The CEO of Allied Universal talks about leadership, motivation, acquisitions, and how he aims for global domination of the security world.
Allied Universal was once a $12m security company. Then Steve Jones came in and took it to an incredible $8.5 billion company. A world leader in security and facility services, it has well over 200,000 employees. I was fascinated to read his book No Off Season: The Constant Pursuit of More and to speak to him in person to find out more.
Both Steve’s father and grandfather had been in the military, which influenced their approach to life. Steve was brought up to be a believer in hard work and perseverance. At seven, Steve earned pocket money shining shoes, but more than that, it was already ingrained that he had to be the best at what he did, shoe-shining, or anything else.
Steve lived and breathed football, and he and his dad were set on him, making the NFL. Injury after injury meant Steve had to swallow the bitter pill of giving up on his dream while still in his teens. He believes that his time playing college football provided an excellent internship for business despite the injuries. It taught him once again that persistence, determination, and hard work win through.
Unsure of what to do instead, he opted to study for a B.A. in Political Science from California Polytechnic University. A couple of years later, he achieved an MBA from the University of Redlands while working full time.
Initially, Steve went to work for Aramark and then moved to BFI. But while these were colossal Fortune 500 companies and his career was taking off fast, Steve was on the lookout for an opportunity he could make more definably his own.
In 1996, he found it at Universal Protection Service, a small security services company in Santa Ana, California. He made himself a promise that one day he would run his own multi-billion security organization.
Universal Protection Service
The company had stuck on its $12m turnover for some time, and Steve’s brief was to change that. From day one, he radically improved customer service and updated the small security company into the age of technology. Not only did he turn unhappy customers into happy ones, but he also fulfilled his brief of winning new ones and doubled their revenue.
Four years later, when the owners wanted to sell, Steve and Brian Cescolini, the then President, persuaded them to stay on as sleeping partners but sell part of the business to them. They struck a deal promising to pay $24m in seven years with $1m down borrowed from the bank.
By 2007, they had way exceeded their promise, and revenue stood at $150m. The owners had continued to want to sell, and hefty payments had gone their way till they re-capitalized and finally bought them out.
Initially, growth was organic. When Steve first joined, he had to fight to hire even one salesperson, the old school thinking being that customers were coming to them. An aggressive sales force led by Steve himself resulted in their initial growth.
Finance was a constant struggle. Despite the multi-million-dollar turnover, at one stage, Steve was driving new uniforms weekly all over California himself because they couldn’t afford to have them transported. He had to stay in hotels so rough that his own security would be a chair wedging the doorknob shut.
Steve could see that to grow in line with his vision, the only way to achieve it would be by acquisitions. He was quick to learn how to strike the deals and win the other security companies he targeted and how to accomplish the tricky job of integrating the two companies, both in processes and culture. Brian’s appetite for the challenges wore out, and Steve was in sole charge by now. The larger the acquisition, the harder this was. Equally, these additions have meant regular financing challenges. He has acquired over 70 companies to date.
Allied Universal Security
Universal Services of America merged with AlliedBarton in 2016 and became Allied Universal making them the largest security services in North America. Steve became CEO of the new company. It created a massive challenge of organizational genius to merge the two organizations and people into one successful unit, from re-branding to staffing. Steve interviewed everyone himself.
Allied was on the Forbes Best Employers’ List in 2014 and 2017, and Steve has won numerous personal awards. However, Steve says that his kids have kept him grounded and focused on what’s important, which is a work/life balance.
Future Plans and COVID Challenges
Steve and I agreed that COVID has impacted all of us in so many different ways. For Allied Universal, some of their customer’s companies had to shut down completely, and their employees had to work virtually. However, security is an essential service and needed to remain open to advise their clients during these challenging times.
Steve says that as businesses began to reopen, they have been helping clients plan and prepare for the return to the workplace.
Steve explains, “We shared best practices, guidance, and tools to help businesses provide a safe, virus-free environment. This guidance includes risk mitigation planning and resources to support businesses, return to workplace’ strategies, best practices on workplace signage, employee and visitor traffic flow, maintaining a clean and disinfected workplace, and temperature pre-screening services for occupants entering the property”. All the vital information that companies need so badly for the safety and security of their workforces in these challenging times.
Steve’s plans for Allied Universal are still huge. He plans to expand through organic growth and strategic acquisitions, preparing for a possible IPO in 3 to 5 years.
Steve remains driven to create the largest security company in the world. His next chapter would be to create/build a new business or become active in philanthropy.
Acquisitions are a typical growth route for many entrepreneurs, even early in their careers. But it is a considerable skill in its own right, so I wanted to ask the expert for three top tips on why he succeeded so often against the competition and what his three top secrets to successful acquisition deals for newcomers to this are.
Steve’s top three tips on Acquisitions:
- Build a strong relationship with the seller
- Complete extensive due diligence on the potential deal
- Complete a cohesive plan for execution/stay focused.
Steve explains that to be a successful leader, it starts with a vision. Just as with every sports game, success or failure is decided before you get on the field. Then, once you have the vision, you need a plan to achieve it.
The next step is to ensure your team is on side. Steve advises that this is achieved in two ways. You have to be very clear in that vision and communicate it with total clarity. But you also need to earn your team’s trust with your continual honesty and translate what is in it for them in the plan, so they buy into it.
Steve looks for people who will play till they are utterly exhausted. But that applies to himself too. He would consider it a personal failure if anyone worked harder than he did.
He grades his employees a., b., and c. A’s are his star players, while C’s are people who need managing out. He says it is the B’s that take the time because they have to be managed up or managed out. It is vital to cut any rotten apples out fast.
Being an excellent leader to Steve means being the best you. It is one of the biggest challenges to keep yourself motivated.
For many of us, staying motivated means keeping on till we achieve our goal. For Steve, there is no end game. He explains that there never is in sports. No coach thinks that is the end after a match; there is always another game, another trophy to hunt.
Steve lives his whole life on this principle. Life is the game, he says. Every bit of that game is an opportunity to learn from our successes and failures, re-calibrate, and be better. That thinking is wired into his DNA, to continually strive to be better than he was yesterday.
Steve’s satisfaction comes when he pushes harder and exceeds what he dreamt was possible.
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