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Who’s Helping the Watchers Watch?

Catering to police departments, Allen's WatchGuard Video has become a global leader in digital in-car camera systems.
photography by James Bland

Robert Vanman’s youthful days as a speed demon earned him the nickname “Robby Radar”—and numerous speeding tickets. Fueled by a desire to beat the system, at the age of 16 he invented the “Car Bra,” a contraption designed to absorb police-radar waves. He later went on to become a partner in Applied Concepts, which develops the Stalker line of radar detectors and related products.

So it’s ironic that Vanman now leads a company that caters to police departments—the very forces he long tried to outwit.

An inventor and serial entrepreneur, Vanman is president and CEO of WatchGuard Video, developer of the world’s first and only real-time direct-to-DVD police in-car camera system. Its DV-1 product, which utilizes techniques designed for U.S. fighter jets, is the top-selling digital in-car video system in the world.

A Minnesota native who grew up following the former North Stars (now the Dallas Stars), Vanman’s meandering career path took him from racing motorcycles to attending a seminary built by his father, with various pursuits peppered in between, including architecture and engineering. He eventually found his true calling—technology—and became a partner in Plano-based Applied Concepts, which he helped grow into a top radar-detection system concern. Vanman cashed out in 2002, when the other partners spurned his idea to create an in-car camera system that would replace analog with DVD-recorded videos.

“They thought it could not be done, because isolating the energy from the DVD drive [which would in turn allow successful recording] seemed too difficult,” he says.

Vanman did it, supported by $10 million in venture capital. The DV-1’s dual-drive architecture ensures security of the video data, so that it’s always backed up. His company currently owns about 25 percent of the market, even though the economy has put the squeeze on WatchGuard’s largest customer base.

“When government budgets are so restricted, technology is no longer a priority,” Vanman says.

Ongoing investments in R&D—a total of more than $20 million so far—have helped WatchGuard Video continue to grow. Its latest product, the 4RE, is a high-definition, wireless recording system that can do things like pick up slurred speech through a high-fidelity microphone that detects sounds up to 2 miles away. With this product, Vanman thinks he can grow WatchGuard’s market share to 40-50 percent.

Although he won’t reveal specifics, the privately held company had record-breaking revenue in 2010, following a banner year in 2009,
Vanman says. In March 2011, WatchGuard traded in two office buidings in Plano for a larger 65,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Allen. There, flags representing the various nationalities of the company’s 115 employees hang in the assembly area.

Vanman says he strives to create a family-like corporate culture and takes a faith-based, servant-leader approach to management. Along with an engineering lab, customer installation bay, production space, and training rooms, the new headquarters has plenty of built-in amenities for workers, including a gymnasium and game room.

Vanman’s efforts have paid off; WatchGuard Video has an employee turnover rate of just 4 percent.