"We have turned up to meetings in the City and clients have been surprised that we weren't carrying tommy guns. We are trying to professionalise what has always been seen as a gumshoe trade," explains Timothy Hewitt.
Mention industrial espionage and most of us conjure up images of dirty raincoats, dark alleys and rummaging through rubbish bins. We wouldn't think of besuited graduates in their late twenties. We wouldn't think of Hewitt and Calum Forest, joint directors of the London-based firm Ticari International.
If you want to find out what your competitors are doing, these guys will find out. Legally. Industrial espionage, they point out, is illegal. They operate in the upright world of "competitive intelligence": market research Nineties-style with just a touch of 007. And it's coming to an MBA near you.
Competitive intelligence is an American import. The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIPs) is based in Alexandria, Virginia. About 43 per cent of the society's 2,900 members across the globe, who work both as in-house agents and independent consultants, come from business planning backgrounds, 23 per cent from market research, the rest from a mixed bag of business development, research and development, sales and marketing, operations and executive ranks. Telecommunications is the best- represented industry, but still claims only 14 per cent of members: competitive intelligence reaches right across industries from pharmaceutical and aerospace giants to health care and insurance.
Mike Maurisse is a board member of SCIPs Europe, which has some 200 members, ranging from insurance companies and banks to larger blue-chip companies. Maurisse has worked in competitive intelligence for American company 3Ms.
"Competitive intelligence has its roots in market research," he explains. "But unlike market research, we are concerned with future trends."
"Intelligence and espionage are one and the same in the public eye. Yes, you could tap telephones, but that's not us. We don't break any laws. That's the point."
Competitive intelligence, say its practitioners, doesn't just define itself by abiding by the laws of the land, something that more traditional private investigators won't necessarily do. Oh no. Competitive intelligence is not just legal. It's ethical, too.
"Competitive intelligence involves the application of principles and practices from military and national intelligence to the domain of global business. It is where the art and disciplines of both intelligence and strategic management converge. Competitive intelligence is the flip side of the strategy coin," stresses Douglas Bernhardt, author of Perfectly Legal Competitor Intelligence.
Bernhardt is quick to distance the work of his company, the Geneva-based Business Information Group, from the rifling-through-the-rubbish perceptions of spying, but is hesitant to divulge his working methods. "The world of competitive intelligence," he explains, somewhat enigmatically, "revolves around contacts. …