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Interview with Chuck Vance-“Father of modern day Executive Protection”

Back in late 1994 I had applied for a full-time position at Vance International.  During that time period Vance had a division called VEP (Vance Executive Protection) that was at the tip of the spear of executive protection.  Little did I know, but it was the tip and the spear.  I learned about Vance International from the father of one of my Special Services Division team members, Jack Simpson.  His father John Simpson was the Director of the USSS.

I applied for the position and was called into the Oakton office for an interview.  As I sat in the office with the staff member I sensed that it was not going to fare well for me that day.  He seemed as if this interview was put on his desk at the last minute above other tasks he had to perform.  Needless to say I was asked to continue through the process.  I was obviously disappointed partly due to my arrogant perception that clearly they wouldn’t deny a former Maryland State Trooper who was recommended by the current Director of the USSS.  But I was wrong.

About a week later I received a call from a gentleman with a very strong British accent who asked me if I was still interested.  Without hesitation I said, “YES!”  I was then told where to report, what to bring and what to expect for the VEP School.  It was a five (5) day course whereby we stayed at a hotel near the corporate office.  I arrived a day ahead and checked in.  Later that night my roommate showed up and we talked about our previous experience and looked over the agenda book that started with Day 1-pass/fail PT exam.  I thought to myself, “I’ve been here before”. This is the Maryland State Police Academy.

The next day we met with the training cadre and went to the office for the initial part of the PT test.  I had no problem maxing that out.  Then to my surprise we motorcade to a local high school for the run portion of the PT exam.  It was over 100% in the middle of August and if you know anything about the heat and humidity in DC at that time of the year there are daily warnings to keep your pets in the house.  We ran anyway.  I finished and proceeded thru the rest of the week which ended with an exit interview.  The standards of VEP was engrained early in the process before your donned the navy blue polo shirt with the Flying “V” logo.  This was a professional organization that believed in a standard.  That standard still resides in how I run BPI.

Chuck Vance is without a doubt the “Father” of modern day private EP and his SHIP-Vance International is still revered.  Long after Chuck sold the company and the name changed to the new name, people in the business still referred them as Vance International.  I decided to use my contacts to locate the Father of EP and was surprised to find that he was in my backyard, hiding in plain sight.  Chuck agreed to the following interview that will give you an insider’s perspective of how he carved, molded and formed what we know and Executive Protection.  I want to personally thank Chuck for his hard work in the industry and agreeing to do this interview.

 

BPI – What year did you officially launch Vance executive protection?"Father or modern day EP

CV – Actually, we launched EP in 1979, but not as Vance Executive Protection services.  As you may know, when I first resigned from the US Secret Service in 1979, I started another company with two other former agents, Bill Mattman and Dario Marquez.  The company was MVM, still run by Dario.  I was the V in the MVM.

Our first clients, developed through a contact that Mattman had, were the four children of King Hussein of Jordan.  The two girls and one boy (all high school age) lived in VA, with their mother, Princess Muna, and went to local schools.  The oldest son, Abdullah, (who is now King Abdullah), went to school in Mass., at Deerfield Academy. That was the impetus for all our EP as the potential US market, (corporations, etc), did not then believe that they needed EP

BPI- When you left the USSS what made you decide to start Vance executive protection as opposed to any other industry where you could have succeeded?

CV-As a USSS agent, I had a chance to see other EP groups.  I observed things like John Travolta’s security guy crashing a photographer’s head into a car hood; Donna Summer using her brother and his buddies for her security; Elvis Presley using his buddies as his security; off duty cops bellying up to the peanuts and alcohol! They would have been funny; if it wasn’t that they had a job that could have created some very serious consequences for their protectees (ie–lawsuits, injury, kidnapping, death).

As USSS agents, our standards were so much higher, that we figured that there had to be a market for agents who had good qualifications, were in good shape, were trained, and knew what to do if there was a crisis (medical, assault, etc., etc.)

BPI- If you had a business model back then, what was it?

CV-Our business model was based on the USSS.  I knew that we could not match their resources, or numbers, but we could certainly improve dramatically on what was then available in the private sector.  And, I can’t tell you how many times USSS agents would compliment me on my people and their conduct.

As far as the dollars and cents business model, we did not really have one.  We figured that the middle easterners had the the money, and the need, and we went after that market.  I picked up the Saudis through a USSS contact and one small detail exploded into hundreds.

BPI- How did you get your first client and how did you staff that client? I realize that during those early days the pool of trained EP guys were limited if at all. Where did you pull the EP agents from and did you personally train them?

CV-As I said above, the first clients were King Hussein’s children. I staffed those details with USSS uniformed division officers.  These were people who were just one rung below Special Agents and at the time, because they never traveled and were just used for fixed posts at the White House or Embassies, were very unhappy with their jobs. They had been vetted, trained, and exposed to what the job was about. 

Even so, we did put them through our USSS “minny” training program to move them from fixed posts to working protectees. Generally, they did a very good job.

BPI- What was the hardest transition for you coming from “Official” government protection where resources are unlimited to that of the private sector?

CV-The biggest difference from the USSS and private sector was that the private, no matter how rich, were not willing to pay for the numbers of agents that we were used to.  We had to shrink down our numbers to one or two people and still do a good job. This, of course meant that the private sector agent had to be even more ready and able as they did not have the backup that the USSS has.

Of course, the other issue was guns.  In those days, when very few states or jurisdictions allowed concealed weapons permits, we had to get them through our contacts, carry them illegally, or not carry them.  I can’t tell you how many times we came close to disaster carrying in DC and in foreign countries. I even went to see Jim Baker when he was Reagan’s chief of staff at the White House—to no avail.  Many clients refused to believe that you were security if you were not carrying. It was, and probably still is, a major problem.

BPI – When you started Vance EP, the industry really didn’t know about executive protection per se.  How did you educate the client base about the craft?

CV- In the beginning the clients were looking for big, burly and armed.  Once they saw our people, equipped with radios, earpieces, medical kits, command post kits, closed circuit TV systems, etc., etc., they began to understand the major difference between EP agents, and bodyguards.  I remember one of the Saudis telling me, “Your people are the best, they even smell good!” It is similar to how we taught people on how to detect counterfeit money, hold one up next to an authentic bill, and the difference jumps out at you. The EP agent is there but unobtrusive, the bodyguard is overtly visible and always in the way. The EP agent is proactive, the bodyguard is strictly reactive.

BPI- What was the hardest part about running the company in the industry?

CV-The hardest thing about running the company in the beginning was how to maintain the quality of the performance of the personnel. How to keep them, when they get out on a detail, from slipping into cutting corners and taking advantage of their autonomy?You hire good people, train them, equip them, but how do you guarantee that working 12 hours plus per day that they would not slip back into the easy way and do a half-assed job. 

Surprisingly, the vast majority, once they were trained and the right way was pointed out over the wrong, developed a pride in their profession and the right way of doing their job. They wanted to do a professional and conscientious job for their own sakes, as well as for the protectee’s.

BPI- Was there ever a point that you thought this was bigger than you ever imagined?  How did you handle that?

CV-Yes, the surprise was that the US market began to realize that they too, (not just the foreigners), needed to address their security. I always said that in the beginning you had to convince the client that they needed security, and then convince them that you could answer their security needs.  Today, everyone knows that they need security; particularly if they are controversial at all, then you just have to convince them that your services are better than the other guys.  When we started King Hussein’s children’s details, our agents pretty much had the summer off, as the children returned to Jordan. Then we got the Saudis, then corporate clients, and soon there was no time off during the summer.

BPI- As the client base grew what was the next division in VEP that you started?

CV-The second thing that came to us was APT, our strike force group.  Once again, the contact was through the USSS.  An agent had a friend who ran a coal mine in Kentucky, as they wanted a security survey done on a coal mine that they were going to start running non-union. I went down to do the survey, and one of the recommendations was that they were going to need a tough, highly disciplined, well trained, well equipped team to fight the war that they were going into with the United Mine Workers. They said, “OK, how about you guys?”  I said no, we don’t do that. We wear 3 piece suits, stay in 5 star hotels, and get room service. They begged me, I came up with what I thought was a ridiculous price, and they said, “How soon can they be here?” Hence the start of Asset Protection Team.

BPI-At the peak of the Vance trajectory, you had some high level former USSS guys on staff.  Did you recruit them or were they driven to you by your success or was it a natural progression from what they were used to doing?

CV-I did recruit and hire a number of high level USSS agents.  I had a former Director, 2 former deputy directors, a couple of Asst. Directors, etc. I recruited them all.  Several of them I had known when I was an agent and some of them were new to me.  They had all heard about Vance and heard how we had modeled the entire company after the integrity and quality of effort that they knew as agents, and they, like me, wanted to be a part of that.

BPI-When I joined Vance Executive Protection the process of selection almost mirrored that of applying for a police department etc. Was that a model that you decided upon and why?

CV-The qualifications for Vance EP agents was modeled after what the USSS and police departments did.  Keep in mind, after I graduated from Cal/Berkely as a criminology major, I went right into the Oakland Police Dept., so I was exposed to the police training and recruiting.  After Kennedy was killed, the USSS was hiring and I took the tests and was hired. I also learned the type of people that I wanted with us from seeing those who made it into the police depts. and the USSS. I had an attitude and image very much in mind.  As we used to say in the USSS, there were agents who when you walked into a building secured by them, you knew that the building had air tight security. You also knew that everyone inside the building was pissed off!  There are as many ways of doing the job as there are different personalities, but we wanted the type that could deal with people, and get the job done, without pissing off everybody involved.

BPI- Let’s switch the conversation to that of professionalism. If there was one thing clients knew about a VEP agent was that we all were professional. How did you maintain that standard after the company grew so big?

CV-I answered some of this in previous answers, but simply stated, when you develop something that has integrity, high standards, good co-workers, strong reputation, good leadership, decent pay, good treatment, etc., then people want to be part of it. It makes it fun to go to work. If someone does not come up to those standards, then either their supervisors, or co-workers, will put pressure on them to shape up, or ship out.  The attitude, with some reinforcement from time to time, perpetuates itself.

BPI-Marketing nowadays has evolved since the beginning of Vance EP.  Social media has taken over to get your company name.  In its hay day Vance EP ran the industry.  What was your marketing plan if you had one at all?

CV-We really never had a marketing plan. I won an award for Service Sector Entrepreneur of the Year for the Washington, DC area some time ago and they asked me for a quote to educate other entrepreneurs and I said, “Focus on the quality of the product that you provide, your growth and success will follow”Word of mouth, satisfied clients, and, from time to time, referrals from the USSS was our marketing plan.”

BPI-It is my observation that the Executive Protection craft as strayed far away from when you revolutionalized the industry.  What if anything do you think is wrong with the industry now?

CV-I think that the problem with the EP industry today comes from a lot of “agents” who were really never trained to do the job in the correct way.  EP first and foremost takes good common sense, hard work, integrity and intensity.  People who are in it strictly for the money might as well go into something else.  You need to like the job and work hard at it.  When I read about EP agents who as soon as they leave the employ of a protectee, start making accusations through the press, (i.e. Brittany Spear’s security guys), I feel very sorry for the industry in general. Believe me, present and future protectees are watching and listening and filing away the fact that this person, who is “protecting” them, can’t be trusted.

BPI-Around 1997 or so, I remember when your company delved into preparing for some overseas protection pursuant to a Department of State RFP that came out.  If Vance Executive Protection had jumped on that opportunity you could have inevitably beaten Blackwater to PSD world.  What decisions were made on your level to pass that opportunity up?

CV-I vaguely recall our bidding for some overseas EP assignments, for State, etc. We were not awarded the contract because others undercut our bids by promising, and then not providing, quality personnel, training, etc., etc. I think back then, they were not paying as much for overseas EP work as they are today.  They learned the old adage, “You get what you pay for”! I was always concerned, and hesitant about sending our people somewhere where it was dangerous and where the contractor was cutting corners, leaving the agent on the ground in jeopardy–like my old company, MVM!

BPI-Are you still involved in the industry at all?  Are you called for advice or consultations?

CV-I am really not involved in the industry any more.  Once I stepped back from Vance I was out in Montana for some time, then in AZ working on non-security projects and I was hard to find.

BPI- If you could do it all over again, is there anything that you would do differently?

CV-If I could change anything, I would have held on to Vance for a few more years.  I had hoped, as was promised, that the new owners would carry on the Vance quality and performance.  They did not, probably because they were a publicly traded company focused on monetary results every quarter versus focusing on the clients, the employees, and the reputation of the company.  We had a very good run.  I was, and still am very proud of what we developed from scratch—we started with 5 people (including me), and $35,000, and built the company up to a $100 million per year company.  But most importantly I enjoyed working with the men and women of Vance and shared their sense of pride in what, and how we did it.  Any company that could stay with the Saudi Royal family for 20 years, (for instance), must have been doing something right–as we all know, almost nobody satisfies the Saudis for that period of time.

The mindset that Chuck implemented in the beginning is essential even today.  The industry has strayed away from this on a large scale, yet there are still companies out there that hold on to the premise that professionalism, mindest and training are the key ingredients to success in our craft.  Thanks again Chuck!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 comments

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  1. Deborah Avery-Tarbox

    Great article. Chuck Vance is a man of integrity and I was proud to work for Vance International for several years.

  2. Six

    Great interview. Particularly like Chuck’s comments of when you develop something that has INTEGRITY, HIGH STANDARDS, good co-workers, strong reputation, GOOD LEADERSHIP, decent pay, good treatment, etc., THEN PEOPLE WANT TO BE A PART OF IT. Those are universal principles of all great companies.

    The challenges for some today, is not that they don’t desire to be better or do better is many have never seen better, so in the absence of a standard collective performance will always be inconsistent. That is why I applaud all those who are actively working toward helping create a uniform standard. This will be an evolution and not a revolution but it will be a welcome addition. It should help enhance performance, protection and compensation for all.

    1. Eric Konohia

      True indeed Six.

  3. Billy

    Priceless! Thanks Eric.

  4. Leon S. Adams

    Excellent read,Eric. Thanks for sharing. There were quite a few gems given in that interview.

  5. Wyatt Vance

    Funny I somehow stumbled across this recent interview of my father. Very interesting article giving incite I was unaware of!

    1. Eric Konohia

      Wyatt
      Your father is a pioneer in this industry. Those of us that came in the Industry under him have his guidance to be thankful for. Thank you for sharing him.

  6. Jeanine Hunter

    I worked for Mr. Vance in the late 1990’s early 2000’s. What a stand up guy. I always held the highest level of respect for him. When he sold the company(APT) everything changed. It went down like hill.

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