A deputy police chief and a businessman bonded a dozen years ago over their love of fast cars and the inevitable question: What comes after retirement?
The talks prompted the pair to start the U.S. ISS Agency, which provides pre-employment screening, background investigations, risk assessments and other security services to companies and government agencies. They started it in 2004, soon after Bob Schurmeier retired from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department after 29 years.
Co-founder Rob Sterling provided the start-up capital and private-sector savvy, suggesting an office in Ballantyne, complete with bulletproof glass and biometric fingerprint screening, and a fleet of black Crown Victorias.
Since then, the 12-employee company has grown from one client, the Charlotte Fire Department, to nearly 50, including the police department and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It has also attracted two more big-name investors, Johnny Harris and Dan Cottingham.
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Services range from about $10 for a database check to $14,000 or more for risk and threat assessments.
Schurmeier, 54, who served as CMPD's interim chief, among other duties, spoke with the Observer about joining the private sector, beating the competition and balancing work and family. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why did you feel this kind of company was important?
In the post-9-11 era, without trying to capitalize on the downside of the market, we felt this was a good opportunity to create a private company for a public good, where we could focus on the areas of expertise we developed over our lifetimes and careers.
Post-9-11, the security industry has gone through a period of adjustment where there's a lot of consolidation at the top, but with that comes a certain cookie-cutter approach to things. We think there's a good opportunity for a company our size to come in and do things right, with key attention to detail and taking an investigative approach.
Q: Was it difficult to shift from the public to private sector?
That's where Rob Sterling came in. My colleagues and I ran budgets in our previous lives and dealt with contractors and things like that, but we didn't have the expertise in the private sector like Rob did, so he helped school us and helped line up potential future clients. There was a learning curve, and we're the classic small enterprise in terms of growth. Each year, we've doubled the revenues from the previous year, and at this moment, we're crossing the threshold to profitability.
Q: How did you meet Sterling?
Rob and I came to know each other through our passion of old '60s muscle cars. We both have what are called Shelby Mustangs. A police officer stopped him because of the car and said, ‘Our interim chief has a Shelby Mustang; maybe y'all should talk.' So he gave me a phone call. We struck up a conversation and a friendship.
Q: What was the best advice you got on starting the business?
A good friend of mine said, ‘You're about to transition into becoming a FIG.' I said, ‘A FIG, what's that?' He said, ‘A former important guy.' It's been a challenge, not having experience in the private sector. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of attention, and you develop a new sense of humility, because I learned that we're not judged on the contracts we win but the contracts we lose and come back from.
Police, as a general rule, are very competitive against the bad guy. So, 29 years of that, and then you jump into the private sector, and then you start to lose, and it's like, this is not fun. But you quickly figure out if you're going to try and win at this, you work harder, you learn from your mistakes and you pay attention to what your colleagues tell you, and you step up to the plate again.
Q: Who are your competitors, and what sets you apart?
Many of them are multibillion-dollar conglomerates. There are certainly larger players, and we've competed and won and competed and not won, but we're undeterred. What sets us apart is the legal counsel on board. As much as we take an investigative approach, we're also very familiar with the legal aspects of pre-employment screening and due diligence. Also, the quality control we put into it. All of our reports are written from the ground up, and a former English professor helps. We have a part-time editor who pays attention to detail, content and format. I am certain that many of our competitors don't put that sort of emphasis in the written quality.
Q: Does every company need security?
Yes, without a doubt. I mean, forget 9-11. You study any of the large fraud schemes, and a lot of times, it could have been ended internally, with internal processes or even hiring processes. I can't think of a single enterprise that shouldn't give some thought to it. People are surprised, when we do a vulnerability assessment, at the threats that are out there.
Q: What's the greatest challenge?
The balance between work and family. If you leave around 6 a.m., you can expect to be home by around 7:30 p.m. I wasn't averse to that in my past life – that's what I expected – but I thought I might be able to control my destiny a little bit better. It's not to be right now, and I understand that. I fear I'm missing out on some things, coming all the way down here, but it's what you sign up to do.