May 24 (Bloomberg) -- Hakluyt & Co., the corporate investigations firm that hired British businessman Neil Heywood as a consultant in China, has been thrust by his death into a place it promises clients it will never be: the limelight.
“We guarantee complete confidentiality,” Hakluyt director Christopher James told Enron Corp.’s then Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling in 2001, according to an e-mail exchange that was released during a U.S. investigation into the bankrupt energy company. Hakluyt, James wrote, “places an unparalleled private intelligence network at the personal disposal of senior commercial figures.”
The mysterious death of the 41-year-old Heywood in November caused a political crisis in China and led to an investigation of the wife of a communist party chief, Bo Xilai, who was suspended from the ruling Politburo last month. The continuing probe into whether Heywood was killed by Bo Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, keeps the focus on Hakluyt, whose board includes ex-chairmen of BHP Billiton PLC and BBC Worldwide and consultants who are former diplomats and members of Parliament.
Hakluyt -- named after a 16th century English author who wrote about journeys to far-off lands -- said in an e-mailed statement that Heywood wasn’t a full-time employee. The firm, rarely written about in news accounts, declined to comment on his role or its work in China other than to say it’s a “strategic information consultancy” with company clients.
Aston Martins, Taxis
Heywood developed close ties to one of China’s most powerful political families. He got to know Bo, the former Chongqing Communist Party chief, doing favors such as getting Bo’s son into the elite British boarding school Harrow.
His consulting company, Neil Heywood & Associates Ltd., also advised Aston Martin and Manganese Bronze Holdings Plc, a maker of London taxis.
Heywood, found dead in Chongqing on Nov. 15, appears to have been part of a global network of consultants who use local connections to provide intelligence for Hakluyt clients, said Dr. Stephan Blancke, a researcher and analyst who studied Hakluyt and firms like it at the Free University in Berlin.
Melissa Sweet, an Australian health journalist, had a chance to join Hakluyt’s circle. She received an e-mail from the firm in 2008 offering her work as a consultant.
“We have a proprietary network of well-placed individuals around the world who are able to provide us, very discreetly, with intelligence on specific commercial or political issues,” Hakluyt said in the e-mail to Sweet. Those individuals are asked not to reveal the firm’s or its clients’ identities, she was told.
Sweet said in a phone interview the e-mail was the only contact she had with Hakluyt.
16th Century Author
Hakluyt also has top-level links to government and business. The London-based company’s U.K. and international advisory boards include Niall Fitzgerald, former deputy chairman of Thomson Reuters UK Ltd. and an adviser to Morgan Stanley; Sir Kieran Prendergast, former United Nations under secretary-general for political affairs; John Rose, the former CEO of Rolls Royce; Robert Webb, ex-chairman of BBC Worldwide; Edward Isdell, former chairman of Coca-Cola; and former BHP chairman Donald Argus.
Two members of the U.K. parliament, which is weighing new regulations for private investigators, have worked as Hakluyt advisers or consultants. Andrew Mitchell, the U.K. Secretary of State for International Development, is listed as a former adviser to Hakluyt on a parliamentary website.
Mitchell’s Westminster office said this was between 1998 and 2001 when he wasn’t a serving MP. “His official links to Hakluyt are in the public domain,” according to a spokesman, who declined to be identified, citing office policy.
Former Spies, Reporters
James Gray, a conservative lawmaker from North Wiltshire, is also listed as a former Hakluyt consultant. His office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Consultants can also be embassy staff, former spies or reporters, said Blancke, who wrote his doctoral thesis on corporate investigations firms.
“Hakluyt and all the other similar companies try to recruit people with a special know-how in getting access to sensitive information,” he said.
The British corporate investigation industry makes more than 100 million pounds ($157 million) a year, according to an estimate submitted to parliament by London-based Bishop International in January.
Hakluyt, which has 41 employees, made 5.6 million pounds in the fiscal year ending in June 2011 on revenue of 28.7 million pounds, according to company filings for its holding company Holdingham Group Ltd.
The e-mails to Sweet and Enron give a rare insight into the firm’s marketing and recruitment. Hakluyt’s website contains no information besides its logo -- a red armored gate -- and contact details for offices in London, New York and Singapore.
James’s sales pitch to Skilling, who is now in jail for misleading investors about Enron’s financial condition, seemed to work. Hakluyt was paid about $450,000 by Enron, according to a 2003 bankruptcy filing that didn’t say what the money was for. The Skilling e-mails were published by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Hakluyt is rarely written about -- it was mentioned in eight newspaper stories in the 10 years prior to Heywood’s death. When it does make the news, it is usually for matters the firm would rather keep private.
Sunday Times Article
The firm was accused in a 2001 Sunday Times article of helping BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc spy on Greenpeace using a German agent called Manfred Schlickenrieder, who posed as a left-wing film-maker.
Free University’s Blancke, who studied the incident, has computer files taken from Schlickenrieder’s room by environmental activists who became suspicious of his behavior. Those files include e-mails from Hakluyt.
A 1997 message in German from Hakluyt Director Mike Reynolds discussed the location of Greenpeace ships and asked Schlickenrieder to use his informants to find out how the organization would respond to being sued, Blancke said.
“Hakluyt has from time to time provided general background information to Shell on global social and economic developments, but the company has never played any kind of role in specific business developments,” the company said in a statement. BP spokesman David Nicholas declined to comment.
Hakluyt declined to comment on the offer to Sweet, Enron e-mails or Greenpeace spying claims.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kit Chellel in London at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at email@example.com