Bodyguard To The Stars

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Wed, 2008-10-15 08:44.
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Just before dawn on a Monday, the first call of the day came in at Picore Worldwide, a small security contractor based in Los Angeles. Trouble was brewing at a client's Midwest offices: A terminated worker was angry. When security guards whisked him from the building, he vowed to return the next morning. Picore's client was alarmed. What if he did come back - with a gun?

Picore began plotting a defense strategy. Then, moments later, a client called from Southern California. Burglars had hit one of its retail stores during the night. Send an armed detail immediately, the client demanded, and submit a plan for around-the-clock security by noon. Already Picore was on full alert, and the coffee hadn't even finished perking.

In short, it was business as usual at Picore Worldwide.

Dana Picore, 47, is the firm's CEO. A former Los Angeles Police Department cop, she launched her company about a decade ago, offering consulting services on violence prevention, mostly to corporations and government agencies. Since 2002, when Picore secured a license from the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services to provide armed and unarmed officers, her firm has been on a growth streak. Revenues hit $1.7 million in 2007 and are on track to top $2.5 million in 2008.

Picore's officers were out in force at the 2006 Academy Awards, the 2004 VH1 Awards, and the 2007 BET Awards. The company also provides security for corporate chieftains, globetrotting high rollers and their families, and top Hollywood stars, including singer Paula Abdul.

Private security is a $13-billion-a-year industry in the U.S., growing at a double-digit rate over the next decade, thanks to heightened concerns about crime, vandalism, and terrorism, according to the National Association of Security Companies, a trade group.

The business has gone global as anxious clients demand security in every port of call. While controversial behemoths such as Blackwater Worldwide grab headlines, hundreds of smaller firms vie for work providing security services to businesses and at events ranging from bake-offs to rock concerts.

Picore's company is too small to afford the help she needs and too big to run solo. She employs two full-time managers, a part-time bookkeeper, and 60 guards. The firm got its start providing security (armed and unarmed) as a subcontractor to bigger competitors. Nearly half of its revenue comes from such gigs.

But profit margins on that kind of work are slim and administrative costs high. (Picore interviews and checks backgrounds on each guard it supplies.) On the other hand, providing armed protection for executives and their families is highly lucrative. Such work accounted for less than 20% of Picore's 2007 revenues.

Picore yearns to build a discreet, service-oriented, highly profitable security boutique with an international clientele. Her goal: revenues of $5 million by 2010. But today she feels trapped in a low-margin swamp.

To help the CEO break free, FSB recruited three experts. The first, Robin Nasatir, meets with Picore at her North Hollywood loft offices. Nasatir, 49, is president of Cliff Consulting, which advises small businesses from its headquarters in Oakland. Picore COO Gemma Beristain, 43, sits in.

"You're in the midst of a critical transition, from consulting business to service company," Nasatir tells Picore. "You need to define your new identity by creating a brand, which involves more than just a logo."

Picore, she says, still thinks like a consultant: "When a prospective client asks, What do you do? you respond, What do you need?"
Talk back: Give us your advice for Picore

Nasatir urges Picore to leverage her reputation for sophisticated threat assessment by creating a rigorous training program for all her security officers. Then she can sell clients on the benefits of hiring "Picore-certified" guards. Such a program could help the company escape the low-margin rent-a-cop rut, Nasatir says, luring more clients who seek skillful, discreet security assistance.

Picore says she already invests much time in personally screening and coaching workers before sending them out on assignments - far more than her competitors, she believes. (For instance, Picore agents assigned to executive-security details must first undergo defensive-driving training to reduce the risk of accidents.)

"Your clients may not realize how much effort you invest in recruiting a top-notch security team, so formalize the screening and training," advises Nasatir. "Create a program that can be administered by your managers as you grow."

Picore worries aloud about the cost. "Do as much as you can online, especially for the lower-paying positions," Nasatir counters. "Create a quick, efficient system."

Picore's cellphone trills, interrupting the meeting with yet another client call. (Her ringtone is the theme song from Mission: Impossible.) Picore apologizes and steps out to take the call. Nasatir frowns. "As CEO, your job is to lead the company," she says sternly, once Picore returns. "But right now you're micromanaging."

Picore must learn not only to delegate but also to train clients to accept a deputy for all but emergencies. Delegate as much administrative work as possible to Beristain, Nasatir adds, and consider hiring a part-time CFO. And to impose discipline on the young, growing company, she suggests reviewing the books with a financial pro on a monthly or quarterly basis.

Later that afternoon Hank Shaw, 50, roars up to company headquarters on his motorcycle, a bit disheveled after a half-hour dodging freeway traffic. He is chief marketing officer of the Phelps Group, a Santa Monica marketing and communications agency. "Your Web site needs work," he says bluntly.

Designed five years ago, is cluttered with gimmicks popular in the early days of the Internet. On the home page, the cursor features a flame and a rising pillar of smoke; a gallery displays children's art as Vivaldi plays. Other pages use slow-moving Flash animation and tired stock photos.

Shaw starts with first principles. The most effective business Web sites are those that fit into a comprehensive marketing campaign that educates potential clients.

"An unsophisticated site is a big liability - especially for a company that wants to be known for its sophisticated service," Shaw says. His advice: Lose the hokey stuff. Simplify the site, especially the navigation. And above all, describe the firm's services concisely.

In the world of security, Picore Worldwide stands out as a woman-owned company in an industry largely controlled by men. Picore asks Shaw if she should market the firm accordingly.

Several years ago she undertook the time-consuming process of getting certified as a woman-owned business by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council and the Small Business Administration. In some instances, those certifications can help women win government or corporate contracts under diversity programs. On the other hand, Picore confesses, she isn't sure whether the distinction is an asset or a liability in her industry.

She does see a promising market in providing security for wealthy foreign families who visit the U.S. - especially for women and children. (A German businessman recently hired Picore's firm to provide unarmed chaperones for his two teen daughters while they shopped in L.A. He was so happy with the service that he tipped Picore's female agent $500.)

Corporate clients aren't likely to hire Picore simply because it's a woman-owned business, Shaw says. But gender could be a selling point in pitches that target women.

"You can sell yourself as a gun-toting BFF," he grins, referring to preteen girl talk for "best friend forever." "That's a great niche. You can be the experts in security for women."

He urges Picore to pitch women's organizations, especially those for traveling business-women. She might write a column for the organization's newsletter, or lecture on safe travel practices at its convention.

And when in doubt, blog! "Security is a hot topic," says Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Good Inc., an integrated-media company that publishes Good magazine and its Web site out of Los Angeles. Greenblatt, 37, urges Picore to capitalize on her high visibility: She is often featured in the media as an expert commentator on school shootings and workplace rampages.

Blogging regularly could boost traffic to Picore's website and enhance her image as an international security expert, he says. To attract more wealthy clients, Greenblatt recommends she contact local private schools and offer presentations on family security to their PTAs.

Two weeks after the Makeover, Picore seems energized by the experts' frank advice. Picore's website has undergone its own makeover. Picore is looking for a part-time CFO and devising a guard-certification program. Her firm just landed a million-dollar contract to provide security for a chain of stores in Southern California.

We'll watch this gun-toting BFF, and report on her progress.

[Via - CNNMoney.Com]

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