How Bill Whitmore secured the future of AlliedBarton Security Services by emphasizing culture and strategy Featured

8:01pm EDT October 31, 2011
Bill Whitmore Bill Whitmore

Crime doesn’t pay. Protection from crime, on the other hand, has paid off in a big way for AlliedBarton Security Services LLC.

The 55,000-employee company bucked the downward trend during the recession, growing from 2006 revenue of $1.2 billion to 2010 revenue of $1.7 billion. Chairman, president and CEO Bill Whitmore attributes the growth to a selective, informed approach to business, along with a dusting of opportunism.

“The good news for our industry is that during an economic downturn, there is a focus on crime,” Whitmore says. “There is a concern with protection, a concern with preventing workplace violence. Those things still exist, and a company like ours is here to fill that need.”

The seeds for AlliedBarton’s winning approach to business in a recession were planted in 2007 and 2008, when Whitmore and his team formulated a strategic plan. Whitmore’s team didn’t know the depths to which the economy would sink, but they controlled what they were able to control — the markets they decided to pursue and how they reacted to whatever the markets and the economy, threw at them.

“When we sat down and wrote the plan, we saw a couple of things that we believed would happen,” Whitmore says. “One is that contracts in our industry would be consolidated. They were, and we put together a national accounts team that works with customers embarking on initiatives. That program didn’t exist in 2007, and now it is roughly $400 million of our run rate. The strongest pipeline we have in our company is for those clients that are looking to consolidate.”

To make a strategic plan strong and accurate, you need alignment. That means you need your plan to fall in line with the vision and cultural values you promote as a company, and you need a team that is willing to embrace those values and work toward the goals outline in your strategic plan.

It’s a task that requires you to be equal parts cheerleader, lookout and air traffic controller.

Get focused on goals

Every item in the AlliedBarton strategic plan is tied to a goal, which in turn ramps onto the overarching goal of the organization, which is to protect the people, property and assets of clients.

With goals ramping upward, the responsibility for achieving the goals has to be communicated downward and tied to goals and incentives that directly impact each of the 55,000 AlliedBarton associates around the country.

“Goals get translated into an annual performance plan, goals get translated into compensation metrics as basic as performance planning documentation for individuals, which is then cascaded into the company,” Whitmore says. “Then we sit down and measure people on how they did against those goals and how well we did as an organization. That’s the accountability part, that we hold people accountable for doing it.

It’s a mentality that is shaped by management from an employee’s first day on the job. From the beginning of the first day, employees are schooled in the company’s goals, strategy and values. They are given a copy of the company’s cultural primer, “Dare to be Great.” The booklet is often referenced by Whitmore in conversation, and employees are expected to know its contents.

With “Dare to be Great” providing the template and Whitmore providing the guiding hand and reinforcement, the culture of accountability has taken root throughout the expansive AlliedBarton footprint.

“The one thing I’m very pleased with is we’ve had a number of examples in the last few years where people in our markets would kind of light up in various ways,” he says. “They would say to us, at the account level and regional offices, that there is a leader who is not living up to the standards that we as a company expect. We expect more out of our leaders than this, and we know that you on the corporate level do as well.”

If an employee, particularly on the management level, is not knowledgeable about the goals and values of the company, their technical competency matters less. Technical skills can be learned, and in management-level positions, is often a job prerequisite. Values and a willingness to work as part of a team toward common goals are far more innate to each person.

“Anyone can learn the software and technology of the job, but you want people to lead,” Whitmore says. “I was interviewing a woman for a senior position recently, and I brought the ‘Dare to be Great’ book with me. I showed her what we’re all about, what we’re hiring for. She had the technical skills, we was a seasoned executive, but I told her if she doesn’t believe in what is in this book, don’t come with us. You have to reflect on whether this is in your heart.”

Continue the challenge

Employees stay motivated to strive for goals when they are constantly challenged by management to test the boundaries of their capabilities. It’s something Whitmore has kept in mind as he has continued to fashion a future direction for AlliedBarton.

“One thing I always try to be clear about is that ‘Dare to be Great’ is exactly what it says,” Whitmore says. “I’m daring you to do something great. I’ve had competitors say to me, ‘You guys think you’re great,’ but that’s not the idea. We’re the first to admit that we’re not perfect. With 55,000 employees, not all of them does the right thing or gives 100 percent every day. It’s about challenging everyone in the organization to be great.”

Whitmore says that mindset should be at the core of every leader’s thinking, if a company is to stand any chance of growing and thriving.

“It is at the core of everything we do in leadership,” he says. “You walk in every day and say to your employees, ‘I want us to be better and better.’ I’ve been here a long time, and I come to work every day trying to think of ways that we can better this business today. What can we do differently? What new thing can we try? How can we enhance what we do? And that’s generally the feedback we get from our clients, as well — that our managers come to work each day asking how we can improve our service, better improve and develop our security officers.

“It’s fundamental. I don’t care if you’re running a single McDonald’s restaurant or General Electric. You have to come to work every day and challenge your folks to do better.”

Developing a culture of continuous improvement is so integral to the process of strategic planning, Whitmore says he has trouble separating the two when it comes to explaining how AlliedBarton does business. Without driven, motivated employees, your strategy will never bear fruit. Without a strategy as a structure, your employees will have nothing on which to focus their efforts.

“It’s just at the core of everything we do,” he says. “In order for us to meet our goals, in order for us to build our business, none of it is going to happen without the desired culture in place. You can say you’re going to be anything you want. Without the culture for it, you just can’t do it. We could just work on selling contracts and making money. But one of the reasons you see us going from a small regional company 10 or 11 years ago to where we are today is our belief that the financial results will happen if you do all the other things well.”

Get smart

To point your company in a given strategic and cultural direction, you need raw materials in the form of good people.

Finding the right people for the job at AlliedBarton — regardless of what the job is — means finding people who have a high emotional IQ.

If your IQ is a measurement of your capacity for head knowledge, your emotional IQ is a more ambiguous measurement that takes the temperature of your softer, people-oriented skills and traits.

“We mean people who are good at dealing with individuals, who are willing to take responsibility, who are oriented around growth and can make a connection with people,” Whitmore says. “People who can show leadership skills.”

Whitmore and his leadership team promote teamwork and attempt to heighten the collective emotional IQ throughout AlliedBarton through the company’s training and continuing education programs, where leaders emphasize the concept of building a collaborative culture around the company’s strategic goals.

“Sometimes I get complaints because we have too many people working on different projects,” Whitmore says. “But I like it because it’s what drives our culture. We have a class here called ‘212,’ which is a reference to the Fahrenheit temperature at which water boils. I once went around asking people how long they had been coming to the classes, expecting them to talk in terms of weeks and months. But one person had been going for five years. The person was a former operator who had moved over to the sales side, and one of the reasons they kept coming back was the number of people who stepped up and volunteered to guide and advise.

“Those are the types of things that become voluntary when they become a trait of your culture.”

Whitmore likes large numbers of people working together on projects because he feels it is critical to the culture to have people in different disciplines and locations working together toward common goals and developing a mutual understanding of what is happening in the departments and locations of their project-mates.

“You get interdisciplinary groups of people working together on projects, processes and initiatives, and that breaks down the silos that can develop in an organization,” Whitmore says. “But I’m not going to kid you, it’s work to do that. You get someone who works in, say, El Paso, and because of what they do, they get very inner-focused. It is something we have to work on all the time, because if we let that go, everything else won’t work as well.

“It’s all because in any business culture, the number one thing — and it’s been said over and over again — is teamwork. If your company is made up of leaders who can work together for a common cause, and who are there for each other in good times and bad, I think those are the companies that survive.”

How to reach: AlliedBarton Security Services LLC, (484) 351-1300 or www.alliedbarton.com

The Whitmore file

Born: King of Prussia, Pa.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business, Philadelphia University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Be curious. The world is changing, so don’t get tied into what you do every day. Ask why people do things a certain way. As part of that, do a lot of reading and keep yourself intellectually stimulated.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Integrity, honesty and being highly communicative. And do what you said you would do — walk the talk.

What is your definition of success?

I think if we meet all of our plans, then it is a win-win-win for customers, employees and shareholders. That is what I define as a success.