Paul Donahue of Centerra Group wants clients to know that security is working best when they don’t see it

Security is all about perception. What gives one person comfort may leave another feeling vulnerable. It’s an intangible state that requires companies in the security business to take an individualized approach when working with clients to find solutions.

As the president and CEO of Centerra Group LLC, the largest American-owned provider of protective services to the federal government, Paul Donahue’s job is to develop those solutions.

He learned a valuable lesson on the right way to do this as a junior at the University of Miami.

Donahue participated in every class and completed all his assignments in his cost accounting class on time, but he kept getting B’s. It was the same thing on his tests. No matter what he did, he would always get a B.

After the midterm exam, the professor asked Donahue to come to his office.

“He said, ‘I don’t understand you. You participate, you do all your homework, you should be acing my tests and you keep getting these Bs,’” Donahue says. “I said, ‘I agree, so I guess that’s just the way it’s going to be.’”

Then the professor asked a mind-numbing question: “Do you ever practice tying your shoes?” Donahue told the professor he had no idea what that meant.

“He said, ‘Well, you will.’”

The professor never told him what it meant, so Donahue searched for the meaning of the message. He talked to fellow students but none of them could decipher the advice buried in the question.

Donahue still ponders it to this day, but he thinks it casts a light on how someone can go through the motions, assume all is going well, but never perfect them.

“Anyone knows how to tie shoes,” he says. “But he was saying you’re going through the motions: ‘You kind of take my class, you do the homework and you’re passing through. You’re not really engaged; you’re not really practicing.’”

The ability to dig deeper to develop customized solutions that help clients protect their most valuable assets has been a key factor in Centerra’s success.

Centerra as a name has existed only since last year. The company was formerly G4S Government Solutions Inc. and previously operated under the well-known Wackenhut Services brand from 1960 to 2011. Centerra employs 8,800 people and 2014 revenues were $600 million.

With a history like that, Donahue, who has been with the company 21 years in various roles, knows well how to define and offer security and peace of mind. He wants clients to understand that they don’t always have to see security to know that it’s there.

Invisibility is a good thing

Security is working best when you don’t know it’s happening, Donahue says.

“For every person you see at the Super Bowl, there’s a dozen you don’t see,” Donahue says.

“Our job is to try to ensure the customer understands the value of security, both what they see, and what they don’t see.”

But to get to that point, businesses need to identify security threats through a process not unlike a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats involved in a project). As Donahue puts it, a threat assessment is like a gap analysis in business, the comparison of actual performance with potential or desired performance.

There is no one-size-fits-all type of security for an organization, Donahue says. By laying out the cards of the threat analysis, it becomes clear to the person or company how an individualized approach is the only way.

“It depends on what the mission of that site is,” Donahue says. “NASA clearly has a different mission than the Johnson Space Center and there is a different threat assessment there. The Jet Propulsion Lab, in Pasadena, California, has a different threat assessment.”

While sabotage and espionage may be major threats at those locations, graffiti is a major threat at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Security at the museum is one of the most difficult because of all the hate groups that would like nothing more than to vandalize the museum with graffiti,” Donahue says. “It may not be a bomb that goes off but some elements like to graffiti the Holocaust Museum, and that’s just as embarrassing as a security breach.”

Another mindset to overcome is that security threats may be higher or lower according to seasonal or other conditions.

Centerra protects the nation’s reserve of petroleum, which is stored underground in salt caverns throughout Louisiana and Texas. These reserves are for national security reasons to help manage oil prices when they go too high or too low.

“There are about 700 million barrels now underground and the security assessment we do every year is that when prices are high, there’s the risk of threat,” Donahue says.

A threat assessment should be reassessed regularly, he says. For instance, the Department of Energy meets annually with the Department of Defense and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to determine what the threat scenario to the country is year to year.

“And based on that threat, we try the best we can to standardize the security plans to match and beat the threat analysis,” Donahue says.

Consider security an asset

If security were only a product an individual or organization could purchase, there would still be a need to create the acceptance that all was safe and secure.

Donahue goes a bit further and says security should be looked at as an asset. He illustrates his point by using the biggest target for criminal acts each year, the Super Bowl — yet it’s never been attacked.

Centerra-Web2The first thing is to set the stage, just as in the case of an artistic production.

“You start to see security way out, miles out,” he says. “That provides people with the comfort of, ‘OK, the Super Bowl’s probably the single largest target in the world every year, yet every year it’s never been attacked.’”

The engagement of the security at the event is unparalleled.

“We provided all the K-9 units in 2013 when the Super Bowl was in New Orleans and were responsible for screening every cargo truck that came in to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — whether they’re delivering helmets, shirts or food. It was an awesome responsibility.

“As much as I enjoyed the Super Bowl, I wanted to make sure our guys were over delivering and ensuring that we weren’t going to be the hole where somebody got through because cargo is a highly penetrable target.”

Donahue says a part why the public feels secure is that the Super Bowl promoters have put so much into the security efforts. It shows how much they’ve invested so there’s no reason for a perpetrator to try to compromise security; there are softer targets elsewhere.

Once that investment is made, if it is successful, the worth of security will be perceived and invisibility is reached that brings peace of mind.

Create peace of mind

Donahue’s approach to his business is to look beyond the products and services he provides. His job is to use the tools at his disposal to create a sense of security and peace of mind for his clients, and even the fact that he himself has to have his background reviewed every so often helps reinforce his approach.

“Every few years I have to get another background check to make sure that I’m an ally to our country and not an enemy,” he says. “I get extensive background checks for both the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, as do all our key staff and our field staff that carry weapons.”

Centerra’s core competencies will evolve beyond security and fire support services as the company continues to diversify and expand through organic growth, Donahue says. The company plans to launch multiple strategic divisions this year to better align with its projected portfolio of business.

“In a critical infrastructure model, security is the core because if you don’t have a secure location, you can’t operate,” he says. “Whether it’s a hospital or a college, if people are coming and they’re not safe and secure, you can’t operate.”

One of its longest-running contracts is to provide security to the Nevada National Security Site, previously known as the Nevada Test Site, for the Department of Energy.

While this is where all the nuclear atmospheric and subterranean testing of U.S. nuclear weapons occurred, there is no testing today.

“But we still have to ensure that the components critical to the success of the nuclear stock pile are still working,” Donahue says. “We’ve won that contract every five years since 1964.”

How to reach: Centerra Group LLC, (561) 472-0600 or

  • Develop critical thinking to expand your definitions.
  • Consider security an asset.
  • Invisibility doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The Donahue File

Name: Paul Donahue
Title: President and CEO
Company: Centerra Group LLC

Born: Patchogue, New York. My parents left when I was 1, and like all good New Yorkers, we moved to Miami.

Education: An undergraduate degree in accounting and master’s degree in business administration from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
My first real job was when I was 14 as a porter at a bowling alley. It was a great job, I made $3.35 an hour, the minimum wage. First of all, I learned I like to work and that punctuality is important. Also, I learned to watch my boss. Week to week he focused on different things, and it took a while, but after some time I realized if I just followed where his focus areas were and made those my focus areas, we tended to do really well together.

Who do you admire in business?
I’ve always looked up to entrepreneurs. I think when we hire people here we love to get kind of the entrepreneurial spirit into this business. A pure-bred entrepreneur, in my experience here, never really works inside of a structured environment. They’re too innovative, they’re too creative, their risk profile is so great, and that’s why so many struggle but a few do very well.  But the thought process, the energy, the desire to challenge the status quo that’s born in entrepreneurs just is phenomenal. I admire anyone that’s willing and able to make change.

What is your definition of business success?
We’re a people business and if the people — they obviously have to respect you or they’re not going to follow you — can respect you and like you because you take an extra 10 seconds to ask them about their family, or ask them about their pets, or ask them about their personal life, I’ve found that they’ll follow you anywhere. Respect does have to be earned, and that’s clear for any leader, but if they can like you and respect you, I think that’s the definition of business success.

What keeps you up at night?
When you have nearly 9,000 employees, it only takes one to not do the right thing, and that mystical 1 in 9,000 keeps me up on some nights.