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137-Year-Old Firm's Image Suffering : Pinkerton's New Parent Hopes to Get a Better Lock on Profits

December 22, 1987|JAMES F. PELTZ | Times Staff Writer

Thomas W. Wathen has been guarding something most of his life.

As a security expert, he has spent his 36-year career protecting people, offices and government facilities. Now comes his biggest assignment: Protecting the reputation of the most famous company in his business--Pinkerton's--and the money he's spending to buy it.

Wathen, 58, is the sole owner of CPP Security Service, a Van Nuys-based provider of security guards and a Pinkerton's rival. Two weeks ago, CPP--known locally as California Plant Protection--agreed to buy 137-year-old Pinkerton's from American Brands, the Old Greenwich, Conn.-based conglomerate.

The merger, expected to close next month, would lift sales at CPP, now the fourth-biggest security-guard firm in the industry, to about $650 million a year from about $250 million annually, while doubling the number of employees to 50,000.

That would put Wathen's private company into a virtual tie with Borg-Warner Corp.'s security-guard unit as the biggest player in the $6-billion security-guard market, said Robert McCrie, editor of Security Letter, an industry newsletter in New York.

(Borg-Warner's guard division is part of the Chicago-based company's "protective services" unit, whose annual revenue topped $1 billion last year. The unit has interests in several other security-related fields besides guards.)

But the merger means much more to Wathen than just further expanding CPP. It's as if a lifelong baseball fan had the chance to buy the New York Yankees and was determined to produce another 1927 season.

"I don't mean to overblow this thing, but I have a personal sense of responsibility to enhance the image of Pinkerton's," Wathen said in his modest office, which looks out over a public golf course. "Pinkerton's is kind of like the Holy Grail to me. I'm a security man first. I'm forced to be a businessman."

But while Pinkerton's is the oldest name in the security-guard industry, it's far from being the best run. In fact, the company has been losing money.

American Brands, while not divulging Pinkerton's financial results, confirmed that the unit lost money in the first half of 1987 after a profitable 1986. Wathen, McCrie and others said it's well known in the industry that Pinkerton's has been struggling.

"It was only because they were not doing well that they became available" for sale, said Wathen, who first asked American Brands about selling Pinkerton's 18 months ago.

Neither CPP nor American Brands will disclose Pinkerton's price tag. But a knowledgeable industry source, who asked not to be identified, said CPP paid less than the $165.5 million that American Brands paid to buy Pinkerton's five years ago.

Wathen has "his work cut out for him," said George Wackenhut, chairman of Wackenhut Corp., a Coral Gables, Fla.-based concern that is the nation's third-largest security firm.

McCrie agreed that the merger "is going to be very challenging." But he said Wathen "is one of the very best choices possible to turn Pinkerton's around."

One problem is that the security-guard industry is crowded with more than 10,000 competitors and hobbled by thin profit margins of 2% or 3% after taxes. Although Wathen doesn't release numbers, he said his company's profit margins are about average.

Plans Name Change

CPP's business is providing security guards, primarily for big industrial clients such as Northrop, Security Pacific, Hewlett-Packard, NBC and IBM. Wathen claims to have 200 of the Fortune 500 as customers. Only 1% of CPP's overnight and daytime security guards are armed, as many clients are reluctant to have an armed guard present, in part because of expensive liability insurance. For the guards, it's a low-paying job with average wages between $3.50 and $10 an hour, and turnover can be high.

Because CPP also is using borrowed money to buy Pinkerton's, Wathen's task is to quickly produce sufficient cash flow from the merged company to pay what could be $10 million or more in debt service annually.

It's particularly important to restore Pinkerton's to strong profitability and protect its reputation as a premier security company, because Wathen plans to change the name of his entire security force to Pinkerton's. However, he's not sure whether he'll change the name of his holding company.

According to Wackenhut and others, Pinkerton's recent problems reportedly stemmed largely from its aggressive attempt to increase market share. Nothing wrong with that, except Pinkerton's often priced its service below its cost simply to get the additional business, they said.

Pinkerton's also has two other lines of business, private investigations--on which the company was founded--and mobile patrols. Wathen plans to keep both.

Wathen still must successfully merge two giant enterprises. Pinkerton's has 30,000 employees in 158 offices in 42 states, Canada and Britain. CPP has 20,000 people in 115 offices in 38 states and Canada.

'A Fun Job'

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