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Richmond CEO says valuable business lessons are learned every day: Old Dominion Security’s Rafe Wilkinson talks about how his firm’s success has happened

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Richmond CEO says valuable business lessons are learned every day: Old Dominion Security’s Rafe Wilkinson talks about how his firm’s success has happened

By: Steve Sadler, CEO, Allegiancy

September 28, 2015

From time to time, we at Allegiancy will share stories of other businesses we admire who are growing, creating jobs, and doing good work.  Today, we’ll hear from Old Dominion Security’s leader, whose company is successful, thanks in part to a philosophy Allegiancy shares. CEO Rafe Wilkinson believes: “First, deliver results to your clients.” Wilkinson tells how he has achieved success in his business, sharing wise advice for all of us.

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When self-described “serial entrepreneur” Rafe Wilkinson bought Old Dominion Security in 2001, he had none of the law enforcement or military experience you might expect security firm executives to have on their resumes.

At the time, Old Dominion Security was more of what Wilkinson describes as a “mom-and-pop” company. It was a small firm and unsophisticated in terms of its contracts and marketing, Wilkinson says, with 50 employees, most of them part-timers.

About half of the company’s revenue came from one high-tech client. The combination of the firm’s reliance on one big client and Rafe’s unconventional background gave him pause.

“I had a whole lot of fear and trepidation,” Wilkinson says. “If that client were lost, it would be a very different ball game. Because security guard firms are typically law enforcement-esque or military-esque, I was a little uncertain how I would adapt to that.”

Focus on having the right people.

But in his analysis, Wilkinson realized that if the company had one big high-tech client, it could surely retain others. And he realized that running the company wouldn’t be about a rank or background in the military or law enforcement, but about customer service.

“Early on I began to recognize that having a background of law enforcement and military was so much less valuable than people skills,” Wilkinson says. “People really wanted to be a part of a culture of advancement and self-development.”

As he took over the company’s reins, two things — one small and something he initiated, the other huge and beyond his control — occurred that helped transform the company.

The first was that Rafe actually began to shy away from hiring workers with an extensive private security background, and began hiring people from the hospitality industry. People skills — friendliness, courtesy, eye contact, things like that — were what Wilkinson focused on as he also retooled the concept of security.

He quit using the word “guard” and switched to guardian, with guard conjuring negative connotations while a guardian evokes a sense of someone who is looking out for the best interests of a person and property.

Capitalize on industry change.

At the same time, the security industry was being transformed by a series of multi-national, national and regional consolidations. Wilkinson saw opportunity.

“Call it luck or timing but these company managers responsible for touching and managing clients began looking inward,” Wilkinson says. “They were worried about having jobs because of these mergers and there was a significant lack of client attention.”

Wilkinson went after the affected clients who were neglected due to the mergers. Within 18 months, Old Dominion Security had grown by almost 400 percent. Even today, as reports surface that the New York-based private equity firm, Blackstone Group, is looking to sell the largest U.S. security firm, Allied Barton, Wilkinson sees potential for gaining new clients.

“We sense a great opportunity for AlliedBarton clients that we wouldn’t have foreseen a year ago,” he says.

Always ask why.

Even though Wilkinson has had success with his company, which has more than 900 employees and offices in Virginia and North Carolina, he says he’s made plenty of mistakes. And still does.

Wilkinson said: “The one thing I continue to impress on our team is to constantly ask: ‘What are you or the group working on that’s significantly going to move you in the direction your clients want to go?’ and ‘What’s your ability to deliver on a value-add proposition to your client base?”

Wilkinson says a common mistake for business owners is to think company growth trumps all.

“I hear, `You’ve got to grow, you’ve got to grow,’” Wilkinson says. “I say, `Why?’ Here’s a recommendation for you: Be true to who you are, and not by adding employees or revenue. Revenue doesn’t pay the light bill — it’s gross profit. It’s not about revenue or employees; that’s a feel-good, cocktail conversation. It’s about asking, ‘Are you creating value, and are you enhancing your bottom line as much as it can be enhanced?’”

Work smarter.

Wilkinson also emphasizes balance for his employees by encouraging them to work smarter.

“People are enamored with going into the office at 6 and leaving at 6,” he says. “Why? I’d rather work smarter. I challenge my executive team to find two hours a day of free-thought time. It’s time to work on and pick up projects they think can enhance value and deliver meaning. Look above the tree line, have a strategic mindset, and say, `Is this the right thing to do?’ I’m a big believer in leveraging resources and working smarter.”

Regularly refresh your company’s vision.

Cultivating a fresh vision for his company is also a constant practice for Wilkinson. A new Old Dominion Security presentation will be significantly different from the one 30 days ago, he says.

“It is a constant evolution and constant researching of clients and the industry, bringing solutions in and educating,” Wilkinson says. “We are teachers and educators to our clientele.”

Foster your own leadership.

As a leader, Wilkinson has learned how important it is to have contact with his managers, with a focus on company culture.

“If I don’t spend 30 percent of my time at minimum in touching my leaders and being a cheerleader and coach for them,” Wilkinson says, “we won’t accomplish the goals we need to accomplish.”

It’s a guardian’s mentality at Old Dominion Security, and Value Assurance? at Allegiancy. Whatever you call it, the commitment to delivering value first and trusting that success will follow is something our firms share. His track record is proof positive that Wilkinson is the right person — with the right philosophy — to lead Old Dominion Security, and we applaud him.

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