Around 100 armed security staff hired to protect ships and tankers from pirates have been left scattered at sea after one of the world’s biggest maritime security firms ceased trading while allegedly owing millions in unpaid salaries.
More than a dozen Britons are among those left high and dry in treacherous waters, including off the coast of Somalia, when Lymington-based Gulf of Aden Group Transits (GoAGT) collapsed last week. Employees were woken in the early hours on Friday to find an email from the firm’s chief executive Nick Davis stating that “current and planned operations” would now be carried out on their behalf by Sea Marshals, another Private Management Security Company (PMSC).
Former soldier Mark Mullins, 37, from Dymchurch in Kent, spoke to The Independent via satellite phone from his ship “in the middle of the ocean”. He said: “There are around 45 of us on this ship with 15 Brits. I was woken up by the vessel manager at two in the morning on Friday, along with 10 others, to be given a piece of paper with Nick’s email. The reaction was not good – we just started wondering how we’re going to get home. That’s my main concern.
“Some of the guys have been at sea without means of checking their bank accounts and living on false promises.”
Mr Mullins had been working for GoAGT for 16 months and said he extended his latest 90-day contact by a month because he felt loyalty to the company. He claims he is owed around £16,000 and that after gathering information from staff worldwide believes that colleagues are owed millions altogether.
Mr Mullin said: “The Eastern European guys alone are owed more than £200,000. Some of the Filipino guys are on six-month contracts so they’re owed more. By my calculations people at sea and at home are owed around £4.7m. It will take be about 10 days to get home and I hope my landlord is understanding, but some of the other guys could lose their homes. ”
GoAGT had been running between 35 and 50 transits a month, making it one of the world’s top 10 PMSCs. Founded by Mr Davis in November 2008 and employing more than 230 ex-military and naval personnel until its spectacular collapse, GoAGT counted some of the Royal Navy’s highest ranked officers among its staff – including chairman Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, a Falklands and Gulf War veteran who received the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry and sustained leadership under fire.
GoAGT boasts on its website of holding a “100 per cent success record on over 1,800 transits” and that it provides “safe passage and protection across the industry to some of the world’s largest and most respected shipping companies”.
Steve Collins, operations manager at Sea Marshals, one of two firms brought in who are working for free to bring GoAGT staff home, said he had been in touch with Mr Davis until last Friday but had been unable to contact him over the weekend.
Mr Collins said: “We’ve now taken responsibility for those that are on board vessels – they will be looked after by us. Additionally many of those onboard the floating armouries in the Gulf and Red Sea have been offered work by us or other PMSCs, who are rallying around, and are therefore already covered for getting home.
“Those men evicted and made homeless in Sri Lanka when the GoAGT villa was repossessed on Sunday we accommodated into our villa. Bar three men we have repatriated or reemployed all 10 of them. Those left we are looking to utilise and employ so we can repatriate them also.”
Mr Collins said about 80 per cent of GoAGT’s clients paid fees in advance yet many staff had not been paid since February. “I’ve never seen anything on this scale before. There’s at least $1m in unpaid salaries from what I’ve seen so far,” he added.
Security experts said that the writing was on the wall for GoAGT six months ago and when credit dried up last week the firm went downhill very quickly.
However, Mr Davis has managed to establish more companies this year. In April he set up 888 aero, which for a flat fee of more than £20,000 advises on buying and selling aircraft. The company, whose slogan is “corporate and operational excellence in a complex and challenging domain”, is based at London Oxford Airport.
The following month he gave an interview describing plans for establishing 100 locations that would offer internet shoppers collection "pods" on the high street, in supermarkets and lobbies of large offices. Local Letterbox, based at the same address as GoAGT, had been tested at the head office of internet fashion retailer Asos in North London. Mr Davis said he was looking for capital and planned to begin building own-brand shops of about 1,000 sq ft next year – aiming for 3,000.
The Independent spoke to Mr Davis on Tuesday at his 888 aero office. He said: “I’m trying to sort out a big mess. My focus at the moment is to try to recover things and get anyone who is owed money what they are owed. There’s no big fat pot of money somewhere that anyone is going to get anything from.
“I’m just trying to right a wrong that happened without my knowledge or agreement. We had problems because a debenture holder called in a debt and began dealing with Sea Marshals, which I didn’t know about. We were doing well for the first four years. It’s only over the last 12 months that things have started to go downhill.”
When asked about his ability to set up several new companies in recent months, Mr Davis said: “There’s a bunch of websites. None of the other companies are trading at the moment. There’s no revenue behind them.”
Security expert and former SAS soldier Bob Shepherd said: “Until the industry is externally regulated by a serving MP with no financial ties to the industry, these situations and worse will continue to happen.”
*Read our OnboardOnline article here