As a policeman, David Kearns was always fascinated by fraud and business crime. So when he left the force, he set up a commercial detective agency. Steve Dyson reports
Locking two former SAS soldiers in a builders’ container fitted with camp beds and rations for 28 days was the biggest challenge David Kearns has ever faced. But it was one he felt was necessary to tackle constant thefts from a West Midlands factory.
“I drilled air holes,” recalls former Warwickshire bobby Kearns, now managing director of Expert Investigations. “Then I fitted mini-cameras, made sure radios were working and – most importantly – put 30 five-litre petrol cans filled with water at one end of the container, and 30 empty five-litre cans at the other end for, er, the waste.”
The ex-SAS men’s undercover operation was to observe the busy factory’s yard that was operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and to gather the evidence needed to stop the crime. The surveillance worked: detailed observations were radioed out, and the police arrested the offenders who were prosecuted and convicted – saving the manufacturer hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
And for Kearns, whose company is headquartered in Coventry, it was another of what now averages 180 serious investigations a year solved.
“Essentially, we’re like a private police force, and we act as if we’re still in the police,” says the 46-year-old. “That means setting up surveillance teams, using covert cameras, tracking vehicles and carrying out detailed database checks.
“Where necessary we employ police-style interview teams, and effectively act as a private police service bringing police capability to the private sector. We often then appear in civil and sometimes criminal courts, and industrial tribunals, giving evidence.”
The range of cases Expert Investigations handle range from people pretending to be sick while working elsewhere; theft of a company’s products and serious bribery and corruption by firms’ senior staff.
There’s then the graft needed to solve each case: one day setting up covert cameras in an office where cash has been regularly stolen, the next day interviewing employees after a Christmas party went out of control, resulting in alleged indecent assaults.
When he set up in 2000, Kearns employed just himself and two former National Crime Squad officers on sub-contract, with a first year’s turnover of £32,000. By June 2014, the end of his current financial year, revenues will total around £750,000, with full-time and sub-contracted staff of 43½.
There are six office staff based at Expert Investigations’ head office at The Innovation Centre, Binley Business Park, Coventry, and then regular sub-contracted associates numbering 22 ex-police officers from Special Branch, Field Intelligence, the Economic Crime Unit, the former National Crime Squad and Anti-Terrorist Branch, and 16 former SAS soldiers and Royal Marine Commandos.
“When I started, I did everything myself. And I never took out a loan – we just grew organically. I had young children and domestic commitments, so was very risk-averse. But in recent years I’ve been slightly more adventurous, employing more staff on particular jobs and expanding.
Of the 43½ ‘employees’, Kearns estimates that seven are on his wage bill, and 36½ are sub-contractors, helping him to manage costs during recent growth. “Smart companies these days are the ones without huge staffs,” says Kearns, getting up and finding a magazine article to show me that quotes business guru Theo Paphitis, star of BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den.
“Paphitis says successful entrepreneurs are the ones working with alliances and sub-contractors, and that’s what we do. But we provide all the kit they need – the various covert cameras that are body-worn, or in laptops, watches, key fobs, and the radios and all the other electronic kit. And their files are all kept here. It means they’re doing the job they did back in police days, and sharing our ethos – great service and delivery. But without all the bureaucracy and paperwork.”
Costs are also managed by renting rather than buying company properties. Kearns says Expert Investigations works on four basic cornerstones: “We always use the right people, with the right skills, using the right equipment, and with the right support.
“Customers make a phone call, the next day we research the job, and we then start the day after. Many jobs may be small in value but high-impact in terms of workforce morale – like money going missing out of pockets and purses in a client’s offices.
“But sometimes the value of crimes committed is huge – like when we investigated [and resolved] how a client had been kicked off a £50m tendering process in what could have become a major bribery and corruption case.”
On the crime side, Kearns explains how most companies’ security is set up to stop people breaking in – physically or electronically. “But when people working within those companies decide to misbehave, they know how to work around those security systems.”
Overall, he reckons 75% of his major cases are based on theft, dishonesty and fraud, with 25% relating to problem employees – false absenteeism, breach of contracts, and restrictive covenant issues.
Now in his 14th year running a commercial detective agency, Kearns says he’s still driven by the excitement. “A lot of my time is spent managing clients but I still occasionally do jobs myself. I still get excited getting up in the middle of the night to covertly deploy tracking devices, crawling under cars in the dark at 3am. And the moment of a result, the buzz of success, getting solutions for client that justifies their decision to invest in us.
“Only recently, we’d worked on a restricted covenant issue for seven days and nothing was happening, and on the eighth day everything came together – a meeting, an email, the proof we needed.”
Expert Investigations has regular customers for its bread and butter work, such as computer-based background checks and serving bankruptcy documents for law firms. But it has no retainers, and so all its major cases are ad hoc. And because most companies don’t like the publicity, Kearns has to rely on a growing reputation via word-of-mouth to bring work in.
“In fairness, the law firms recommend us – and our legal clients include many top companies. “But we get big jobs by direct marketing. When we started, that was picking up the phone and mailing letters. Then, when we’d saved some money, we printed brochures, and started to hold seminars and presentations on different types of fraud and crime.
“The surge in emails has helped us, but we still go out and present ourselves. I appear on radio, am an active member of Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, and the Midlands Fraud Forum.” While he enjoys his work, Kearn’s biggest annoyance is not always being accepted as a serious operation by other businessmen. “People still think of you as a private eye, not as an ISO-accredited organisation that can make significant differences to a company’s bottom line.
“There’s a lot of one-man private eye bands out there and firms think they should only pay a small amount of money for our services. That can be annoying.”
But most days, the value of jobs he’s involved with overcomes such irritations – especially when they’re measured in human lives: “One job for social services involved a mother who had tried to kill her daughter six times in a Munchausen by proxy scenario. Thanks to our surveillance, the child was eventually taken away from the mother, and our evidence assisted in her being made ward of court – probably saving her life.”
David’s journey from beat cop to private eye
David Kearns was born in Burntwood, Staffordshire, and brought up in nearby Lichfield. He left school at 18 with three A-levels, and originally wanted to be in the armed forces. But when he approached the recruitment office he was told: “Come back in two years when you’ve grown up.”
So Kearns joined Warwickshire police instead, “and never looked back”.
He became a constable in Bedworth, Warwickshire, and two years later, aged just 20, he was seconded onto the Beat Support Unit, identifying and targeting local criminals.
Three years on, the keen investigator landed a job at Nuneaton CID, and five years later joined Field Intelligence in Stratford-upon-Avon, identifying criminals who were crossing borders.
“We’re talking about armed robbers hitting rural post offices, antique burglars targeting high value residences, and crooks from as far away as Liverpool and Brighton committing aggravated burglaries at big wealthy homes.
This work took Kearns – who became a Detective Constable – all around the country, working with various national and regional crime squads and specialist units investigating antique, drugs and customs crimes. Then, in March 2000, he decided to leave the force to set up Expert Investigations Ltd.
“The police were going through so many changes,” he remembers, “and with my father and grandfather running their own businesses I suppose it was always in my veins.
“I was a good investigator, with a good reputation, and it struck me that there wasn’t a quality investigations company to service the legal and commercial sector.” Kearns owns 99% of Expert Investigations, with 1% owned by his wife, Janet, aged 45, a senior matron at an independent school.
The family home is near Stratford-upon-Avon, although the couple’s children have now grown up: the eldest daughter, Charlotte, is 21 and at university, while 18-year-old Sophie is a budding opera singer.