The notion of a bodyguard conjures up images of burly bouncers in ill-fitting suits and dark glasses who flank their client like a pair of enormous granite bookends. More often than not, we associate them with movie stars, professional athletes, and, at the opposite extreme, organized crime. It’s an impression belied by true professionals, who will tell you that a quality “protection agent” (the preferred term) will seldom, if ever, be seen.
"True protection agents are honorable and professional and know what they’re doing," explains Zeke Unger, the director of operations for World Executive Protection Group, a Southern California–based firm specializing in executive protection, investigation, and transportation. "It is the fifth oldest profession in the world, known by insiders as the fifth profession. The industry has always been plagued with charlatans. Real protection agents train every day and usually deal with only a handful of clients. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what we do. People think that we’re huge guys, knuckle-draggers, bruisers, that go around beating people up. On the contrary, the climate in this country is now the three-piece-suit-wearing protection agent who is a thinker, who can multitask, who can make not only transportation arrangements, but can [also] book hotels."
For Unger, whose father provided security to Menachem Begin when he served as prime minister of Israel, his work is as much avocation as occupation. He regards himself as standing in the line of a tradition that stretches back to the time of Japan’s first samurai. Being an agent, he maintains, is a state of mind, a philosophy of service. That service extends beyond bodily and privacy protection: For the past 20 years, Unger’s firm has often become an extension of its clients’ staffs.
In the months since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., many high-profile and high-income individuals are taking another, closer look at the realities of personal security—especially as it relates to travel. Robb Report discusses these realities with Unger, who offers an insider’s perspective on the industry, who truly needs security, and where to find the best that is available.
RR: How did your firm, World Executive Protection Group, get its start?
ZU: We started as a protection company. But, the need to transport our clients safely forced us to provide executive ground transportation, so that we could coordinate both agents and driver, and keep proprietary client information proprietary. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have in this country—nobody can keep a secret. People who are traveling on corporate jets usually have the means to afford that lifestyle. When you get into that bracket, you become susceptible to security risks.
RR: What generally prompts a client to seek a security service?
ZU: The reason people get protection is because they have some type of asset that they could lose—their lives, or those of their family or children, or a monetary one. Some people who are involved in companies that have political ties around the world have threats to them because of their political reasoning. Famous people draw people to them who may do them harm. Certain people have so many material assets that they need to secure them. We have to really see what the actual threat level is.
RR: How is an assessment conducted?
ZU: We sit with the principals and we talk about why exactly they feel the need for protection. Hopefully, they’re truthful with us, because that allows us to gauge the threat. If somebody’s not being forthright, it can cause a problem. We specialize in high-risk security. I think it gives them a sense of comfort that, if they’re honest with us, we’re not going to walk out the door. I was head of security for NBC’s Today show during the Los Angeles riots, and there were several companies that were asked to go into South Central to bring out people who were going to be interviewed, and a lot of companies refused to do it.
RR: Do your clients typically come to you with a life-threatening risk?
ZU: Sometimes people come to us because they want to be proactive, which is, I believe, the smartest thing one can do from a security standpoint. They know that they’re vulnerable, and they would like to have security before something happens. Being proactive allows us to evaluate their particular situation and gauge their needs, and then adapt security for their lifestyle. One thing you have to remember is that as protection agents, we never want to come into someone’s life and change it. We may suggest that they change some things, and we hope that they listen to us, because they’re hiring us, and they’re paying us for it. But we have to adapt to what they do, because they ultimately are the client.
RR: What, in your opinion, has changed since September 11?
ZU: I see an increase in corporations protecting key players in their organizations—people being more cautious and possibly checking more travel advisories than normally before traveling. I see people putting in security systems and bringing in consultants.
September 11 told the American public that they can’t walk around with their heads in the clouds anymore, and that they have to be more observant. I think life in America has been restructured now. We will be living our lives like people have all over the world who are subjected to terrorism on a regular basis. You cannot let it ruin your life, but you must be more aware of your surroundings. People should do what we call in the protection industry advance work—their homework—whether over the Internet or by contacting a protection company who can supply them with information on travel advisories, so that they don’t find themselves traveling into a bad environment and ending up a victim.
RR: What types of dangers could our readers fall victim to?
ZU: Executives doing business down in South American countries and Mexico are vulnerable to what’s called the "quick grab." That’s where, within an hour or two, [the criminals] want affordable amounts of money—say, $150,000 or $200,000. This doesn’t allow law enforcement to act quickly enough, and they’re usually successful. Most of the time they kill the victim even after getting the ransom.
RR: How do they protect themselves?
ZU: People doing business in corporate America need to make themselves harder targets. I recommend that executives take some training, so that they understand how they can protect themselves without an agent with them at all times. Train your household help—butlers, gardeners, and maids—so that they are aware of changes—who should be around and who shouldn’t be around. All it takes to deter [a threat] sometimes is a phone call.
RR: Do you screen your clients’ staffs?
ZU: Extensive screening. In the protection and investigation world, everything used to be predicated on threat, and now, unfortunately, it’s budget. To conduct a background check, you must be very, very thorough. Most background checks just skim the surface. These things require diligence, and diligence requires time, and time requires money.
RR: This is our Private Air Travel issue. Can you touch a little on air travel? What are the risks in the current environment, and how can those risks be minimized?
ZU: First of all, I feel that the security industry in our commercial airlines is poor. I think they are the lowest standards in the world. The people doing it, if they weren’t doing security, would be flipping burgers. There’s a need for the government to step up to the plate and formulate a plan. One of the role models is El Al Airlines. They have a very sophisticated security system, and it works. I just don’t know if the American public is going to be ready to take hours [to board] as a way of life from now on.
However, I think that corporate aviation in this country is phenomenal. The aircraft are well-built, and logistical and security issues are more easily addressed.
RR: How do you address those issues?
ZU: Are they going into a Third World country? What are the security procedures in that country? We do a lot of travel advisories for not only jet companies, but for individuals who want to know everything, from what type of political climate they’re going into to money transactions and local customs. Sometimes you can go into a country and make somebody very upset by doing something that is routine here. We research user-friendly hotels, police and emergency services, and hospitals that meet the requirements of this country. I always insist that, whenever possible, my clients donate their own blood. We pack it on ice when going into a situation where we don’t know how critical the security needs are. If something happened, and the client needed blood, we would want them to have their own. Along with filling out full dossier profile sheets on our clients, all protection agents should always have information about their clients while traveling. In case there’s an emergency, all the information is obtainable in a moment’s notice.
Securing the aircraft is very important. Travel advisories let pilots know how and where to secure their aircraft when they get to a particular airport. One of the largest problems we have is when a corporate jet pulls up onto the tarmac, the door opens, a limousine pulls up, and this executive gets in, not knowing if that’s his car [or] who owns that car. If it was a kidnapper, he [would] already have his victim right in the vehicle. It’s very important that administrators who deal with executives on corporate aircraft know who’s picking them up. It’s important to know if the driver of that vehicle is a felon.
RR: Is it fair to say that private air travel is safer than commercial?
ZU: Absolutely. Number one, the aircraft is rigorously maintained. [Private planes] don’t have the air miles on them that commercial jets do. It provides not only security and safety, but it also allows the protection agent and the administrators to be able to determine take-off and landing times. This is very critical when visiting multiple cities in one day.
Also, on a private aircraft, information can be secured. Protection agents and administrators can make sure that the charter company has a very strict policy regarding proprietary information. You don’t want information scattered around that a particular person is coming in, and the FBO (fixed base operation) needs to be notified of this when they’re booking reservations. This way, the agent doesn’t have to work doubly hard to protect the client once they get there. You know that there’s a breach in security when you show up, and there are paparazzi with cameras everywhere.
RR: Do you have any idea how many companies out there handle clients like yours?
ZU: A lot profess to do what we do, but only a handful are really able to provide the service necessary to protect their clients properly. I know that we are the only company in the country that has its own ground transportation protection service and air charter. It allows us to do all our own coordinating and keeps everything in-house.
RR: How do you train your agents?
ZU: Unlike most companies, our agents are trained in-house. If we’re going to bring an agent in, he has to go through rigorous training, not just a background check hiring process. We do not hire law enforcement or ex-law enforcement, because they are programmed to be reactive and not proactive. In our industry, if somebody is reactive, it can cause everybody great, great injury. If we have to draw our weapons, we haven’t done our job properly. Ninety percent of our job is mental, logistics, and advance work. Ten percent of it is physical.
RR: How do I assess a protection service?
ZU: The way to find a good security professional is usually by word of mouth. People of means usually know people of means. The Internet and the Yellow Pages are not good ways to find someone. Once you find someone, you need to call people they’ve worked for. No matter how discreet a firm is, there are always people that can be contacted. Anytime a security professional says that his whole client base cannot be given out, that person is probably trying to hide something. We never give out our private clientele, unless our clients are willing to speak regarding us. But, there are always major corporations—or heads of security for major corporations—that will be glad to give some type of résumé.
Never assume, always investigate. That’s our motto.
RR: You have said that the desire to go into this profession comes from within. What made you decide to do this?
ZU: I was raised into the profession. I saw my father take care of prime ministers, corporate officers, and I understood the seriousness of what he did every day. He literally laid his life on the line for people who were paying him. We’re modern-day samurai. We are paid a fee to make sure that people and their families and assets remain secure, even through the most difficult of times. I don’t want to say that we’re expendable, but I can guarantee you that I have known protection agents who have given up their lives in the line of duty. I think that it’s admirable. It’s a very honorable profession. There are only a few in the world who can do it well.
Brett Anderson is Robb Report’s editorial director.