Security Director of the Year 2020: Harold Wax
Harold Wax leads BGIS’s pandemic strategy through collaboration and preparedness
BGIS was at least a few steps ahead of the game when the pandemic hit Canada earlier this year.
Harold Wax, the company’s senior director and chief security officer for North America, had already put a plan in place to amalgamate three of the multi-national facility management firm’s departments: corporate security, business continuity planning (BCP) and emergency response. Wax began this process in August 2019, several months before the words Coronavirus and COVID-19 would enter our collective vocabulary and certainly well before there was even a whisper of a global pandemic.
As news of the virus emerged from Asia, this plan became even more pivotal to the organization, which manages more than 200-million-sq.-ft. of real estate in North America alone. Wax was the clear choice to lead BGIS’s global crisis management COVID-19 team, a role that required the coordination of multiple efforts to provide optimal safety for staff, tenants and other stakeholders in the organization.
For his leadership during the pandemic, management of a complex departmental integration, and in recognition of an impressive and diverse security career, Harold Wax was named Canadian Security’s 2020 Security Director of the Year by the magazine’s editorial advisory board in August.
Wax’s career is an extension of his naturally gregarious nature.
He was a paramedic in the 90s, but the shift work and a lifestyle determined by a pager didn’t really suit him, he says. So when a chance meeting led to a new opportunity, he jumped on it.
He was in downtown Toronto to see a fireworks display when he spied two men carrying sidearms get out of an unmarked vehicle.
Curiosity took over; he approached and asked who they were. When they identified themselves as ATM technicians, “I said, ‘Are you guys hiring?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we’re always hiring,’ and they gave me a contact number,” recalls Wax.
Wax was hired on at Mississauga, Ont.-based Universal ATM Services. His second day on the job, he spotted a man, also armed, in the front office. “He was in business-casual clothing with a handgun strapped to his hip. Being curious, I introduced myself,” says Wax. “He was the director of corporate security.”
When the security director described his job function in more detail, “it lit a spark in me. I didn’t know this career even existed.”
From there, Wax learned the ropes, taking on any role he could at the company, from fixing ATMs to becoming a vault and lock technician to working dispatch.
“As I moved through all these roles, I think a level of trust was forming between the organization and myself.”
Wax was offered a position in the company’s security department, but with no guarantee of full-time status. He opted to leave and joined a competitor, Securicor, as an investigator.
Wax found he had a knack for investigative interviewing. “Next thing you know, I’m catching bad guys,” he says.As Wax advanced his security knowledge, he became more involved in professional associations such as the Canadian Society for Industrial Security (CSIS). There he met Louis Duranleau, who at the time was the chief security officer for Symcor, a cheque-processing and financial services firm that was co-founded by three of Canada’s largest banks. When he found out Duranleau was leaving the organization, Wax threw his hat in the ring and was hired as his replacement in 2006 — a position he held for 11 years before moving on to his current role at BGIS.
Wax’s Symcor years were another learning opportunity. He became an expert in cheque fraud, amassing a repository of knowledge that he was able to parlay into a part-time lecturing career. Wax shared his subject matter expertise with police and law enforcement agencies across Canada and the United States, speaking to groups that include the Toronto Police Service, RCMP, Competition Bureau of Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, U.S. Secret Service, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
After 11 productive years at Symcor, Wax was looking for a new challenge and joined BGIS as the organization’s first dedicated chief security officer. He says he was enticed not only by the role, but by the fact that his new employer was very keen that he continue his extra-curricular activities.While at Symcor, Wax held the CSO role but was also responsible for the corporate emergency response function, so, now at BGIS, the idea of reorganizing three different but related departments together was familiar territory.
“I thought it was great idea, then this thing called a pandemic rolled in,” says Wax.
The genesis of the departmental project grew out of a necessity, says Wax. At the time, business continuity and emergency response were a joint function, which fell under the enterprise risk management department. But when it came time to hire a new manager with risk management and business continuity skills, it was tough to find a candidate who could handle both equally well, says Wax. The solution was ultimately to hire two individuals and reorganize. Business continuity and emergency response then became Wax’s departmental purview, while risk management shifted over to the CFO’s department.
Before the pandemic took centre stage, Wax says his department was looking after “normal everyday events” like hurricanes, tornadoes and fires. (Pandemic or not, these emergencies, of course, persist. When Canadian Security initially contacted Wax to notify him he would receive the Security Director of the Year award, he was deeply involved in tracking the possible outcomes of Hurricane Laura for his company.)
As the go-to department for BCP and emergency response, Wax and his staff were actively watching the Coronavirus as a potential threat long before it reached North America.
“We saw the Coronavirus emerging from China and it was something that we were definitely keeping tabs on,” he says. In January 2020, his business continuity manager was about to go on vacation when the situation began to escalate. “I think it was two days before she left when the Coronavirus really started hitting the radar. WHO (the World Health Organization) hadn’t declared it as a pandemic, but things were moving down that path. We started looking at our infectious disease plan and our pandemic planning.”
Wax’s group was initially prepared to wait for the official WHO declaration, “but then we figured, why are we waiting? We know it’s coming. We might as well activate now,” says Wax.
“As things started to progress and as we started to see the numbers climb in Canada and in the U.S. and the APAC (Asia-Pacific) region, we made the decision at the senior executive level that I would take a global role in the COVID response, so I was named the global crisis manager.”
The watchword became flexibility. Earlier expectations of what a pandemic might look like did not meet reality, says Wax. Most pandemic plans suggest 20-25 per cent absenteeism, “but with COVID, everybody went home. So it’s great if people can work from home, but a lot of businesses, as we saw, [can’t].”
A global real estate company with a massive footprint, BGIS manages properties for the federal government, major telcos, financial institutions, oil and gas, Fortune 500 companies, and health-care facilities. “Our client base is quite large. Managing those relationships and sharing information when it comes to potential health concerns or issues is obviously paramount.”
To stay ahead of the situation, BGIS ordered mass quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer before the full impact of the pandemic became apparent. They were ready when clients came to them with their needs.
Wax says a medical consultant was brought on, and the pandemic team met seven days a week via conferencing sessions that could involve up to 180 people. (These meetings have since been scaled back to once a week.) In addition to mask, PPE and social distancing policies, staff were also required to complete a daily COVID-19 self-assessment app before allowed on to a BGIS property.
In some cases, shift workers with onsite jobs like maintenance and cleaning were paid to stay at home, so if a COVID case emerged on one shift, a reserve force could be called in.
For properties like data centres, groups of workers were organized such that they had zero contact during a shift change, each shift using a separate entrance and exit. “So we know we can potentially salvage 50 per cent of the workforce in that environment if we have to put some people into quarantine,” says Wax.
“We’ve been able to keep our team members safe and keep the operations running. It’s been quite successful, but it’s been a massive learning curve. I’m a firm believer when it comes to business continuity and emergency response that you have to have a playbook and you have to have plans, but you have to have the flexibility to scale those plans up and down or morph them on the threat that’s presenting itself.”
Michael Brzozowski, risk and compliance manager at Symcor, worked with Wax for seven years at the organization. He describes Wax as a master multi-tasker, ideally suited to managing the conditions created by this pandemic.
“I was always impressed with how well he manages his time. He can switch very quickly between topics and issues without even missing a beat, which allows him to be very efficient in how he works,” says Brzozowski.“He always used to say, ‘My job is keeping the business in business.’ I think that’s what I learned from him: Don’t just be a security professional. Look at the business and see how you can apply security principles.”
“At the end of the day, his mandate is to make sure it’s business as usual,” adds Yan Proulx, national security director, BGIS, based in the company’s Ottawa office. “Making sure that nothing impedes what we are supposed to be delivering to the client and always doing it in a very safe and healthy manner.”
Proulx nominated Wax for the Security Director of the Year award, calling attention to his leadership of the company’s security department reorganization and COVID response strategy. “He’s got a lot of knowledge in different fields of security. He has a good understanding of the IT security world, the cybersecurity world, the policing world, the physical security world, investigations.”
Wax says the lessons learned as the pandemic unfolds are significant amid the onset of a second wave of the virus and the subsequent impact on building occupancy.
“This pandemic has played out quite differently than most of us had planned or tried to prepare for, but if you have that flexibility to adapt, you’ll have a greater success in making your way through it,” he says. “Again, this pandemic is evidence that adaptation is key in one’s career.”
A policing career
There are commonalities between policing and professional security, and numerous examples of professionals who have transitioned from one to the other, but Harold Wax has been able to maintain both.
Wax joined the Ontario Provincial Police as an auxiliary member in 1996, and has held the ranks of Constable, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant/Unit Commander, Regional Sergeant Major, and Inspector/Regional Director. He is currently assigned to the OPP’s highway safety division.
Wax’s expertise in cheque fraud from his time at Symcor has led to a prolific speaking career on the subject, and he has held seminars for policing organizations across North America, including the Lafayette Police Department in Louisiana for repeat engagements. Making the relationship official, the department commissioned Wax as a Reserve Deputy Marshal in 2016 and a Reserve Police Officer in 2019.
In 2018, Wax was awarded the Province of Ontario Auxiliary Policing Medal for Long Service and Good Conduct. In 2019, he was awarded the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers by the Governor General of Canada.