It’s not often that you hear a CEO refer to employee training and development as “a higher calling,” but that’s how Bill Whitmore, the head of AlliedBarton Security Services, sees his company’s mission to produce top-flight security officers.
In an industry plagued by high turnover and poor training, the Conshohocken, Pa.-based company has developed a much-lauded program to prepare its security officers for careers in private security, one of the nation’s fastest-growing and evolving industries. The days of a night watchman patrolling on foot are no more, according to Whitmore. Technological advancements in surveillance and security systems have created a demand for tech-savvy personnel. And unlike the unseen night watchman, interacting with the public is a critical part of a security officer’s job, making good communication skills imperative, Whitmore said.
Many of AlliedBarton’s security officers have only a high school diploma — in fact, 46 percent of security officers nationwide have a high school education or less, according to the U.S. Labor Department. And many come from rough backgrounds, Whitmore said. He believes that it’s his duty to prepare his workforce for lifelong careers.
“When we hire people from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, who are there through no fault of their own, we can train and develop them and help improve their job skills so that they can do better with us or leave us and do better someplace else,” Whitmore said. “Many times we recruit folks from markets where the educational system is challenged. I think we’ve done a good job for society and for the company.”
The notions of duty and mission come naturally to Whitmore. He is a former volunteer fireman and police officer who cites the Boy Scouts as one of his greatest influences.
“It offered a well-conceived program for character development,” he wrote in a 2012 New York Times essay. “You could attain small wins at a young age, and as you became older, you received more responsibility and larger tasks — and greater reward as you achieved milestones.”
Whitmore has celebrated many milestones in his career, starting in 1981 when he got his first security industry job at Spectaguard, a regional security firm based in King of Prussia, Pa. He began as an assistant security director at the old Spectrum arena, where the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team and the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team played their home games. He moved up quickly, becoming security director, then director of operations and vice president of operations, before becoming chief operating officer in 1990.
In 2000, the company acquired Allied Security, a national firm based in Pittsburgh, and Whitmore became CEO three years later. In 2004 the company acquired Barton Protective Services, doubling the size of its workforce from 8,000 to 16,000 and changing its name to AlliedBarton. Whitmore was again made CEO.
Today the company is one of the largest security firms in the country with 55,000 employees and 120 locations serving shopping centers, office buildings, financial institutions, and aerospace and defense firms, among other clients.
Throughout this transformation, the company’s focus on training and leadership development has remained constant, according to Brent O’Bryan, the company’s vice president of learning and development, who credits Whitmore’s strong leadership and humility for AlliedBarton’s success.
“Even though Spectaguard bought Allied, Bill swallowed his pride and named the company Allied because they had the bigger name, and it was better for the business,” O’Bryan said. “It’s a difficult balance between humility and forcefulness that’s needed in an acquisition. If the leader isn’t strong enough, the company that was acquired might pull in one direction, but he set the vision clearly.”
Whitmore also made quite an impression on industrial psychologist Mortimer Feinberg, who was asked by Barton’s CEO at the time of the 2003 acquisition to give his assessment of Whitmore’s leadership abilities.
“Frankly, I didn’t believe that a previous cop could lead this big organization,” said Feinberg, a leadership coach, executive consultant and author. “What stands out is that he’s a good analyst of people. He knows his own strengths and weaknesses and recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates.”
And it didn’t hurt that Whitmore quoted to Feinberg passages of the psychologist’s book “Why Smart People Do Dumb Things: The Greatest Business Blunders — How They Happened, and How They Could Have Been Prevented.”
“I was impressed,” Feinberg said. “He had read three management books and one of them was my own, so I knew he had good taste.”
Whitmore takes a more practical view of the company’s success. He believes that what distinguishes AlliedBarton from its competitors is its comprehensive approach to training.
“We believe that a core element of our service offering was the training and development of our folks,” Whitmore said. “Last summer, we did an independent research project to understand the needs, wants and desires of our customer base. What they want is for us to provide competent, well-trained officers. In an industry that, frankly, is known for very little training and development, we decided many, many years ago that we were going to carve out monies every year to invest and build the best training and development programs that we could.”
In 2009, the company launched the AlliedBarton EDGE — short for educate, develop, grow and engage — an online training program for all employees from security officers to managers to executives. Security officer training includes a basic course and first-aid training and more specialized programs like fire safety, terrorism awareness and firearms training. The company also offers training to its clients. The program has won numerous awards, including a Chief Learning Officer LearningElite award in 2013.
O’Bryan said Whitmore excels at understanding the business climate and sniffing out opportunities.
“We didn’t have much government work a few years ago,” O’Bryan said. “We had high-rises, schools, hospitals and malls. He said, ‘This is a big pond we are fishing in.’ He saw opportunities in that sector, and now government services is one of our biggest units. He has a keen sense of what is going to work.”
In recent years, Whitmore has focused extensively on workplace violence. In 2012, he published a book titled “Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success.” An AlliedBarton survey conducted that year showed that 34 percent of Americans employed outside the home are very or somewhat concerned about their personal safety.
He has also focused on an issue close to his heart: hiring military veterans. Last year the company hired more than 5,000 veterans through its Hire Our Heroes program, according to Jerold Ramos, director of strategic recruiting and military liaison at AlliedBarton.
“About four years ago, Mr. Whitmore challenged us to create a military recruiting strategy,” Ramos said. “In the past employers shied away from veterans because they were afraid that they would be deployed. But he wanted to bring American heroes to the table. We can train them to do private security, but what they bring to the table is a sense of loyalty, justice, leadership and trustworthiness. That’s what makes a great security officer.”
Ramos should know. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. When he returned in the early 1970s, he was a high school dropout with few job prospects and a young family to support. His first job was a grocery store security guard.
“A veteran wasn’t really the nicest thing to be back then,” he said. “When I came home, I had no direction. I got into the security industry just to earn a paycheck.”
Eventually, Ramos earned his GED certificate and went to college. He joined AlliedBarton in 2002 as a recruiter and, like his boss, moved up the ranks quickly. He cites Whitmore as one of his greatest sources of inspiration.
“He has the ability to motivate you through just a few words,” Ramos said. “He doesn’t just give you marching orders. He tells you the reason behind it and gives you support. There’s a big difference between a boss and a leader.”
Ramos said that he sees himself as a product of Whitmore’s higher calling.
“When I was a kid, we were so poor we’d get food from mission centers and churches,” he said. “You don’t forget those things. Bill’s leadership has allowed me to get away from all that, and he’s given me the ability to make money to support my family. He’s completing his mission in life, and I’m a perfect example of that.”
The AlliedBarton EDGE
The AlliedBarton EDGE, which stands for educate, develop, grow and engage, is the security firm’s online employee training program and part of the company’s extensive learning initiative.
In an industry known for high turnover and poor training, the company has had to focus on cutting-edge learning techniques for security officers, managers and other employees.
AlliedBarton Security Services employs 125 trainers across the country, including specialists in instructional design who develop the curriculum. More than 1 million courses have been completed since 2009, according to Brent O’Bryan, vice president of learning and development.
The company’s multifaceted approach to learning has several components:
- E-learning: AlliedBarton’s EDGE features more than 1,000 online courses, videos, webinars and modules on topics such as first-aid training, terrorism awareness and firearms training. There are three tracks: Security Officer’s EDGE, Manager’s EDGE and Leader’s EDGE. Training for security officers includes courses in time management, effective listening and ethics. The manager’s track requires new supervisors to take a one-day supervisors workshop, and courses for leaders include coaching, budgeting and employee development. Employees can pick classes from an online catalog and sign up through the company’s learning management system. Some courses require a supervisor’s approval.
- Classroom instruction: Employees can take courses in a traditional classroom setting with lectures, discussion and testing.
- On-the-job training: Customized learning is available at the job site, and a checklist of skills tackled is entered into an online employee database.
- Scenario-based learning: This allows employees to practice decision-making through staged scenarios that put them in situations they are likely to face on the job, like determining when use of force is appropriate and how to proceed if it is. The scenarios are accessible through mobile-friendly websites and apps. Learners are asked to apply what they’ve learned in their course work.
- Lightning lessons: These are quick online refresher courses for security officers on topics such as fire safety, ethics and client experience.
- Podcasts: These brief audio courses each last about 1 minute and 30 seconds.
- Video library: These videos include topics such as job safety analysis, service animals and employee success stories.
Through AlliedBarton’s compliance system, trainers and managers can track employees to ensure they complete training and monitor their progress to gauge where additional development might be needed.