Jack Quinn says he wants Academi to be just like Blackwater. And he wants it to be very different.
In a past life, the security firm garnered bloody headlines when Blackwater guards opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, killing 17 Iraqi civilians. Scrutiny was high amid accusations that employees had also used prodigious amounts of cocaine and fired automatic weapons randomly into Iraqi buildings. A bestselling book, “Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” compared America to the fallen Roman Empire for hiring private soldiers to fight its wars.
But the company — which had already changed its name to Xe Services LLC, even though everyone still called it Blackwater – was bought in late 2010 by an investor group that announced plans to change its identity once again.
Founder Erik Prince stepped down, though investor Jason DeYonker has dealt closely with Blackwater for years. The new leaders say the company will be the industry standard for security while shedding its tarnished image.
“This company needed help,” said Quinn, who is an independent board member and was both White House counsel to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff. “It was under a reputational challenge at a time when its contribution to our national security was as important as ever.”
Quinn joined the board last year, along with former Attorney General John Ashcroft and retired Admiral Bobby Inman. Clear Channel Communications co-founder Red McCombs was named chairman of the board of directors, which also includes DeYonker, Dean Bosacki and Russ Robinson.
Quinn acknowledges the company’s troubled past yet said he wants to maintain Blackwater’s identity as the gold-standard in armed protection and security training, something that he says rests on the shoulders of employees who have seen combat in some of the U.S. military’s most elite units.
Based in Arlington, Va., Academi’s showpiece is its 7,000 acre training facility in Moyock, N.C. Here the company drills its guards to face a variety of global threats and trains U.S. military and law enforcement in scenarios that recreate everything from school shootings to urban gunfights.
Academi takes its name from Plato’s akademia, and employees are taught to make the right choices as they provide protection to diplomats and companies in some of the world’s most dangerous regions.
“We want to make sure our people are trained to the end of the earth in ways that will help ensure that they not find themselves in situations in which their conduct is indefensible,” Quinn said.
Suzanne Rich Folsom, who was previously chief compliance officer at American International Group Inc. and head of the Department of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank under then-Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, was brought on to revamp Academi’s compliance program.
She’s been asked if she walked into a void on the first day. Not so, she said, citing the strong backgrounds many of the employees had from the U.S. military. Still, the size of the compliance department has doubled over six months, she said, as they’ve overhauled employee training and released a new code of conduct.
Companies often talk about good compliance — though the programs cost money and don’t bring any money in. Folsom said her directive has been to spend whatever’s necessary to ensure that the company has the strongest program possible.
“The resources that we’ve been given by the ownership group are, I guess I really shouldn’t say they’re unlimited, but no one’s said ‘no’ yet,” Folsom said.
Like any global company, Academi has to address standard ethical concerns along with those unique to the industry. Not only do employees have to know how to act in a firefight, they have to know the consequences of violating statutes like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
And because employees are heavily armed and dispersed in numerous countries, they also have a crucial obligation to abide by complicated firearms and export laws.
Regulations vary greatly about what weapon is allowed in what country, or what paperwork is required. And even when weapons are sent from the United States, employees must be careful to ensure they’ve received proper clearance and don’t inadvertently violate export laws.
When Folsom was named chief regulatory compliance officer, she said she was impressed by the caliber of the employees, many of whom had long military careers with outfits like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets. Their attitude and discipline were among the main reasons she said she joined the company. They mark a stark contrast to the impression many have of Blackwater as an undisciplined private army run amok by Erik Prince.
Prince, who reportedly moved recently to the United Arab Emirates to recruit troops for a security force there, has been accused by former employees of wanting to start a religious crusade against Muslims.
When the press got bad, Blackwater’s former head – who also served as a Navy SEAL – tried to rebrand the company he started in 1997 as Xe Services LLC. Quinn called the name confusing and said that move doesn’t match kind of makeover the company has seen as Academi.
The name Xe has been mocked as a bizarre replacement for Blackwater, which suggests the murky swamps of North Carolina. Now chief executive Ted Wright hopes for something a little more “boring” under Academi, a name that invokes an online diploma mill more than a company of ex-soldiers armed to the teeth.
Still, Quinn said Blackwater’s bad reputation reflects only a series of isolated incidents. To him, the greater character of the company is revealed by the disciplined employees who put their lives on the line in the name of the individuals and organizations they protect.
For Folsom, whose husband traveled to Iraq as a State Department official, the contribution resonates beyond company pride.
“This company protected him every single time he left the Green Zone, for the year that he was there,” she said. “And they did a fabulous job. And he came home.”