Paul Donahue’s company has a new name and a new owner, but the business model is a familiar one.
Donahue is chief executive of Centerra Group, known for decades as Wackenhut Services. Centerra handles high-end security for nuclear plants and military installations.
Business is good — total revenue for 2014 was $650 million. An unnamed private equity owner took control of the company in November.
Donahue admits he’s not the typical choice to run a company with 9,000 employees, many of them former soldiers and cops. “This company has been run by lieutenant colonels, colonels, admirals, generals,” Donahue said. “I’m the first civilian CEO.”
Despite his lack of military service, Donahue learned to fly helicopters and even runs a chopper-leasing business in Lantana.
Q. Tell us about your position:
A. I’ve been here for 21 years, and I’ve been CEO for three years. Before that, I was chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
Q. About your company:
A. For 45 or 50 years, we were Wackenhut Services Inc. Then we became G4S. In November, we changed our name to Centerra. My challenge is to take everything I’ve learned from Wackenhut and G4S and assimilate a new strategy. We’re a federal government contractor. We provide security for all the nuclear weapons in the country. We provide security for the base at Guantánamo, which is always a politically charged situation. We’ve always been in counterterrorism training. That’s unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons, become a lot more popular. Not all jobs are plum jobs like Kennedy Space Center. We run security for a uranium plant in New Mexico. It’s truly the end of the earth. It’s so flat that the joke is if you lose your dog, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to see him running away in three days. Even for guys who’ve been deployed to Iraq, those are tough jobs.
Q. First job you ever worked?
A. I worked retail in high school and college. I was the store manager at Champs Sporting Goods in Miami. Then I moved over to their competitor, Fan Club. That’s where I got my first management training. When you’re 20 years old, you just go to work, and you don’t realize you’re getting all this management training. As a store manager, I was making probably $35,000 a year. When I graduated with an accounting degree from the University of Miami, I took a job as a staff accountant at a company called Administrative Services Inc. I made $17,000, so it was like a 50 percent pay cut.
Q. Best business advice you’ve received?
A. It’s the old cliché about running toward gunfire. One of our retired Air Force generals told me: “As you have escalating authority, you’re going to have escalating issues. If everybody is running away from the problem, you’re going to have to run toward it.” Unfortunately, when you have 8,800 people, you’re probably going to have somebody who’s doing something he’s not supposed to be doing. I’ll hear about it in a month.
Q. Biggest challenge?
A. About 80 percent of our workforce is from law enforcement and the military, and transitioning them from that environment to a world of balance sheets is our biggest challenge. Everybody says they can do it, but it’s very hard. Two-thirds make it, and one-third don’t. In our business, the customer’s always right, even when they’re not. We’ve had situations where a private is now directing a general. As successful as somebody was in the Army, they can’t allow their past successes to cloud their objectivity. There’s no easy way. You just address it head-on.
Q. Biggest business mistake you’ve made?
A. Back in 2000, I had an opportunity to take a deployment to run an operation in Golden, Colorado. I was the CFO at the time, and I enjoyed my job, so I didn’t want to leave. But in hindsight, I should have taken that deployment. It would have broadened my experience.
Q. What you see ahead for Palm Beach County?
A. We plan to stay in Palm Beach County. We just signed a 10-year lease in Palm Beach Gardens. We have very little trouble recruiting from the Northeast, even though Palm Beach County is not necessarily a large market. The only negative is the real estate, because there’s just not much of it. For middle-income people, there aren’t a lot of homes available. You don’t want to have your workers commuting in from outside of the county.
Q. The most important trait you look for when hiring?
A. Integrity. We’re in places when nobody else is there. We’re in Kennedy Space Center when no one else is around. We’re protecting critical infrastructure. We look after nuclear submarines. We look after the feeding of thousands of soldiers. Because of that, you’re held to a much higher standard.
Somewhere around 90 percent of our employees are home-grown. I started here 21 years ago as a staff accountant. We don’t want to be the training ground for our competitors, so we definitely have a competitive pay and benefits structure. Whether it’s Pratt & Whitney or Sikorsky or Tropical Shipping, there are a lot of great employers here, and we don’t want to lose people to them. We seriously promote a culture of personal growth. We pay for education. I got an MBA from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and I really saw the value of it. We didn’t pay for tuition then, but I came back and said, “We really need to do that.” We cover 50 percent of graduate school, and we cover 100 percent of anything to further your career, which definitely helps us develop our people.
Position: President and CEO of Centerra Group(formerly Wackenhut)
Personal: Age 45; married, with two children; originally from Long Island, N.Y.; raised in Miami.
Personal associations: Includes volunteer aviation support to the Veteran’s Airlift Command: He maintains a private pilot’s license with a rotorcraft rating. Since 2005, he has been the owner and president of a helicopter company that provides FAA Part 141 training, charter, executive transport, night vision training, news, sports event and life safety support coverage.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, University of Miami; MBA, Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Company: Corporate headquarters at 7121 Fairway Dr., Palm Beach Gardens.
Number of employees: 9,000
Company size: $650 million in total revenue for 2014