Bodyguard to the stars

Even with the market tanking, business is good for this high-end security firm: It's gunning for more growth.

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Dana Picore (front) with members of her executive-protection team.
Dana Picore wonders if she should market her firm as woman-owned.
Agent Brandon Taylor at a shooting range outside L.A.
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LOS ANGELES (Fortune Small Business) -- 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?"

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."

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