Becoming a star pupil at Robert Oatman's school for executive-security specialists involves more than just learning how to spot explosive devices underneath cars or disarm assailants before they can fire a shot. Oatman's students achieve a Zen-like understanding of the notion that keeping clients safe isn't about dealing with in-your-face threats; it's about making sure that threats never materialize in the first place. "Smart people go around the risks, not through them," he likes to say.
Since September 11, Oatman's firm, R.L. Oatman & Associates, has been inundated with calls from potential clients. Last fall, both of his courses on executive protection sold out, and Oatman himself, who spent 20 years in elite positions with the Baltimore County Police Department, has been racking up some frequent-flier miles: He helps executives assess their safety and that of their companies in a world where, suddenly, danger seems to be lurking everywhere.
Founded in 1989, Oatman's company consists of a small core of employees and about 35 consultants and experts who are on call for projects or instruction at Oatman's two- and seven-day seminars, which combine lectures with hands-on training. "It's not just about sending clients to a firing range or teaching them about controlled high-speed driving," says William Archer, director of protective operations at the Limited Inc., which has been sending employees to Oatman for nearly a decade. "It's about assessing risks. The muscle you use is your brain."
Oatman packs about 75 hours of instruction into the weeklong course. There are overviews of international terrorism delivered by a former CIA officer, discussions of workplace violence led by a clinical psychologist, and tutorials on "advance work" in unfamiliar locations given by a protection specialist who was director of security for Henry Kissinger.
It's pretty eye-opening stuff — although Oatman practices a calm, nonhysterical approach to the fear factor. Good security procedures are built on reason and data, Oatman says, not panic. "You have to be realistic when you're thinking about threats," he says. "What has happened before? If you look at the past 10 years, there haven't been a lot of planes flying into buildings, but there have been a lot of shootings and bombings, especially in foreign countries. You have to find the things that are worth worrying about."
Central to Oatman's reasoning on security is "target hardening." Staying out of the sights of criminals or terrorists, he explains, is often a matter of becoming as unattractive a target as possible. "The bad guys are looking for the soft target," Oatman says. A terrorist interested in placing a bomb on a private jet, he observes, would find it easier to do so if no one was overseeing baggage loading or if the baggage hold was left open for long periods of time — something that Oatman says is common. Similarly, someone looking to sabotage a factory would seek one without guards roaming the premises.
"You have to think about everything you can do to become an unappealing target, without turning your operation into an armed encampment," Oatman says. "You don't know when someone has come in and taken a look around and said, 'There's no opportunity here.' "
Learn more about R.L. Oatman & Associates on the Web (www.rloatman.com).
Sidebar: Safety Man
Most of us can't afford a bodyguard, and most companies don't have the budget for a beefy in-house security force. Robert Oatman offers these tips on staying safe without shelling out.
Keep a no-open-door policy. Assess how easy it is for someone with bad intent to gain access to your building. Which locked doors would stop them? Who checks visitors for their authorization? "The bad guys are looking for the soft target," Oatman loves to preach.
Be born to run. Oatman believes that devising and rehearsing an evacuation plan is much more important than preparing for terrorist attacks. "I'm a big believer in a fire-resistant building with sprinkler systems, alarms, and good emergency-evacuation procedures," he says. "Fires happen with much more regularity than a plane crashing through your building."
Hitch a (smart) ride. When traveling in a new country, consider hiring a car service that offers secure transportation. "There's not that much of a cost difference, and you'll get someone who is perhaps a part-time or retired police officer," Oatman says.
Find a safe house. Oatman chooses hotels in a safe part of town and makes sure that the hotel has a sprinkler system and modern fire alarms. He's partial to rooms that are close to a stairwell, and he never stays in rooms above the ninth floor — above which it's hard for hook-and-ladder fire trucks to rescue guests. "Even if the concierge floor is on a higher level, it's probably not worth it," he says.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.