x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Richard Blaksley: The sleuth who will root out the truth every time

As chief of the corporate investigator GPW, which is expanding its office in Dubai, Richard Blaksley spends his days looking for wrongdoing among just a tiny fraction of people. But he does not apologise for the scepticism that requires.

Illustration of Richard Blaksey by Christopher Burke for The National
Illustration of Richard Blaksey by Christopher Burke for The National

In February 1997, Richard Blaksley received an anonymous phone call that offered information to recover hundreds of million dollars of assets being sought by the Pakistani government.

Five days earlier, he had leaked to the press that his private investigations company was on the hunt for assets belonging to Benazir Bhutto, the ousted prime minister of Pakistan, then accused of corruption by her opponents.

The leak was exactly the bait needed. Putting the phone down, Mr Blaksley took an untraceable private jet to Switzerland to meet the anonymous source at the Beau-Rivage hotel on Lake Geneva.

There, the rat laid out file after file of Bhutto's bank statements, her signatories to trust arrangements and the structure of her Cayman Islands accounts.

But crucially, important details were blacked out.

"If I had run off with the files, it wouldn't have given us the answers," explains Mr Blaksley. "But it was clearly genuine stuff."

Then, like a line out of a James Bond film, the source said: "I can see I have got your attention" and asked for US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to disclose all the details in the files.

"I said that's beyond my pay grade so I'll have to go and talk to my client," explains Mr Blaksley, 51, who is now chief executive of a corporate intelligence and investigations firm, GPW, based in London and Dubai.

The firm was set up in 2004 by three previous employees of Kroll, one of the biggest industry players, and it is now expanding its office in Dubai.

The former head of Kroll in Europe and in Asia, Mr Blaksley joined his old colleagues Patrick Grayson, Peter Pender-Cudlip and Andrew Wordsworth - the G,P and W — in 2006 to lead the company.

But back in 1997, Mr Blaksley was still making a name for himself as he uncovered Bhutto's assets.

"One of the rules in this game is you never ignore a walk-in. We have a lot of walk-ins and time-wasters, and just sometimes they are not," he explains. "A little while later an action was brought in Switzerland that froze a lot of assets."

The Bhutto assets were subsequently subject to a number of long legal battles and actions were eventually dropped, without conviction.

But that did not matter for Mr Blaksley, who had proven himself to be a shrewd private investigator.

Before entering the industry, Mr Blaksley started life in London, where he attended the prestigious Westminster School. Leaving in 1979, he took a year out before training to be an officer in the British army at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

"My first gig when leaving school was working for Mother Teresa in Calcutta, which I did in lieu of not knowing what else to do," explains Mr Blaksley.

"So I went to Westminster School, Mother Teresa in Calcutta, then I was largely directionless and I went to the army partly because I wanted to fly helicopters. For various reasons that didn't work out."

Mr Blaksley did army stints in Northern Ireland, Beirut and Cyprus, which he describes with typical British nonchalance as "all cracking stuff".

In 1983, he was part of a peacekeeping force in Beirut during the civil war.

"It was a remarkable testament to the resilience of the Lebanese and Beirut as a city," reminisces Mr Blaksley. "There would be a car bomb in Hamra, and it would shatter half the length of the street and the following day the jewellery shops would open up again and people would be trading."

After six years in the army, Mr Blaksley followed many of his school peers into the razzmatazz and pomp of London finance in the 1980s.

Working for New Japan Securities as the self-proclaimed "world's worst bond trader", he quickly moved into selling arms for Alvis, the defence manufacturer now part of BAE Systems.

"I was a bad bond trader in an insignificant cog in a machine that I despised. It wasn't for me," he explains.

Working for three years at Alvis, Mr Blaksley sold tanks to Western African governments, gaining a deep understanding of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

After a while, though, the knowledge that he was selling weapons began to leave a sour taste in his mouth.

"I can make the argument that every sovereign nation has the right to defend its borders, but I went to a defence conference near Heathrow in London and I met a guy who was selling landmines and was boasting that they were entirely plastic so they couldn't be found," he says.

"This is stuff designed to blow people's legs off. I found it all generally a little uncomfortable."

But Mr Blaksley's time at Alvis was extremely valuable.

He subsequently set up a risk consultancy advising on West Africa and was hired by Kroll for a project. A week as a consultant became a career of more than 20 years.

He would eventually leave what is generally deemed the world's biggest intelligence and investigations firm because he was too often bogged down in bureaucracy.

"I was having no fun at all and I just wanted to get back to what the business was about," says Mr Blaksley.

So what exactly was that? Well, not all cloak and daggers and tracing potential criminals' assets.

A lot of what GPW does is advise clients about the political risks to investing in a country or it does the due diligence on a company ahead of a merger or acquisition.

"People walk into our office and ask us bizarre questions every day, and there's always a commercial imperative behind them. But they are questions that are not able to be answered by their lawyers, their accountants or bookmakers so they come to us," explains Mr Blaksley.

"We say somebody somewhere on the face of the Earth knows the answer to this question or knows part of the answer. We find out who they are and how we can get to them."

And although much of the work is closer to being an astute librarian researcher than a spy in the private sector, much of it is very exciting.

In December 2000, Mr Blaksley helped to put the notorious Pirate of Prague, Viktor Kozeny, behind bars in the Bahamas, and various partners at GPW have also helped track down sovereign assets plundered by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Sani Abacha in Nigeria, among others.

"We are completely unembarrassed about the lengths we will go to get our information so long as it's legal," explains Mr Blaksley. "So if it means bunging some bloke who's not a government official then we are OK doing that."

The work of a private investigator is cynical and sceptical to provide the right information to a client.

It is about asking questions, which more often than not are negative in nature. So does Mr Blaksley take such realism and pessimism into his everyday life?

"If you are not careful, what we do can help you develop a slightly distorted sense of how the world works," he says. "It's not a representative pool of society because actually the world is 99.9 per cent made up of decent people. We spend our lives looking at the 0.1 per cent who aren't."

business@thenational.ae