Making a name for himself in private security — a market said to value hundreds of billions of dollars — was never in Michael E. Smith’s dreams. The president and chief executive officer of Griffin Security Agency, a 12-year-old New York City firm specializing in uniformed guards, event security and executive and celebrity protection, simply focused on building a loyal clientele and solid reputation as a matter of survival. Now, surrounded by some of the city’s most coveted real estate in the heart of Wall Street and just steps away from the fraternity of the world’s most influential financial executives, Smith has found a home.
It’s hard to believe that his is an entrepreneurial success that almost didn’t happen.
Smith’s road to achievement in the security industry began when he was a psychology major at Pace University in New York. He worked as a security guard to support himself and, because of the job’s long quiet hours, to keep up with the required course reading. That, he now says, is the wrong way to get into the industry.
Attending Pace was a source of pride and accomplishment for Smith and his parents. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, but his parents, Ansley and Edward Smith, tuned out the naysayers and committed themselves to helping their son succeed in life. After his father died, he left school to help support the family. He eventually bought the company where he was working part time. “There were many people who were ready to write me off; who said I would not be able to learn basic subjects,” said Smith, 43, during a visit to his sprawling office. “But my parents challenged everyone of them and prepared me to work hard and to succeed.”
His next challenge came on the heels of Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks not only affected the financial world but also changed the perception of the private security industry and heightened its profile. At the same time, a wave of change swept through the industry, bringing heavier reliance on technology.
Prior to the terrorist attacks, Smith says, the biggest security concerns on Wall Street were employee theft, unauthorized access to buildings and offices, and exposure of confidential and sensitive materials. After Sept. 11, access control became a priority. Visitors and employees alike had to show identification to enter buildings; access to elevators and floors was limited; and scanners and cameras were installed to aid uniformed guards.
“After the attacks, every person entering an office building had to have a contact and a destination,” Smith says. “The days of walking in to a lobby and getting information from the doorman and the ability to go to any floor unchecked are long gone.”
For the first six months after the attacks, amid the uncertainty and anxiety of “not if, but when” the next attack will come, many security companies benefited from an increase in demand for service. In Smith’s case, it was a time to focus on his existing clients and on his promise to his staff that he would seek more contracts. The terrorist attacks could have signaled the end for a small minority-owned company like Griffin, as many of Wall Street’s building proprietors and large financial firms turned to large companies for their security needs. But Smith’s commitment to hard work, not to mention his skill in surviving despite the oversaturation in the industry, paid off. Today, his list of clients includes JPMorgan Chase & Co., AMR Corp. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
He has come a long way from the 40 to 80 employees he had when he began his company in 1996 and from the days when he pulled night-watch duty with Zeus, his now-deceased Rottweiler. “I’ve worn many hats in the life of my company and the key to success has been excellent customer service and professionalism,” Smith says. “From what I expect from my employees and in turn what I expect of them for our clients.”
A willingness to persevere led him to Consolidated Edison Inc. Smith saw an advertisement about the utility company’s supplier diversity initiatives and promptly called with a pitch. “What drew me to respond to the ad was that they were seeking minority-owned companies to give them opportunities, if qualified, to bid for contracts.”
In 2004, Con Edison sent a team out to inspect Griffin’s operation and subsequently gave him his first contract — at the World Trade Center. Over the years, the size of his contracts with Con Edison has increased and included services for utility plants and other facilities. “Our chief executive officer believes that small businesses are the backbone of the city and we were looking for a security firm to provide some services,” says Joy P. Crichlow, Con Edison’s director of supplier diversity. “[Smith’s] company was small at the time, but we wanted to see what he could do if we pushed him in the right direction.”
Smith showed the necessary work ethic and commitment to handle Con Edison’s needs and over the years has proven a valuable provider, Crichlow says. The keys to his success, she notes, have been his ability to flourish in an industry transformed by technology, his determination and his public-relations skills. “It is our commitment to work with small companies in the communities we serve,” Crichlow emphasizes. To that end, Con Edison has reached out to the Jamaica Business Resource Center in Jamaica, Queens, and to other organizations to find reliable candidates. Smith, however, got in on his own initiative.
Although being a minority-owned business got him to the table, Smith is quick to point out that he is not a registered minority business with the standard 8(a) certification. Some certified minority companies quickly fail because of their inability to seek new contracts and grow once the guaranteed federal contracts run out. “Getting 8(a) certification was an avenue that I chose not to take,” Smith says. “The fact that my company is minority owned is no secret and that is not a deterrent. All I ask is that I’m given an opportunity to bid for contracts. When denied, I work on whatever was missing from my bid so that when the opportunity presents itself again I win.”
Griffin has received awards from the Jamaica Business Resource Center, and The Network Journal named Smith one of its “40 Under Forty Dynamic Achievers” in 2002. Griffin now has two offices on Wall Street, a satellite office at John F. Kennedy International Airport and almost 700 employees. His airport profile has also grown, as his dealings with American Airlines have broadened the range of his company’s services. “The terrorist attacks also changed the way security was done at airports, with airlines now prepared to spend more money in security and in the quality of personnel,” Smith says. “It was no longer enough to simply have people watching doors.”
While the screening and training of airport personnel was taken over by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration in the post-9/11 environment, the security industry as a whole benefited through better training, drug testing, and the retention and retraining of management, Smith says.
Success has enabled him to work with world dignitaries like Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, and the late Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. His company was also contracted to work at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colo. But his biggest passion is education, Smith says. Later this year, he will finalize the requirements for his Footsteps Forward in the Sand Scholarship Program for students with learning disabilities. The program will provide its scholars with tutors, computer training and financial assistance for college with money raised largely from a gala held in January every two years, he says. “I’ve enjoyed growing a business that has supported my family and opened doors for me, but community is just as important and it is my dream to leave something with a forward direction to help others,” Smith says.