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Safety at a Price: Executive protection a fast growing sector in security boom

Monday, February 14, 2000

By Jack Kelly , Post-Gazette National Affairs Writer

Second of three parts

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Tom Bullins likes to shoot guns and drive fast. That made the Marine Corps a natural for him. No military service places more emphasis on marksmanship, and Bullins was one of the best.

That's why Bullins was selected as an instructor for the High-Risk Personnel Protection program at Quantico, Va., where he taught defensive driving and anti-terrorism skills to Marines and State Department officials. He also trained local police units in strategic weapons and tactics (SWAT).

But in 1990, the Marines wanted to send Bullins on a tour of the Pacific, where he would float around on an amphibious ship as a platoon sergeant in a rifle company.

"I'd been there and done that," Bullins recalled. "My oldest daughter had just been born. I didn't want to leave home, and my wife didn't want me to go. Reputations in the shooting business are ephemeral. If I went away for three years, nobody would remember me when I got back."

So Bullins left the Marine Corps after 10 years to set up a private security business.

Financially, it made a lot of sense. He has earned between $100,000 and $150,000 in eight of the nine years he's been in business for himself. Pay and allowances for a Marine gunnery sergeant run about $40,000 a year.

Bullins, 37, has tapped into one of the fastest-growing sectors of the fast-growing security business: executive protection. So now he spends his days making good money and doing what he likes best: Shooting, driving fast and teaching others how to do the same.

Intense training

Bullins recently conducted a weeklong training course at his shooting range a few miles north of Fort Bragg in North Carolina for GlobalOptions, the newest of the "risk mitigation" firms that are remaking the private security industry. He often trains executive bodyguards, but this time he was instructing the executives themselves.

  Safety at a price, Part I:

Security is a booming, sophisticated, global business


His students were members of the Young Presidents' Organization. Each became a president or CEO of a company with at least 50 employees and $8 million in revenues before the age of 44. And each paid several thousand dollars for the course.

To help conduct training, Bullins assembled a team of military veterans with backgrounds much like his own, along with Dave Chatellier, 60, director of security and training for GlobalOptions.

Chatellier, a former Air Force and Army intelligence operative who served in Delta Force, the Army's elite anti-terrorist unit, and its predecessor, Blue Light, is a legend is the private security business. He is most famous for his rescues of abducted American children taken overseas.

In 1988 Chatellier and his then-partner, Don Feeney, an ex-Delta operator, rescued 7-year-old Lauren Bayan from Jordan, where she had been taken by Cathy Mahone-Bayan's ex-husband, who did not have custody.

A born-again Christian who abstains from alcohol and abhors swearing, Chatellier inspires respect from others on the team. "I think of Dave as kind of a surrogate father," Bullins said.

The training is intense.

This class of 10 presidents was assembled by Lawton Langford, who owns a legal publishing firm in Tallahassee. They shoot firearms that range from a Glock 9 mm automatic pistol to an M-60 machine gun to a .50 caliber sniper rifle. But the high point for the usually deskbound executives came during two days at the NASCAR raceway, where they learned how to ram, do J-turns and perform other maneuvers to avoid kidnappers or would-be assassins.

One CEO felt palms sweating as he stepped on the accelerator. There was a loud krrang as he bashed the car blocking his path directly on a front wheel well. Shards from his right headlight went flying in all directions, but the target car was spun 90 degrees and the road was clear.

"Good job," a smiling Bullins told the man, who was taking deep breaths to calm down after his adrenalin rush. "You got away from the terrorists that time."

The class concluded with a "final exam" in which various techniques were practiced in a timed run. Fired with a spirit of competitiveness, the executives all finished within ten seconds of each other. There were cheers and jeers when Langford posted a better time than Bullins did.

"I travel a fair amount overseas," Langford said. "I learned things that may save my life, or that of my family, and I had a hell of a good time."

Jeff Manchester, a management consultant, said, "It was fantastic. The driving skills -- you definitely need them in Miami."

Bullins' next job was in south Texas, where he was going to train bodyguards for a Mexican industrialist at a rate of $125 to $200 a day per man.

Executive protection

A average executive bodyguard makes about $40,000 a year, according to Pete Dordal, president of Potomac Group & Associates in Washington, D.C. There are thousands available, but only a handful of what Dordal calls "ten percenters," who make about $60,000 a year. It's a tight-knit community, and all the major security firms have these resumes on file.

Dordal, 35, a former Marine sergeant, helped found the High-Risk Personnel Protection program, and Bullins took over for him. Before starting his own company in 1995, he worked several years for Vance International, a pioneer of private executive protection.

Vance has a five-week training program, modeled on the Secret Service, and it prefers to hire former Secret Service agents. "Most of the really good guys in the protection business have been with Vance at one time or another," Dordal says.

Potomac Group also specializes in executive protection and in training executives in travel security. Half of Dordal's work is for his own clients; half is subcontract work for larger security firms.

Dordal recently had 16 agents in the field: 10 protecting an Arab family, four assigned to management in a West Coast labor strike, and two providing security for a Tennessee individual who had been threatened.

"I have 1,700 resumes on file, but I only use about 50 people I personally can vouch for," Dordal says. "There are a lot of wannabes and loose cannons in this business."

Stacy Zinn, 33, one of relatively few women in the business, frequently works for Dordal. In 1993, Zinn had returned to Dallas with a master's degree from Texas Tech when Vance International began recruiting there.

"I didn't know what 'asset protection' was, but I answered the ad anyway," she says. "There were about 50 guys there and two girls. They told me there was no way they'd hire me for [protecting property], but they had an opening for a female in executive protection."

Zinn was graduated from Vance's training program and worked for the firm a little less than a year before taking a full time position with a Florida family. She began working for Dordal in 1996.

Needless to say, there are advantages and liabilities to being a woman in the executive protection business.

"A lot of times females have to re-prove themselves each detail. Females are under the gun a lot, especially if they are working with ex-military."

On the plus side, Zinn said, "Females tend to blend in easier. You don't have the stereotype of the big old rugged guy. Female clients are more comfortable with us, and we can go with them to places where guys can't."

At 5 feet 3 inches Stacy Zinn won't be mistaken for a "big old rugged guy." But she's a crack shot and has a black belt in jujitsu.

Joe Ricci, marketing director for Vance International, said his firm received thousands of unsolicited resumes but kept only 300 to 350 on file and routinely used the same 100 to 125 people for executive protection details.

Typical clients are American corporate executives traveling overseas, wealthy foreigners visiting the United States and Hollywood stars. Dordal said, "Most celebrities at some time or other have to deal with a stalker."

Vance also protects people and property during strikes, such as the Detroit newspaper strike. The company uses mostly ex-military men for "asset protection," armed with video cameras rather than guns.

The key to making a good living in the security business is regular work. People working for Vance in executive protection can expect to work about a third of the year; people who work in asset protection about two-thirds of the year.

Next: Mercenaries in pinstriped suits: The corporatization of the 'dogs of war.'

Correction/Clarification: An earlier version of this story included one or more photos by Allan Detrich. The photos have been removed. This action is explained in a note from the editor.

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