Phil Cleary: my smart solution to property theft

Ex-copper Phil Cleary was frustrated by the police's 'one man and his dog' approach to recovering stolen property. So he invented his own tracking system, and now his company is worth £35m.

Crime doesn't pay. But solving it can. At least that's what ex-copper Phil Cleary, 56, is out to prove.

He's developed a unique property marking system called SmartWater, which allows the police to identify who stolen goods really belong to. And it's already proving to be an effective deterrent against crime. Citing research from the University of Cambridge, the Telford-based businessman says that 74% of criminals would think again if they saw a SmartWater sticker on the premises. "If you increase traceability, you enhance accountability and that creates a deterrent."

Cleary grew up on the Wirrell, the son of Merseyside shopkeepers. He became an electronic engineer, but "realised aged 20-odd that I didn't want to be stuck in a computer room for the rest of my life. I wanted to feel a little bit of danger, get married, have grandchildren and tell them war stories."

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So he joined the West Midlands Police. As a CID officer he became frustrated at the "one man and his dog technology" used to recover stolen property. Synthetic DNA was too weak a substance to use as a property marker. After a car crash forced him to leave the police force in 1986, he began looking for alternatives. In this quest, he had one big advantage. "My older brother is a fellow at the Royal Society of Chemistry, so knows his stuff."

As a day job, Cleary was working as a consultant to the freight industry. He used his fee income to fund the £200,000 cost of development and patenting, while his brother created a property marking system using metals, oxides and various blends of chemicals. In 1996, venture capital group 3i paid £300,000 for a 10% stake in the business, allowing Cleary to open a series of laboratories and offices in Telford.

The result was SmartWater, an indelible clear fluid containing a code unique to every household, which is used to mark goods yet is invisible to the eye. It glows under ultra-violet light, allowing police to use their existing detectors to find it. "We had to get the police on side because people wouldn't use it if the police weren't looking for it." So Cleary got local media to cover the product, knowing it would create a deterrent in the minds of criminals. "The police bought into what was effectively a psychological warfare campaign."

Scottish Power and British Airways bought the system. By 2000 the business was turning over £1m a year. "Scottish Power had a problem with sub-stations being attacked, but since they began using SmartWater, they've seen an 80% reduction in attacks." Households followed, as research proved how effective the system was. An anti-burglary initiative in Fulham, London, saw a 40% reduction in burglary, while Stockton, Cleveland, saw a 70% fall in metal and cable theft.

Customers pay an annual subscription fee, for which they get services such as the firm's mapping system, which lets Cleary tell them when a pattern is developing. Now worth over £35m, according to The Sunday Times, SmartWater is expanding across the US, where Cleary says "apathy is the biggest threat. But as long as we get people to understand that if you mark your property, you make it more difficult for criminals, there's no reason why we can't be a success there as well."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.