How Customer Focus Turned $25,000 into a Global Business with $1.4 Billion in Annual Sales

June 11, 2013

In 1995, Stephan Cretier, the Founding President and CEO of GardaWorld, took out a $25,000 second mortgage on his house to start a company providing security services in his home province of Quebec. First year revenue was $600,000 with but a handful of employees. Today, 18 years later, his company has become the largest privately owned security services company in the world with $1.4 billion in annual revenue and 45,000 employees.


How did Mr. Cretier grow a modest investment into such a large business in relatively so little time? The answer is similar to the advice we often offer our customers here in this Garda Cares blog: He applied sharp focus to satisfying customers, building trust and exceeding their expectations.


From the start, his customer focus drove every decision and became the basis for a set of first principles that continue to guide GardaWorld’s culture, values and people in their day-to-day work:


1.  Business security is best provided by disciplined business professionals.  When Stephan Cretier founded the company that became GardaWorld, Canada’s security market was highly fragmented with many small providers. Businesses with multiple locations, like banks or retail chains, often had to contract with numerous, small local security firms to cover their needs. Service quality was inconsistent, ranging from how their people dressed to how they operated. Even billing practices differed. He saw an opportunity to bring a disciplined, consistent operating model that did more than ensure the safety and security of GardaWorld’s early customers. It also built their confidence and trust that their security needs were being addressed by business professionals who understood the broader context of their operations.


2.  Business growth best comes from satisfied customers. As all businesses know, repeat customers and referrals are the best ways to grow. That’s why Mr. Cretier made customer retention a key performance indicator for his business development teams. Although the company did pursue some strategic acquisitions in its first 10 years, more than 60 percent of its growth during that time was “organic”—that is, new business came from existing customers, referrals or by winning customers from the competition. To win against the competition, Stephan Cretier and his team continued to emphasize the value and differentiation of their consistent, disciplined approach to security conducted by business professionals.


3.  True entrepreneurship takes full responsibility for the customer experience. Too often customers get lost in many large companies because bureaucratic inertia overtakes the entrepreneurial spirit on which those companies were founded. When that happens, no one takes ownership for the customer experience—it becomes “someone else’s job.” Mr. Cretier has worked hard to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive at GardaWorld by empowering people to own full responsibility not only for their operational performance but also for making the customer experience the very best it can be. And, if there’s a problem, to do whatever it takes to fix it. This ownership attitude extends from the top of each operating division to the branch level—from its executive leader to its front-line managers and field employees.


4.  Core company values must drive customer satisfaction. In 2012, Mr. Cretier led a successful $1.1 billion buyout to take GardaWorld private. (It had become a public company in 1998.) In part, he did so in order that GardaWorld could manage itself not to short-term expectations of the stock market, but to long-term considerations of what’s best for customers. In rebranding itself this year, GardaWorld defined five core values: Responsibility; Flexibility; Reliability; Entrepreneurship; and Accountability. Within the company, our people apply these values as “customers” of each other, while they also apply them to every external customer interaction they have. Our core values apply to our relationships with all other community stakeholders, too.


5.  Strategic acquisitions must enhance customer value. Stephan Cretier and his management team realize that, in the broader business world, 70 percent of corporate acquisitions fail. That’s why they carefully choose “bolt-on” acquisitions that (a) enhance the value we bring to GardaWorld customers, by either expanding the breadth of services we offer or the geographic reach of our services; and (b) are integrated quickly to realize the operating synergies as soon as possible, while respecting the cultural integrity and health of the acquired company and its people.


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Like most successful entrepreneurs, Stephan Cretier is quite proud of the company he has built, but he’s quick to credit all the people along the way who have shared his focus on customers, including our 45,000 professionals today. He’s convinced that the company’s success and growth reflects a bedrock commitment to customer trust and satisfaction. It’s a commitment that he, his executive team, and every one of GardaWorld’s employees renew each day. Same as when it began operations 18 years ago, GardaWorld’s business is much more than providing our customers with safety and security; it’s helping their businesses succeed.