An investigative reporter named Ginger Thompson earned a well-deserved $50,000 last Wednesday, as the recipient of this year’s John Chancellor Award — a career-honoring annual prize administered by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2000, she was part of a New York Times team awarded a Pulitzer for a series called, “How Race is Lived in America.” More recently, in 2018 for ProPublica, she obtained a secretly-recorded audio of ten sobbing immigrant children who had been separated from their parents as part of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy.
On the recording, many of those kids can be heard screaming out “Mami!” and “Papá!,” as an agent jokes, “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What’s missing is a conductor.” (Two days after the audio’s release, the administration retreated from the policy, which has resulted in more than 5,400 separations, and a federal judge ruled against that policy a week later.)
The audio was recorded by a whistleblower inside a border protection facility, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation — a fact that made this year’s award very personal for one of the judges, Ira A. Lipman, the prize’s founder and sole funder. That’s because Lipman was a whistleblower himself in 1957, when he was just 16 and growing up in Little Rock — putting himself at great risk for other kids who desperately needed help. It was an act that helped propel the civil rights movement.
How so? A young Ira had befriended one of the “Little Rock Nine” — the reluctantly famous African-American students who were attempting to enroll at the city’s Central High School. Federal courts had ruled in favor of integration, and, as a result, the school was surrounded at various times by rioting white segregationist protesters; the Arkansas National Guard (called in by the governor to block the nine students); local police (who failed to hold back the rioters); and paratroopers from the 101st Airborne (flown in to escort the students into the school to stay).
Amid the daily chaos and violence, there was a total news blackout on what was happening inside the school (where black students and their white supporters were being harassed and even assaulted). Ira used a school payphone to become a mole for NBC’s John Chancellor, whose name he affixed to the journalism award nearly 40 years later. Night after night, with Lipman’s help, Chancellor’s reports riveted the nation in a way that TV news had not done until that moment in time.
While his in-the-hallways whistleblowing remained secret, Ira publicly expressed his pro-integration views on an NBC panel outside the school. After the program ended, his mother received three phone calls threatening her son’s life. “The boy was placing himself in great danger,” wrote David Halberstam in his epic book “The Fifties.”
“It made Ira a marked person of some degree,” recalls Gene Foreman, who was a young reporter at the Arkansas Gazette at the time — and whose desk was next to one used by Ira, who popped in on Friday nights to write high school sports stories. Foreman, who went on to run the newsroom operations for 25 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, likens what Lipman did back then to the bravery of the anonymous CIA analyst whose memo sparked the current impeaching hearings. “They are different things, but similar in spirit,” he says. “The spirit is putting oneself at risk in order to get the word out — the word the public needs to know about, but otherwise would not be aware of.”
Lipman never stopped being a whistleblower. He went on to create Guardsmark, one of the country’s largest security guard companies, in part by sounding an alarm starting in the 1960s and ‘70s about how competitors were endangering Americans by not adequately screening and training their guards.
Sadly, Ira, who was a dear friend of mine for decades, was unable to attend last week’s ceremony. He died in September, at age 78, leaving a legacy that I hope will live on and spread widely. To Lipman, a practicing Jew, the separations of parents from their kids at our country’s borders evoked the Holocaust, just as the treatment of African-Americans by white racists did when he was Chancellor’s deep throat in ‘57.
Whatever one’s politics (and Ira, a lifelong moderate Republican, felt strongly that President Trump is harming the country), all democracy-loving Americans should agree on the critical importance of whistleblowers, who are always in short supply. Needless to say, investigative reporters cannot share with the public what is really happening inside many events and institutions without them. For Chancellor, Ira played that role. (In my career, I have the need to mention, my most heroic whistleblowing source was the late John Yunkyung Kim, who helped me expose wrongdoing and lies inside the World Bank — where he worked until he was identified, persecuted and forced out. His full story will someday be told.)
I first met Ira in Memphis in 1992 while reporting “Thugs in Uniform,” an exposé for Time magazine about the security guard industry. The piece focused on how private security guards — underscreened, underpaid and undertrained – were too often victimizing those they were hired to protect. Then a $15 billion industry with 1.1 million guards in the U.S., it had become, I wrote, “a virtual dumping ground for the unstable, the dishonest and the violent.” Many had criminal records, were hired off the street at minuscule pay, given uniforms (and sometimes guns) and assigned to posts within a day. In short, the industry was unwilling to police itself adequately. The culprits ranged from the giants — Burns, Wells Fargo, Pinkertons, etc. — to thousands of tiny companies.
A chart with the article (“A week’s worth of mayhem”) laid out the tip of the iceberg in a typical week in the industry — with examples of guards murdering, stealing cars, bombing an apartment, holding up a bank, and committing sexual assault. “A steady stream of horror stories,” said one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field, Robert McCrie. “Our industry needs leadership.”
That leader was Lipman, the founder of Memphis-based Guardsmark — then the country’s sixth largest guard company, which many security experts considered #1 in terms of quality — who we profiled as “The Man the Guard Firms Love to Hate.” Lipman subjected his applicants to screenings that were extremely rigorous, and, if they passed the tests, turned their jobs into well-paid careers — honored them as “security officers,” and not permitting usage of the word “guard” inside the company. Conceded Ira at the time: “Sure the industry is furious with me. I’m a thorn in their side.”
Lipman founded the firm in 1963 with a $1,000 loan from his dad, Mark, who ran an investigative agency that Ira bought and folded into his company (hence the name Guardsmark). He then spent decades engaged in campaigns to upgrade the entire industry — placing ads, writing editorials, lobbying for bills, testifying before Congress. At its peak in 2015, when he sold the family-owned enterprise, it topped $500 million in revenues, 18,000 employees, and more than 125 offices serving 400 cities in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the UK.
Major corporations that used Guardsmark for all or most of their security ranged from Lockheed Martin to General Dynamics; from Charles Schwab to Discover Financial; from the New York Times to the Washington Post; from Federal Express to Time Warner (then the parent of Time, where I worked). For fully 50 years, Ira handled the security for the country’s only comprehensive cancer center for children — St. Jude’s Research Hospital (in Memphis) — which was visited through those decades by many celebrities, including four First Ladies.
He easily could have been bigger, but he chose to grow organically starting in 1977 without an acquisition. With rare exceptions, he even refused to hire executives from rival firms. “I don’t want their bad habits,” he explained. As a boss?: A very demanding and exacting taskmaster, but fair — and, by all accounts, he never made a decision without evaluating whatever ethics might be involved.
“The man was hard to work for,” recalls Weldon Kennedy, a former Deputy Director of the FBI, who joined Guardsmark as its vice-chairman from 1997 to 2014. “I don’t think any person would tell you he was unfair or made erroneous decisions. But it was almost impossible for people to completely fulfill the standards that he set for the company. He set them high because he wanted to be the best in the business, which in my opinion he was, without anybody anywhere near close to him.”
THE FBI MODEL
One of the mandates Lipman gave Kennedy was to hire as many FBI retirees as he could round up, and that number eventually hit 32. “So I was a recruiter,” he laughs. “And having retired from the Bureau and knowing literally hundreds if not thousands of retired FBI people all over the country, I didn’t know of any company that had more than four or five retired agents that I ever heard of – ever.” Those who came aboard included Assistant Directors such as Bill Gavin (who ran the Bureau’s inspection division) and Dave Szady (a former head of counterintelligence).
Lipman essentially wanted to conduct his business the way the FBI did. He called the heads of his regional offices the “Manager in Charge” just as the feds call their branch office chiefs “Special Agent in Charge.” He also established an internal inspection unit, run by a retired FBI agent and patterned after the Bureau’s Inspection Division. “No other security company that I know of had an inspection division,” says Kennedy, “where every two years or so a group of inspectors would visit branch offices [unannounced], and take a week talking to former, current and prospective clients, talking with staff, and completing a review of the operations and records, and writing a report. That was modelled totally after the FBI.”
There’s probably never been a need for greater security in America than there is today, and Ira was way ahead of the curve — not just in making his industry safer, but in bringing the civil rights movements into the hallways of his own operation. In 1965 he began employing African-Americans as field managers — something unheard of back then, especially in the Deep South. Three years later he hired his first female security guard.
In short, here’s what I found in 1992:
* At management meetings, Ira used stuffed animals to drive certain points home. Make a sexist remark? A stuffed pig would be put on the conference table in front of you, as a mark of shame, for the meeting’s duration. Use the word “training” and you can say hello to a stuffed dog. Why? “You train a dog, but people learn,” he said. (Accidentally utter the noun “guard” instead of “security officer”? A stuffed dinosaur, of course.)
* He subjected guard applicants to a rigorous 24-page application form (by 2015 it had grown to 42 pages), plus interviews with former employers and neighbors. Most were polygraphed by licensed polygraphers, a practice he began in 1965 as a redundant tool, not a science, in the screening process. Behavior during questioning would be observed far more than the machine’s marks on a page. (The testing also had value for scaring off those prospective employees who harbored ill intent from even applying.)
* Ira told me that only two of 100 applicants made it — a process more rigorous than many police departments. Cleaner records translated into lower insurance premiums and happier clients, despite higher costs for contracting with Guardsmark. All of Guardsmark’s employees had to take the 567-question MMPI issued by an in-house psychologist.
* Once in the door, Lipman’s guards were showered with benefits that were rare in the trade — life and health insurance, college tuition aid, paid vacations. That kept turnover lower than at other firms, as did the pay — $16 average per billable man-hour ($29 in today’s money), which was twice the industry average.
* In 1970, following an incident where one of his guards fatally shot a man, in what had started as friendly scuffle in a Little Rock restaurant, Lipman launched a crusade to disarm most of the country’s private guards. (At the time, a Rand Report stated that while 49% of the country’s private security guards carried arms, most of them had no job-related firearms training.)
* A decade before 9-11, he implored the federal government to address lax security at airports. In congressional testimony, he was one of the first industry experts to push for metal detectors to be installed at every airport. “There are security officers in this nation who are convicted murderers and rapists,” he told a House subcommittee in 1993, “…who think that a uniform gives them authority and that a gun gives them power, who cannot control their urges… who prey on those they’re hired to protect, who cannot keep the barbarians outside the gates because they are the barbarians, and they’re already inside.”
What I thought might be a two-hour morning interview in Memphis morphed into an entire day, and not because I wanted it to. Ira insisted on walking me around to meet every single employee at his headquarters (maybe a hundred), which started to greatly upset me because I was starving and he wouldn’t let me eat. Finally, as I was rushing off around sunset (barely making my flight home), he handed me a boxed meal for the trip.
He was a creature of habit to the point of being obsessive. He wore the same colored clothes every day of the workweek — a purple Turnbull Asser shirt with white collars and cuffs, a purple tie, a black suit. In a corner of his office, he sentimentally kept about a dozen old briefcases, having never tossed one away from the day he launched the company. I had never seen more framed family photos in one place in my life. (I stopped counting after 100, as there may have been twice that many there.)
“I never imagined when I first met him that he would consume my life so much afterwards,” laughs Bill Kinane, who spent 34 years with the FBI, and who, following Ira’s death, flew to Memphis from his home in San Francisco to speak at a memorial service. “When he interviewed me for the job , I already was working for another intel agency. “I gotta have you, you gotta work for me,” said Ira, grabbing Kinane’s hand about 20 minutes into the conversation. “He started collecting all these guys [ex-FBI] to run his offices around the country. He was consumed with putting out a good product. He really wanted people to be protected and safe in their workplaces.”
Ira insisted on our being friends after the story ran. I had no choice in the matter. “No, you didn’t have a choice,” says Warren Stephens, CEO of Little Rock-based Stephens, Inc. “When Ira wanted to be your friend, you were his friend. But it was easy. He didn’t want anything.” In 1970, Stephens, Inc., which eventually grew into the largest investment bank off Wall Street in terms of equity capital, took Guardsmark public. It was the first IPO Stephens did (the second one, also in 1970: Arkansas-based Walmart).
At the time, Ira had asked legendary Arkansas billionaire Jack Stephens if he’d handle it. “And my dad said, ‘Well, Ira, it would be our very first one,’ recalls Warren. “And Ira said, ‘Well, I don’t really care, I don’t know anything about it.’ And dad said, ‘Well, look, we’re both going to be learning as we go.’” Turned out to be a fine lesson, as Barrons touted Guardsmark as a top stock to buy, and it opened at 40 times earnings. But with the stock undervalued in 1979, Ira took it private again. He was tired of Wall Street pressuring him to make more acquisitions; he just didn’t want to spend energy cleaning up the “bad habits” of other security companies.
“Heroes are people who do what no one believes can be done,” said Ira’s eldest son, Gustave, at his father’s funeral. He noted in the eulogy how they watched the movie “Patton” together more than 100 times when he was a kid. “Dad would stop scenes and tell me in detail the consequences of failure by identifying key insights into how Patton and the Allies helped save Europe,” he recalled. “‘Here comes leadership. Here comes the solution to the problem.’ Dad would point to the scene and say, ‘Do you see it?’…Dad would get up from the sofa near the end of the movie and say, just like Patton, ‘We’re going to Berlin!’” Later in life, in business, on the verge of overcoming a significant challenge or winning an account, Ira would say to Gus, “We’re going to Berlin!”
Kinane, the former FBI agent, lunched virtually every weekday for nearly three years with Ira, Gus and other Guardsmark executives — at an iconic seafood restaurant in New York’s Rockefeller Center. It boasted views of the famous ice-skating rink in winter and lush gardens in summer. But it was all business, with no daydreaming out the windows or even chitchat, as the General Patton of the security industry would issue his rapid-fire orders for the rest of the day. “I was always trying to figure out a way to make him laugh at lunch,” recalls Kinane, but with one or two brief exceptions, it was a fruitless effort.
Ira invited me to numerous events, where I’d marvel at this container of explosive energy whizzing around the room talking with maybe a hundred guests — and making them all feel valued and important. Similar to what FBI’s Kinane experienced during his job interview, Ira would grab people by the hand (or arm) and pull them across the room to create connections with others who he felt were important for them to have. He once gave me invaluable advice. A year after we first met, I told him I was considering buying a large fix-me-up apartment, but was worried I couldn’t quite afford it. “Do it,” he insisted. “Your career will then move in a direction where you can afford it because you have to afford it. That’s what happens when you take those steps. It’s how you grow.”
Over the decades, I had the joy of getting to know his family — sons Gus, Joshua and Benjamin, who all worked at Guardsmark, as well as Ira’s wife Barbara. In 1996, she suffered a massive stroke with partial paralysis and expressive aphasia. It was, frankly, an unforgettable experience for people to watch over the past quarter-century how Ira made her health and well-being his highest priority, and showered her with love.
Care more. Do more. Be more. Ethics before growth and profits, so no cutting corners. Business culture matters. In 1982, Gus recalls, the company would take a stand to cancel 5% of its business nationally of clients who demanded their Guardsmark guards be armed when Ira felt they need not be. Accounts were also cancelled in Ohio when a client demanded that all employees have “green or blue eyes” — a vile attempt to exclude people of color from working on their account. “That wasn’t Guardsmark,” explained Gus. “It wasn’t the Ira Lipman way. He would never cash in his soul.”
In 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (less than a mile from Guardsmark’s headquarters), Ira sent a 29-year-old African-American employee and high-school dropout named Joe Green to be the firm’s sole representative at a national security conference in Texas attended by about 5,000 industry insiders. Green, now 79, turned out to be his race’s only representative there, as well, “other than maids and porters at the hotel where it was being held,” he recalls. “Ira came to me and said ‘I’m gonna do something that ain’t never been done.’ And I said, ‘What is that?’ He said ‘I’m gonna send you to a security seminar.’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ve got no problem with that.’ The move was unprecedented, but fortunately, Green experienced no animosity, and he returned home to spend the next 40 years with the company.
Ira held ceremonies when employees reached their five-year anniversaries, and, in 1973, it was Green’s turn. “This man doesn’t have a lot of education, but he has more common sense than any man I’ve ever met,” Ira declared to a room of about 60 staffers. When a white employee snickered, Ira snapped: “If you had the common sense with your education that this man has, you’d be a genius.” True to form, Ira didn’t fire the guy; he preferred that he stay at the company and try to learn how to be human.
THE ARC OF A LIFE
In 1990, as chairman of the National Conference for Community and Justice (which had previously been called the National Conference of Christians and Jews), Lipman promoted the election of its first Muslim to the executive board. When a mega-charity, United Way of America, was in the throes of a major financial scandal, he was brought in as the first chairman of its Ethics Committee to clean up the charity — and he did, by using Guardsmark’s model to bring it back to respectability. In addition to the Chancellor Award, in 2017 he funded a new journalism and human rights center at Columbia, where important research and reporting about racism and diversity is underway.
“To Ira, liberty and security were two sides of the same coin,” says Stephen Kasloff, a former longtime executive at Guardsmark. “The security business was part of the whole arc of his life from the time he was a boy in Little Rock, with so-called ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountains, Chancellor, founding Guardsmark, diversity, profit with principle. It’s an arc that all had to do with his wanting to do something important that contributed to the fulfillment of the American dream, not just for him, but as our responsibility to each other — this was part of his soul.
“He would ask how are we going to protect clients, and at the same time try and give people better lives so they could fulfill their dreams? How do you exercise your right to a free society if you feel threatened? On the other hand, how do you have professional honorable security without ethics and a commitment to freedom and democracy?”
When Central High was erupting in 1957, Lipman was the leader of the local chapter of a national Jewish young organization. A day after his mother received the death threats, he fired off a letter (one of several that Kasloff shared with me) urging his peers to action. “We [Arkansas] have been on the bottom of the list on so many other things indicating lack of progress that it seems criminal, and perhaps is, to add another one in the eyes of the nation,” he wrote. “Integration is coming… regardless of the mouthings of rabid segregationists.”
Lipman’s ethics code, adds Kasloff, “was not just something a marketing department wrote to put on a shelf because somebody decided it was a good idea. We used to distribute copies of Ira’s 1956-57 letters in our management conferences and say, ‘So understand what you’re selling here is not just security, but trust and the values that influence that. And that is real.’”
In 1960, three years after his high school civil rights activities, Ira founded the Memphis Young Republicans Club, and was a major contributor to Republican politicians throughout his adulthood. Which, in the arc of his life that Kasloff speaks of, circles us back to Trump. Since the 2016 election, Ira would discuss the subject in his regular weekly phone calls with one of his oldest friends, Gerald Stern — a Harvard Law school graduate and veteran of the early 1960s’ civil rights protests as a young lawyer with the Justice Department. (He was also a longtime legal advisor to Ira and Guardsmark.)
“For him, it [Trump’s election] was like a destruction of everything that he worked for his whole life,” says Stern, “destroying all the things that he [Ira] helped to create — a sense of morality, a sense of justice, the integration of blacks and whites into the community the real way instead of being stigmatized, like by Trump. It was just everything he was doing was destroying his [Ira’s] own views of where the country should be and where it’s going, that this was a huge setback.
“Ira would call and he’d want a little comfort. ‘This is horrible, this is horrible, this is horrible.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, but what about this? — maybe this was going okay.’ And then we’d have a sort of comfort conversation. And he’d call a week later and say, ‘Oh my god, now look what they’re doing.’”
Ira continued driving himself hard well into his mid-70s with his social justice endeavors, as well as running Guardsmark. But he ultimately came to the realization that he had to sell the company. In 2000, he told the Memphis Business Journal that the company was on track to hit a billion dollars in revenues within seven, eight or nine years. But that milestone never came to pass. The industry changed on him and he wouldn’t change with it, because he felt that meant sacrificing quality.
There were several factors at play. For one thing, after the 2008 financial crisis, the cost of capital became so low that his longtime organic-growth strategy was threatened. Guardsmark either needed to make acquisitions by bringing in a partner (which Ira refused) or it had to be sold. Moreover, in the old days, it was typically the chief security officers of corporations (many of whom were retired law enforcement officials) who made the decisions on which security company to use — no matter the cost. That often gave the higher-quality Guardsmark an edge. Nowadays, it’s typically the purchasing departments that call those shots. And once that happens, security begins to get perceived by the bean counters as a commodity that can be bought on the cheap.
Finally, it was Ira’s own strengths that limited growth as the security company grew bigger and bigger (and became the country’s fourth largest). As Kennedy, the former #2 at the FBI who became Guardsmark’s’s vice-chairman recalls: “The problem from the chair that I sat in was this: Ira was absolutely involved in every aspect of the business. And there were not enough hours in the day for him to do everything he had to do to manage the company at the level that he insisted on managing it.”
Case in point: “If we opened a new office, I would be responsible for leasing the new space and buying the furniture. Well, I would have to bring to him what they wanted to do in terms of furniture, the color of it, the carpeting in it, and so forth. I would bring it to him personally, and he would decide, ‘Oh, no, I don’t like that carpet, I want this carpet.’ He was involved to that degree in every aspect of the business, so basically the business outgrew his ability to deal with those things on a timely basis.”
In short, Ira ran out of hours. Like many great, detail-driven entrepreneurs, delegating was a painful challenge for him.
In 2015, after 52 years of building Guardsmark, he sold to Universal Protection Service — today the $7 billion (sales) Allied Universal — to become the world’s largest U.S.-owned security guard company. Allied CEO Steve Jones recalls when he first visited the Memphis headquarters. “It was like walking back in time,” he says. “Literally, when you got off the elevator, you would have said you were in the 1950s-1960s — the building looked the same; the thick, heavy carpet; the only thing that wasn’t happening was people smoking. It felt like you were in this old movie and everything was done very old-school and by hand.”
The company was extraordinarily paper-intensive — timesheets, file cabinets, daily printed reports. Ira adhered to tried-and-true processes that had “redundancies on redundancies,” says a former executive, in order to reduce errors. And he was resistant to risk changing it. For example, all the payroll sheets were signed by hand around the country, and then sent via FedEx to Memphis, where they were manually processed, so that paper checks could be cut for most of their employees. The checks would then get shipped to those offices for hand-delivery to employees by supervisors.
“It was built to be great and yet all the processes and procedures were 20-30 years old,” says Jones. “What kept it going was Ira’s sheer will, and the dedication and commitment of some incredibly loyal, incredibly amazing people who truly carried that company beyond where it should have gone.”
Jones will never forget that day, nor the six-month negotiation process that Ira put him through. Many companies tried to court Ira in recent years, but very few advanced to negotiations. Through a mutual banking acquaintance, Jones was able to get a dinner with Ira in New York. He flew in from Los Angeles for it, and proceeded to make an awful first impression on the meticulous, buttoned-up Ira. He not only arrived late, but also had the chutzpah to be donning a tieless suit (hey, he’s Californian), putting his mobile phone on the dinner table, and even answering it when it rang. “You broke like every one of his rules that frustrates the shit out of him,” the banker friend told him outside the restaurant.
For six months, Ira made Jones fly out from LA every Wednesday to talk with him about a possible sale. Always in person, no phone, no Skype. “For me to pursue Ira, that meant that I had to be as committed to this process as Ira was to everything in his life,” he says. “If I told him ‘Next week I’m tied up,’ he’d say ‘Okay’ but then call Monday or Tuesday he’d call and say he really needs to see me. ‘I have really big concerns. We really have to talk about this deal, I’ve got a lot of questions.’ So there was never a week I couldn’t do it. Sometimes I’d leave New York on Thursdays and report back to my private equity partners. ‘So what’s the deal, are we gonna get this done?’ And I’d say, ‘Absolutely; I had a great meeting with Ira, and I think we should be getting close to signing next week.’ And sure as shit I’d get the call on Monday — ‘I need to see you, I’m not sure’ and I had to fly back out.
“What’s funny is, I think it was really just one of many of Ira’s tests. Ira would test people. So he tested me for six months to see if I was truly committed. When we got that deal signed, I remember that was like the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever had in doing a deal.” Following the sale, Lipman became a a vice-chairman of the combined company and remained an active board member until his death. “He was always super-excited about our ongoing success, and always supportive. But he was one of the most persistent, dogged, and determined guys I’d ever met. When he wanted something, look out.”
With that kind of determination, persistence and ethics, a person can help repair and build the world, and he did.