CEO Security: Dallas Executives Learn to Fight Back
Anxious about terrorism, crime, and the political climate, more local leaders are turning to firms that specialize in protection.
Dr. Tyler Cooper grips the black, Sig Sauer P229 semi-automatic replica pistol with both hands and approaches the open door, his arms extended in front of him, his heart pounding.
Quickly he sidesteps across the threshold and into the dimly lit hallway, pulling the weapon to his chest as he moves. He spots another door down the hall and slowly walks toward it. As he does so he wonders whether his finger should be on the pistol trigger or not.
Fortunately it’s not a life-or-death question, as the CEO of Dallas-based Cooper Aerobics Enterprises is not in a truly dangerous situation this weekday morning. Instead he’s inside a so-called “fight lab” in North Dallas that’s used for training purposes by Trident Response Group LLC, a risk-management firm founded by U.S. Navy veterans.
The cool, fluorescent-lit complex, referred to as a “shoot house” in military parlance, features a series of rooms with portable black doors and walls, like a movie set. Here, Trident students such as Cooper learn and practice the do’s and don’ts of moving through and securing a house invaded by “bad guys.”
Their teachers are guys with nicknames like Birdman–he’s a whip-thin, ex-Navy SEAL—and Rabbit, a former Army sniper with bulging biceps and a voice that sounds exactly like Tom Cruise’s.
Rabbit, whose real name is Mark Peters, advises Cooper: “You always want to be shooting and moving. Bad guys always shoot toward the door.”
Adds Birdman, aka Ryan Parrott: “Always assume they’re armed, and always assume it’s more than one person.”
Cooper emerges from the fight lab a little later, shaking his head and smiling. “I can definitely see the need for repetition,” he says.
Like Cooper, more chief executive officers are concerned these days about personal security for themselves and for their families. And, because they’re acting on those concerns, corporate expenditures for personal security are on the rise.
According to Equilar, an executive compensation data firm, the median value of personal and home security perquisites for Fortune 100 CEOs increased by 114.8 percent from 2009 to 2010, the latest year for which Equilar had national figures. (The SEC began requiring firms to report personal benefits for executives valued at more than $10,000 beginning with the 2007 proxy season.) From 2005 to 2010, Equilar notes, the overall annualized rate of increase in median values for personal and home security perks was 18.1 percent.
And, these corporate expenditures may understate what companies actually spend. At Irving-based Exxon Mobil, for example, Dallas’ Paradox Compensation Advisors pegs the amount spent on personal security for CEO Rex Tillerson last year at $96,010. But big companies like Exxon Mobil also employ full-time, in-house security experts. Says Exxon Mobil spokesman Bill Holbrook: “As a matter of practice, we don’t comment on security matters.” Paradox also found Fort Worth-based AMR Corp. spending $57,940 on security services last year for CEO Gerard Arpey, and Dallas-based AT&T ponying up $9,294 for CEO Randall Stephenson’s home security.
There are a number of reasons for such extraordinary expenditures. In addition to the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism—Dallas’s Fountain Place office building was the target of an aborted terror-bombing plot in 2009—drug-related violence has increased in foreign countries like Mexico, where many U.S. companies have operations. Recession-era economic pressures have led to mass layoffs here at home and to more disgruntled ex-employees, some of whom have retaliated against their former bosses. The Occupy Wall Street movement, political rhetoric, and the media also have cast “wealthy CEOs” in an increasingly unflattering light, adding to the anxiety.
There’s no doubt that security awareness is growing, says Chad Reynolds, founder and owner of Reynolds Protection, a six-year-old, Dallas-based firm that protects CEOs, among other things. “Security needs definitely went up when the recession hit,” Reynolds says. “There’s this feeling that, ‘We’re all unemployed, and then over here’s this rich guy.’ We’ve had to guard people going in and out of buildings, for instance, because of the Occupy Wall Street protests.”
Disgruntled former employees have become a problem as well. For example, Reynolds Protection was retained not long ago by a Dallas CEO who had fired his director of Internet security, Reynolds recalls. The fired employee had made threats against the CEO’s life and, one night, went so far as to drive his Lexus to the chief executive’s home. Four of Reynolds’ people met him in the driveway, their guns drawn. The show of force persuaded the disaffected IT director to quickly leave.
Workplace terminations also are credited with boosting business at 360 Group International, a Los Angeles firm that occasionally works in Texas, protecting the wealthy. “Corporations have been hiring us to come in when they terminate tens or hundreds of people,” says Bill Kirkpatrick, 360 Group’s founder and CEO. “That work has escalated over the last few years.”
Several years ago, Reynolds remembers, his company was sent to Louisiana, where a London-based hedge-fund founder involved in the hostile takeover of a U.S. public company was preparing to show up for the company’s annual meeting.
Reynolds’ officers drove the businessman, who was of Middle Eastern descent, to the meeting in a caravan consisting of five black SUVs. The convoy was stopped a quarter-mile from the meeting place, though, and the officers were forced to walk their client across an open muddy field, past the taunts of a crowd that had gathered.
Once inside they escorted the hedge-fund operator to the microphone each time he spoke, at one point batting away a water bottle hurled at the executive by an angry shareholder. “People were cursing at him,” Reynolds remembers, “calling him a ‘sand n*****,’ and things like that.”
‘Special Ops’ Background
Anti-CEO attitudes are on the mind of Mike Barnett, chairman and CEO of Plano-based Benchmark Bank, as well. “Certainly there has been class warfare” recently, Barnett says of political rhetoric and organized protest movements like Occupy Wall Street. “But I just wrote my IRS check, so I would hope that everybody would be nice to me! But, yes, that is a reason for concern today.”
Barnett, who uses the services of Trident Response for himself and as a perk for key Benchmark executives, says bank employees traditionally have been kidnaping targets. Over the years, he’s known personally of at least two such incidents. But these days Barnett mostly relies on Trident for home-security advice—they helped him devise a fire-escape plan, and once told him to improve the lighting in his back yard—and for “peace of mind” when he and his key people travel to foreign countries.
“They’ll tell us places they’d prefer you don’t go,” Barnett says. “Then you get a text from them almost hourly: ‘Are you okay? Is everybody safe?’ ”
That Trident is skilled in foreign-security matters isn’t surprising. The company was co-founded in 2005 by three Navy veterans: Clint Bruce, a former SEAL with a “special ops” background; Dee Elliott, whose background is in surface warfare and intelligence; and Stephen Holley, who has left Trident and now works at Jones Lang LaSalle.Today Trident, which had revenue of $1 million in 2011 and expects at least $2 million this year, works with about 60 Dallas-area families and roughly a dozen companies. Its offerings include the likes of investigation and intelligence work; training; rescue; and safety and security services.
“We’re as intellectual as we are physical,” Bruce says.
To illustrate their prowess, Bruce and Elliott recall receiving a phone call from a client-company in early 2011, as the Arab Spring was taking hold in Cairo, Egypt. “We have four guys there,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “and we need help getting them out.”
The employees, all senior executives, were actually at a hotel in an upscale Cairo suburb called Heliopolis, where a number of ex-pats live not far from the airport. Bruce and Elliott knew the neighborhood well. So they contacted the “relationships” they had in the area and drew up three plans for a rapid “extraction.”
The best plan had them calling on trusted local resources to put the men in a vehicle and rush them to the airport safely. The next-best alternative involved using “U.S. operatives” for the effort. The third called for a helicopter rescue from the hotel roof. Thanks to “elegant timing” the first plan was executed flawlessly, Bruce and Elliott say, and the men were delivered safely about 15 hours after the first call to Dallas had come in.
More often, Trident is involved in investigative work on behalf of companies considering acquiring another company, say, or hiring a senior executive. This work may involve conducting under-the-radar due diligence for a private-equity firm, for example, or educating a company entering the China market about cultural differences there.
“The world is not a safe place,” Elliott says of Trident’s philosophy. “Whether it’s the economy or any other threat, the issue of risk has to be assessed and addressed.”
Mike Lewis, a co-founder and principal with Dallas-based Velocis Partners, which invests in commercial real estate assets, can attest to that. With offices and retail centers in nearly a dozen U.S. markets, Velocis has called on Trident to analyze a variety of security risks and vulnerabilities.
“Who’s coming in and out of the buildings? How do you protect against monetary risk or fraudulent risk?” Lewis says. Trident “might look at a tenancy to make sure they’re a viable business. They look at everything.”
Once, he remembers, Trident discovered that a potential tenant in one of the Velocis shopping centers was on the government’s terrorist watch list. “We decided that company was probably not the right company for our building,” Lewis says drily.
“The need for this type of thing is absolutely growing exponentially,” he adds. “It’s not just in the Middle East but in our country, too, from A to Z. This isn’t U.S.A. 1955 anymore.”
‘Bad Things Can Happen’
Chad Reynolds of Reynolds Protection—whose revenue has doubled annually in recent years, hitting $1.7 million in 2011—works frequently with CEOs whose wealth has become public knowledge through the media, and with others whose “behavioral issues” are potentially embarrassing. “If you’re at a party and there’s a lot of drinking,” Reynolds says, “security is one of the very few people in the person’s life who can tell them, ‘No.’ ”
The firm has also protected celebrities including actors Eva Longoria and Jesse Metcalf (Christopher in TNT’s new Dallas remake), entrepreneur Russell Simmons, and Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan. “We’re not all knuckles and guns. It’s not a tough-guy contest,” Reynolds says. “If we have to use any of our skills, we probably didn’t do a very good job planning for the assignment.”
For CEOs interested in learning protection skills themselves, Reynolds recommends a couple of firms: the Texas Handgun Academy in Dallas, and C.J. Moran’s—21st Century Security Training, in Houston. Trident Response, on the other hand, does much of this training itself, for executives such as Tyler Cooper and Dave Lesh, the incoming president of the EO-Dallas entrepreneurs group.
Lesh, in fact, is in the process of scheduling Trident workshops for the entire EO-Dallas membership. On the docket will be classes in situational awareness, personal self-defense, and emergency medical and self rescue.
One big motivating factor for Lesh: the 2005 kidnaping and murder of Dallas restaurateur Oscar Sanchez, who was an EO member. “Really bad things can happen,” Lesh says. “So we want to keep the members and their families safe.”
Safety for himself and his family also was the motivation for Trident client Cooper, who sees a natural tie-in between Trident’s services and the mission of Cooper Aerobics Enterprises. At Cooper, “we prevent disease before it happens, with appropriate testing and so on,” he says. In a like manner, Trident’s instruction teaches “what to do if a situation arises. It’s preventative, and involves being knowledgeable enough not to put yourself in that situation.”
Besides caring for the massive Cooper complex off Preston Road, with its hundreds of employees, Cooper is especially concerned about protecting his wife and three young children at their home in Dallas’s Preston Hollow neighborhood. He remembers when a series of break-ins in the community in 2007 had them living in “a constant state of paranoia.”
“I don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want my family to live in fear,” Cooper says. “There’s always the possibility that something bad could happen, just like a heart attack could happen. The odds are that nothing will happen, but I want to be safe and proactive. I want to be as prepared as possible.”
That’s what brought Cooper to Trident’s fight lab in North Dallas on that weekday morning, the black Sig P229 replica in hand.
“We’re teaching you how to defend yourself and your family, how to move tactically throughout the house,” Birdman, the ex-Navy SEAL, had explained to Cooper a little earlier. “But, all the basics go out the window in a real crisis. So you need that muscle memory.”
Birdman kept up this sort of talk as Cooper navigated stealthily from room to room. In a few days, the Navy vet noted, the Trident team would go through the same exercise at Cooper’s house in Preston Hollow. And hopefully, he would retain what he was learning here.
“Confidence is what you need with this stuff,” Birdman went on. “Even if you make the wrong call, you need to make the call. Your aim is to get your family out of the house safely. So, you’ve got to have a plan of attack.”
When the session was finally over, the CEO seemed pumped-up, but unfazed. “Cool deal,” Cooper said. “Thanks, guys. Looking forward to more.”