Ashley Cooper: Safe bet

Under Cooper's guidance, Paladin has grown from a four-person company into a national organization with 6,000 employees and $150 million in annual sales
Paladin CEO Ashley Cooper: “one of the things that has made us a good competitor is we have had to compete with a few other locally grown companies who, in my opinion, are good companies”

As the B.C. regional vice-president for Bentall Kennedy, Jon Wellman is ultimately responsible for the security of five office towers in downtown Vancouver, as well as dozens of other properties in the Lower Mainland.

So when a riot erupted during the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, he was relieved that Paladin Security was on the job guarding his properties.

Although there was some damage to some of the company's properties near the riot's epicentre, the office towers were well protected, and Wellman credits Paladin for having an action plan in place before the riot started and a quick response when it did.

"[They] had their top lieutenants downtown when it happened," Wellman said. "It was an amazing call to duty. They found people immediately."

Paladin's reputation for providing top-notch security has a lot to do with its CEO, Ashley Cooper, who has a knack for attracting and retaining people who share his zeal for service.

"In a business that – really, it's all manpower – keeping people around, I don't know how you do it," Wellman said. "But he seems to bring in people that really buy into his program and are really loyal to him. That's his success story: building teams and keeping them, and keeping people's energies at a high level. He's a team builder, and he finds people that have an amazing service culture."

Cooper's ability to attract, retain and promote ambitious, service-minded people has been the key to his Burnaby-headquartered company's success, and last month earned him the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Pacific region.

"It was a pleasant surprise, but it was a surprise," the 48-year-old businessman and father of three said of the Ernst & Young award.

Under Cooper's leadership, Paladin has grown from a security and janitorial service with a single contract – with Fibreco Export Inc., a contract the company still has – just four employees and sales of less than $100,000, to a national security firm with 6,000 employees and sales exceeding $150 million.

Technically, Cooper did not found Paladin; his older brother Hugh did. A stockbroker, Hugh Cooper ran the company off the side of his desk and called his little brother in while he was still in high school from time to time to fill in for janitors when they didn't show up. When he was older, he would sometimes pull guard duty.

Meanwhile, throughout high school and university, Ashley Cooper also ran his own painting and odd-job companies during the summers. While in university, he began doing Paladin's bookkeeping and taking on more managerial duties.

In 1987, after graduating from the University of B.C. with a degree in commerce, Cooper bought Paladin from his brother, who went on to become a successful stockbroker.

"He gave me a no-money-down, pay-as-you-go sort of thing," Cooper said.

Paladin provides a range of security services, including guards and security systems and monitoring. Paladin's operations centre in Burnaby – one of three in Canada – has banks of computers and monitors, where security experts provide around–the-clock monitoring and dispatch services.

Cooper has managed to distinguish Paladin from some of his competitors with a heavy emphasis on training and technology – including a strong social media profile.

"A lot of our competitors are still doing many of the same things they did 30, 40, 50 years ago," Cooper said. "What we've tried to do is augment our manpower with technology to make it more efficient but also to make it more effective."

Prospective Paladin security guards are given psychological assessments, and in addition to the 40 hours of training required by provincial law, new Paladin hires get roughly 60 hours of additional training – sometimes more – specific to their assignments.

"Our philosophy, right from the beginning, was to provide more and better training than anybody else," Cooper said.

Paladin's first expansion outside of B.C. was through an acquisition of a small security firm in Edmonton in 1998.

"That was a wonderful lesson," Cooper said. "The culture of this company was terrible. They didn't treat their people well, the cars were unsafe, the uniforms were terrible. Everything about what they did was second-rate. We went in there and spent a lot of money to fix it."

But the firm's customers were unwilling to pay more for improved service.

"That was the lesson we learned: certain customers are attracted by certain types of firms, and you wind up with the type of customer you deserve. We go after customers that care about quality."

Cooper focused on serving niche markets, like the health-care sector and university campuses, each of which has unique safety and security needs. The company now has contracts with 150 hospitals.

"Health care was one of the first major niche markets we moved into," Cooper said. "That's been one of the philosophies of the company: to go into a niche market, and really understand what the customer wants and start to build programs around that."

"He personalizes his contracts," said Glen Magel, director of safety, security and emergency management at BCIT, which uses Paladin Security at five of its six campuses. "He makes sure that his customer service to the clients is continuous. He's open to looking at new ways to provide a security model. It's not just a status quo."

After the Edmonton acquisition, Paladin expanded into Calgary, Victoria and Fort McMurray. The company then made the leap to Toronto in 2008, and later opened offices in Kingston and Windsor, Halifax, Winnipeg, Brandon.

"Toronto is the biggest security market in the country," said Cooper, adding that Ontario's security market is served primarily by large multinationals.

"The guys at the top are absolutely brilliant," he said. "But there are so many layers between that C-suite and the guy who runs the branch in Regina that the message is lost. When we looked at these large companies and how they were doing things in Ontario, we thought we could do better.

"One of the things that has made us a good competitor is we have had to compete with a few other locally grown companies, who, in my opinion, are good companies. They've made us better over the years, and we've made them better."

If there is a single guiding principle at Paladin, it's perpetuating a consistent corporate culture.

"Sometimes to get into a large market, it's just that much quicker if you can do an acquisition, and then you've got to turn the culture of the company into your own," Cooper said. "We've got a really strong corporate culture here. It's all about promotion from within and growing our own people.

In 2006, the company's growth presented a challenge.

"We realized the biggest problem that we were going to have is trying to grow managers. We're not going to pull guys from outside because they're not going to get our culture. We thought, 'We better grow our people and grow them fast.'"

Every year, the company picks the top 20 to 25 supervisors across Canada and flies them to Burnaby for an intense one-week junior management training program.

"It's all about promoting from within. People come here today, and they don't necessarily come here to become a security officer. They're coming here to get here," he said, tapping his desk.•

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