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Rich Executives Spend Millions For Bodyguards To Guard Them From Populist Anger

Meet World Protection Group Inc.'s private bodyguards, the latest trend in corporate spending.

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Moyer quickly learned that protecting Hef was less a matter of brawn than of discreet surveillance and detailed planning. By the early aughts he'd launched WPG, with a top Hollywood talent agency as his first client. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers proved a boon for executive protection; soon after, WPG began landing corporate clients, and sales shot up by 40 to 50 percent.

Like most security professionals, Moyer won't name his clients. About 20 percent are celebrities and entertainers, he says, while the rest are wealthy individuals and corporate executives. The firm has protected senators, congressmen, former secretaries of state, and members of the Saudi royal family. As the business grew, Moyer took some time off to attend Wharton's Advanced Management Program. Executive protection "is about more than sending an off-duty cop out with a gun," he explains. "If it came to any kind of semi-organized attack, those guys would get dead real quick, because they don't have any kind of game plan."

In 2009, EP firms discovered a powerful marketing tool in the outrage over bank bailouts. "There has never been this kind of populist anger before," Eden Mendel, director of security consulting at Kroll, a risk advisory firm, told the Financial Times. "When executives are revealed on television with bonuses they become a target." Nearly 80 percent of executives polled by the American Society for Industrial Security agreed that "the need for security has increased in the current economic climate," with "general increases in crime" and "employee layoffs" cited as the biggest threats. Executive protection firms like WPG, 360 Group International Inc., and the Steele Foundation reported revenue spikes of 30 to 50 percent in 2009, despite the recession. "Our business gets better as the economy gets worse," Moyer told me.

The protection boom shows no sign of abating, despite a weaker-than-expected feedstock of anarchy—violent crime in the United States is at its lowest level in decades. Workplace violence, too, remains in a steady decline, says Eugene Ferraro, founder of a security consultancy called Business Controls Inc., which manages workplace-safety hotlines for 23,000 clients. "An executive who has ever really been confronted and their life threatened? That's kind of hard to find," he adds.

So why have top execs (and/or their boards) become such security nuts? One factor involves the need to do business in the developing world—WPG claims it can provide services in 70 countries—but that doesn't explain the domestic demand. Ferraro chalks it up to paranoia. "I get the calls," he says. "They say, 'Oh my God, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, the sky is falling!'" The tendency of business leaders to "think over the horizon and anticipate problems" is causing them to act like they're in Mexico City or Baghdad, Ferraro says. Besides, why not play it safe when shareholders are picking up the tab? Since 2006, when publicly traded companies began disclosing corporate perks, spending on CEO security has increased an average of 15 percent a year. ( Michael Dell's compensation package, for instance, includes $1.2 million for security.)

Another big part of EP's appeal might simply be executive convenience. Protection firms claim that they can save executives an average of 90 minutes a day by conducting "advances" of venues, having cars and elevators waiting, and thwarting unwanted advances from employees, media—whomever. "The neat thing is that we've worked all this stuff out for you," Moyer says. "You don't have to worry about it." If the Primary needs his Starbucks fix, he's likely to sit in a locked car checking email while his protector fetches a Grande.