Meet the Kiwi bodyguards protecting NZ’s rich and famous

Carly Gibbs

Weekend writer

Two men trained to physically protect prominent figures and ultra-high-net-worth New Zealand families share what the job is like.

Dion Neill and Mark Templeman have been bodyguards for A-list stars and wealthy families. Still, they’d prefer not to be pictured as Kevin Costner in the 90s movie The Bodyguard.

In New Zealand we don’t call them “bodyguards” we call them “close personal protection” or “executive protection”. It is serious work and, Neill concedes, also a bit Hollywood-like.

Neill can have nationwide contracts lasting from one day to three weeks, paying $600 to $1000 daily, plus premium accommodation, food and tips. At the end of one assignment, an Arab client visiting New Zealand gifted his colleague a $30,000 Rolex watch.

Fellow executive protection specialist Mark Templeman, a former detective in the Police Criminal Investigations Branch (CIB), provides a different service - 24/7 long-term contracts for New Zealand’s ultra-high-net-worth families and short-term agreements when required.

His business, Templeman and Associates based in Auckland, employs more than 16 full time staff from specialist ex-police and military units.

Protecting NZ’s wealthy 24/7

His team protects New Zealand’s wealthy, including escorting and driving clients wherever they go. They may also be posted at the client’s home monitoring CCTV and controlling visitor access to the property. They provide this service 24/7.

Some clients have safe rooms, intruder detection systems, and a kidnapping protection plan drawn up by Templeman’s staff, which may include implementing GPS monitoring.

“There are people in New Zealand that have that. We have clients that we have been with for several years,” he says.

His clients are a mix of Kiwis and people who are new to New Zealand.

A lot of his staff’s executive protection work involves planning, including contingency plans for clients’ overseas trips. They may then accompany their clients on those trips. Due to the 24/7 nature of this work, particularly when travelling internationally, there can be periods away from family, which is a “definite drawback” to the job.

All Templeman’s current staff are men, but he has employed women in the past, and some clients, if they have young children, may request a female operator who can appear as a caregiver while also providing security for the child.

Templeman won’t name-drop clients, provide details on salaries, or spill the beans on occasions when clever thinking, security planning, and protocols have saved the day. He says his primary promise to his clients, along with safety, professionalism and integrity, is discretion. Still, he can say some of his team have provided security for some “very high-profile” international and local clients who engage executive protection as part of their “risk management” strategy for the physical wellbeing of their families.

Home invasion is a genuine fear for some wealthy Kiwi families, and Templeman has had experiences with clients being targeted by criminals. Photo / 123rf
Home invasion is a genuine fear for some wealthy Kiwi families, and Templeman has had experiences with clients being targeted by criminals. Photo / 123rf

An industry that is ‘niche and rarely talked about’

Neill, a former member of the defence forces and emergency services, owns The Neill Group (TNG) and TNG Security, which operates nationwide. He told NZME the privacy expectations of clients accustomed to luxury lifestyles mean that executive protection work in New Zealand is “niche and rarely talked about”.

While personal security risk in New Zealand is low compared to other countries, Templeman and Neill say their staff still must operate at the same threat awareness level.

Home invasion is a genuine fear for some families, and Templeman says he has had experiences with clients being targeted by criminals here. Neill says the need for private personal security has grown in New Zealand in the last two decades.

Templeman says they focus on avoiding confrontation, identifying threats early, and keeping them away from their clients. However, they must be capable of providing a physical response to protect them.

“Wherever possible, de-escalation and evacuation to avoid or escape the threat is our initial focus. Any physical response must also be measured to the situation as we are licensed to provide security services, and any excess force used puts our license at risk.”

Eagle-eyed and capable

As a side note, Templeman and Neill are also licensed private investigators.

Templeman once successfully located a fugitive in New Zealand wanted by the FBI for sexual offending warrants and a prison escapee from England who was living in New Zealand under a false identity.

Private security work differs from Police Protection Services, but a police spokesperson told NZME the two may sometimes operate in similar environs and co-operate. However, there is a clear “demarcation” of the specific roles and duties. Police duties are discharged independently of private security personnel.

The Ministry of Justice says the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority (PSPLA) approves applicants for licensing in the sector for which there are requirements.

Neill, who has been in the industry since 1987, says he has personally guarded celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and skateboarder Tony Hawke. He said he has been a security driver for Eminem, Sir Elton John, and a touring international rock band.

Dion Neill landed a job as a security driver for Sir Elton John in 2006 and 2011, thanks to a longtime associate with a security guard company.
Dion Neill landed a job as a security driver for Sir Elton John in 2006 and 2011, thanks to a longtime associate with a security guard company.

He’s also looked after wealthy families holidaying in New Zealand. However, managing clients’ safety and wellbeing is a privilege “regardless of their status or stature”.

His work with international holidaymakers is often secured through agencies that act like brokers.

Security personnel operate in two different ways.

Close personal protection: You have somebody close to you who looks after you.

Covert protection: Surveillance by a group of capable and ready people should something happen. Some people who don’t like close personal protection but want a layer of security around them will opt for a discreet team that can intervene if there is a threat and defuse a situation. An example is if they’re out and about and recognised by someone intoxicated, who then begins to bother them.

Neill’s staff have done everything from shadowing an American film crew in Tauranga last year, accompanying notable figures as they went boating and visited restaurants and a nearby luxury lodge, to shadowing a multi-millionaire prominent European family on their Mount Ruapehu skiing holiday. They followed a visiting music artist to the Bay of Plenty, including Whakaari/White Island, a month before the 2019 eruption. They have also provided a protective bubble for lawyers and witnesses in High Court cases, CEOs at “heated” AGMs, and eagle-eyed surveillance at protests and large-scale events.

They look for faces in the crowd whose mood is off-kilter and remove the person they protect if anything looks suspicious - before it’s too late.

Templeman says the work involves using common sense, initiative, and rules on surveillance and force. Being fit and capable helps, but being observant is the most valuable tool.

They dress for the occasion. It could be a black suit or everyday clothes.

“If a client is at a restaurant and you’re in there, you’re not sitting at his table, you’re at another table, just watching,” Templeman explains. “You’re not making yourself obvious or known. We want to blend in and give the client as much privacy as possible.

“We’re not about having big, burly, bouncer-looking guys with dangling earpieces pushing doors open for our clients and walking down red carpets.

“It’s about being discreet.”

Carly Gibbs is a weekend magazine writer for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post and has been a journalist for two decades. She is a former news and feature writer, for which she’s been both an award finalist and winner.