Former Navy Seal vets Paul Johnston and Mike Janke were operating a special operations training center in Santa Fe, N.M., when they were contacted by a Southern California contractor seeking their help in providing civilian security services in Iraq.
The year was 2003.
"We had the experience in special operations," recalls Johnston, "but we lacked the business knowledge that Tetra Tech the contractor was seeking. We knew the kind of former military personnel we needed, but we had no knowledge about how to get credit lines nor how to go about recruiting, the entire human resource thing. We didn't know how to get a company up and running quickly enough to be able to subcontract with Tetra Tech."
Enter Robert Shiells, co-founder and board chairman of Security Management Group, which was then headquartered in the Bay Area.
"They had an opportunity to start up a project in Iraq and we had experience in running a company, so we got together and formed Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group," Shiells says.
The Minden-based company now has some 70 full-time employees, plus those workers it contracted overseas.
The company's offices are adjacent to the Douglas County airport and a short commute from Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
But the overriding reason for the Minden office is that the company's tactical training center is located in Hawthorne on leased land whose terrain most closely resembles that which support service personnel would likely find in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"We do have access to 4,000 acres in Hawthorne," says Johnston who retired from the Navy after 22 years in special operations. He is chief of operations for SOC-SMG. "We have a very large training range and have agreements in place to use additional land if needed. The terrain is comparable to what one would find in the Middle East. A big part of this business is that we have people at the Hawthorne site as instructors who have actually been in Afghanistan and Iraq, and because it looks like the Middle East environment, you train like you fight and you fight like you train."
Some who train at the Hawthorne site are preparing to deploy overseas under a specific contract with SOC-SMG, while others may avail themselves of the opportunity to take a refresher course on special ops training to enable them to be hired.
"We tailor our training to the clients we have," says Johnston, "and for the environment we'll be operating in." He said while some European countries have visited the company's Hawthorne training site, none have sent personnel for training.
Shiells, a former California police chief and one-time founder of an investigative and security protection company with three partners, says the initial contract with Tetra Tech quickly grew to 130 employees.
"All were former special forces personnel," Shiells says. "They were either Navy Seals, Delta Force, Rangers or Green Berets. The contract with Tetra Tech, under the auspices of the Army Corps of Engineers, called for such personnel whose job it would be to provide security at ammunition supply points in Iraq while our military disposed of captured enemy ammunitions that had been there for decades."
Johnson says the company prides itself in "applying the right tools to the right job. It's not a cookie cutter approach. Some (competitors) overseas are taking kids right out of the military, kids in their early 20s, guys with very little experience. We're looking for more experienced personnel, guys who are mature and are not quick to become aggressive. We want men who can control a situation instead of allowing it to escalate."
Shiells says the company also provides security at living compounds and to convoys. Recruiting hasn't been difficult, especially when an ex-military special ops veteran discovers he can earn anywhere from $500 to $1,500 a day while deployed in some of the world's trouble spots.
But the company has more than just Department of Defense clients.
"We have done intellectual property investigations for some of our clients and are always available to providing consulting services for them almost anywhere in the world," Shiells says. "That is one of our core competencies."
Shiells then gives an example. "If, say, a Fortune 500 company executive is going to a country where kidnapping is rampant, we would recommend advance work by our contacts in various countries to know the right locations, things like where to seek lodging, by what mode of travel, ground or air. We advise on all those issues and we have the resources to do on-the-ground services."
But Shiells says that doesn't mean his company will do anything for a nice payday.
"We apply a risk-management approach to everything we do," he says. "We have turned down considerable work because we couldn't meet eye-to-eye with the client over how the security part of the work is going to be conducted."
Johnston agrees. "If a client makes a proposal and asks if we can be ready to take on a certain task in, say, 48 hours, there are other dynamics at work. There is the issue of threat and gathering the proper intelligence, plus our ability and belief as to whether we can complete the mission.
"We have turned down clients and work because it wasn't safe to us or to the clients, even though the clients insisted it was safe. Someone else may be willing to do it, but we won't if we are not comfortable."
In addition to providing support services for the military, SOC-SMG lists companies such as Nike, the shoe and apparel manufacturer; Boeing; Hudson Marine; the Sandia Laboratory in New Mexico; and Tesoro Petroleum among its list of clients.
Since the World Trade Center tragedy and the creation of the Homeland Security agency, more and more companies are looking outside its organization for the provision of enhanced security services. Just last year, Tesoro signed a contract with Security Management Group to provide 504 hours weekly for armed patrol for its Golden Eagle refinery near Martinez, Calif., as well as staffing its communications center.
"It isn't all about Iraq," says Shiells.