illustration by PJ Loughran

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.