where working conditions are likely not as… well, shall we say, grand. His former boss, Norm Inkster, who was once the commissioner of the RCMP and the president of Interpol, has called him “a human chameleon.”

Managing risk, Mathers contends, is really about managing people. “Whether they’re people that work for you, people that are your clients, people that are trying to steal your money, you’re managing all those risks that are inherent in each of those disparate groups.” He says he’s always read how insurance is a really easy vehicle for laundering money, and he’s “here to tell you that’s a bunch of crap, okay?”

“Why?” I ask innocently.

“Well, because the only real way you can launder money—that I’ve been able to see, anyway—is through the annuity kind of thing. Like, through whole life and that kind of stuff. Money launderers, they have too much money to launder to be screwing around with stuff like that.” Crooks want something simple that can be easily repeated. “You do an insurance policy, you do insurance money laundering, it would take you like a year and a half to get the friggin’ money back! Who needs that? You know, that just doesn’t work.” He says the biggest hassle for an insurance company is their own staff. “Dealing with their own people.”

“In terms of who’s stealing from them?”

“Stealing from them, not doing their job properly, exposing the company to other kinds of reputation risks. Those are the issues that you have to deal with.” Despite his own love for the oeuvre of Francis Ford Coppola, he’s well aware that perceptions are distorted by the movies. “You’re running around looking for Don Corleone; maybe you should be looking for Don Knotts!”

“…Whether you’re catching bad guys or trying to keep your company safe, [it’s] about common sense, and trying to keep a level head and analyzing all the information that you have.”

Mathers’ story is certainly worth a screenplay or two. In fact, he’s done occasional consulting on feature films that touch on organized crime and espionage. Ten years ago, he wrote a neat little volume called Crime School: Money Laundering, and he was also a host for the TV show, The Egyptian Job, on the National Geographic channel. Ask him how this whole ride got started, and he’ll roll out a horror story from the ‘90s: how two detectives confronted an RCMP inspector over his involvement with Montreal’s West End Gang; how the man politely excused himself, went into his office and promptly blew his brains out. As an undercover officer who joined the investigation after the suicide, Mathers got to know then-RCMP Commissioner Norm Inkster pretty well. The two became close friends, and Mathers eventually followed Inkster into private business at KPMG. The company had Mathers flying off to South Africa, Spain and points in between to speak on money laundering and other subjects.

“KPMG was a fantastic place to work,” he says. “I learned more stuff there than I learned on the streets, and I’m not kidding.”

I asked him whether it was easier to teach law enforcement types, even when they’re from a different culture, or corporate executives.

“As much as it’s two different areas, all of these things, whether you’re catching bad guys or trying to keep your company safe, are about common sense, and trying to keep a level head and analyzing all the information that you have,” says Mathers. “Squeezing as much juice out of every orange that you get. You have all these opportunities to gather information and intelligence on what’s happening inside and outside of your company. Some people are preoccupied.” Take, for example, IT, which poses the biggest threat right now to Canadian companies. “Most guys in the corner office came up when there wasn’t a lot of IT. Some of them are hip, but most of them are, ‘Well, we have an IT guy, I hope he’s handling that.’”

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He says he tries to explain to people “that all of these crimes rub up against you every day, but you may not know it.” Or folks look the other way. “You go down to the corner store and you buy cigarettes that were smuggled in from the First Nations reserve, but that’s okay. You know, we’ve got to crack down on crime, but I want to get that satellite dish guy to come in and screw around so I don’t have to pay them money, and I can get free satellite.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mathers sees the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other terrorist groups as “friggin’ organized crime…Yeah, they’re killing people and doing these supposed terrorist acts, but it’s not about that. It’s about power, money, control of the state.” Professing the restoration of the caliphate and the slaughter of “infidels” is just PR as they nab Americans. “They’re trying to make money.” But for Mathers, K&R is “old hat.” To him, “there’s almost a formula to it now.”

I ask him how such negotiations work. “K&R insurance usually includes bringing a group like Control Risks or Ackerman or whatever; they come in and look after the case,” explains Mathers. “The boys from Control Risks—ex-military guys from the U.K., mostly—they don’t do the negotiations… They go to the country, they set up in the capital, and they will find someone to use, not really [as] the negotiator, [but] as the mouthpiece. As the person who is going to be face to face with the bad guys.”

It’s typically one of several guys that everybody knows. “Now it’s done on Skype quite often, but it gets to a point in some countries, like the way it used to be in Colombia, that the ficers and the guys they’re dealing with almost start building relationships… ‘Oh yeah, I dealt with you on the last guy.’… ‘Yeah, right!’”

It’s a business. If a militia kidnaps an oil engineer in Nigeria and asks for $10 million, they might keep him for a year and settle in the end for $1 million. But if they kill a hostage, “that’s bad for business.” However, Mathers says that “in Syria, Iraq, et cetera, it’s a little bit different. People are taken and quite often substantial ransoms are paid to these various organizations… If things break down, or if it’s politically or PR expedient, they’ll kill the guy.”

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But what about chopping a victim’s head off? Mathers argues that in the world of such sociopaths, the act will “make a bigger splash so [they think], ‘Let’s do it.’”

“Holy crap,” I say, needing a sip of beer, “you’re making this sound like almost a marketing aspect!”

“Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.”

Since I have an interest in Africa, I ask him where else he’s worked on the continent. He was in Mali last year. Doing what? “Oh, you know, just looking around.” Just looking around? In Mali? Mathers smiles, Sphinx-like. “Just providing some technical assistance for one of our clients, you know, just looking at some stuff.” He was in Senegal, too. “I went across the border from Senegal. There’s really good cell phone coverage, for some reason. Orange is there.” I can speculate from last year’s headlines, but this is as much as I’m going to learn. That’s okay; if Mathers couldn’t keep a secret, he wouldn’t be so valuable to his clients.

But now he wants to go outside and smoke his cigar. After a few minutes, friends join us on the patio. Someone passes me a cigar, and because I’m a lightweight, I smoke only a quarter of it. The chameleon is holding court. We shoot the bull some more about gangs and drug dealers, about how the poor people have to walk along the open roads in Ethiopia and elsewhere and get mown down, about the different motives for why people get into law enforcement. It’s pretty intellectual stuff, but because it’s lubricated by beer and wreathed in cigar smoke, we sound like we’re complaining about a hockey game. It’s a great evening. Just guys talking.

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Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the September 2014 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine

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