From Secret Service to Sunshine State

From Secret Service to Sunshine State
March 08, 2004 By: Neil Reisner

Joe LaSorsa doesn’t need references to convince potential clients that he can protect them.

His I-hide-my-eyes-behind-sunglasses-and-I-probably-take-no-prisoners gaze is likely enough.

But then there are his references.

Former Presidents Reagan, Ford and the Bush’s, for example, whom LaSorsa protected during his 20-year career with the U.S. Secret Service, three of them on the elite Presidential Detail.

If LaSorsa, 50, could protect the likes of them, he reasoned, then the less prominent but more wealthy clientele he hoped to cultivate would believe he could protect them, too, and buy what he wanted to sell – safe rooms, fortress-like refuges supplied with food, water, electricity and communications that can cost upward of $100,000, into which residents of a home under attack by robbers, kidnappers or other bad guys can retreat while summoning help.

LaSorsa teamed up initially with Donald O’Neill, who operated the Orca Fund, a hedge fund based in Fort Lauderdale, but backed quickly away after becoming suspicious that all might be on the up-and-up. His instincts proved sound when O’Neill was indicted on multiple counts of mail and wire fraud and money laundering.

The former secret service agent of presidential protection, who has 29 years in the security industry altogether, quickly regrouped, took out a home equity loan and in May 2002 opened J.A. LaSorsa & Associates in an office around the back of a two-story professional building on a nondescript stretch of Federal Highway in Pompano Beach.

“I believe South Florida has a tremendous market of those individuals who have a need for a high-end security consultant,” said LaSorsa, who cuts an imposing figure at 5 feet, 11 inches and 210 pounds. “The number of super wealthy snowbirds is incredible.”

A top South Florida security consultant agreed.

“If he has knowledge that sets him aside from other people and he can develop a good following of individuals who are in need of that kind of protection, I think he will be very successful,” said former Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro, now head of Fort Lauderdale-based Navarro Security.

“The product he’s selling is himself. If he can market himself, it will be a good thing for him,” Navarro said, remarking that a security company founded two decades ago in Virginia by former presidential guard Chuck Vance sold last year for a reported $67 million.

It’s not LaSorsa’s first try at going solo.

His first shot came in 1998, two years after he retired from the Secret Service, when he opened a security consultancy in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he then lived with his wife and three sons. But there wasn’t a lot of demand for what he had to offer, even in a place where well-heeled socialites descend for the summer horse racing and concert season.

The family relocated to South Florida the following year. After stints directing security at two local corporations, he decided to try again. This, despite the fact that the region is already home to about than 900 private investigation agencies and 3,600 licensed private investigators, according to state records.

After nearly two years, things are going pretty well, LaSorsa said, and getting better. Last fall, with some $60,000 invested, he was netting between $4,000 and $5,000 monthly from fees ranging between $75 and $150 an hour plus expenses. That covered the nut and has allowed him to start drawing a salary.

More recently things have gone even better. He now projects a 2004 net between $75,000 and $100,000.

Still, not everything has worked out as planned.

Demand for safe rooms was low despite heightened security concerns in the aftermath of Sept. 11. LaSorsa believes that’s in part because nothing’s happened in South Florida to make those at risk believe they need security and in part because the faltering economy makes even people with money reluctant to spend what they have, especially given that 24/7 security on just one person can cost upwards of $1 million annually.

“The 9-11 attack placed a lot of focus on home and personal security. But not a lot of people building rooms,” he said, seated at a desk surrounded by memorabilia from presidential trips – the 1985 Summit of Industrialized Nations in Geneva, the London Economic Conference in 1991 and the bus tour Bill Clinton took after snagging the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. “People with big money are being very judicious. I think it’s a mistake, because they’re still very wealthy. They are public figures in one way or another and need to be concerned about their security and their family’s security.”

But with flexibility born of long training to deal with the unexpected, LaSorsa adjusted his business plan mid-course. Safe room design and construction remain among LaSorsa’s services, but he’s added a menu of other offerings, including vulnerability assessments; residential, yacht and business security systems; bodyguard protection at home and while traveling; confidential investigations; and executive protection training seminars.

LaSorsa’s clients appear to be satisfied.

Fort Lauderdale personal injury attorney Gary Lazarus represents a teenage girl raped by a group of men who detailed autos at a Central Florida dealership in a suit charging the dealership and the men’s employer with negligence. He hired LaSorsa to analyze security at the crime site.

“I was impressed by his pedigree, specifically that he was on the personal security detail for President Reagan,” said Lazarus, adding that LaSorsa was able to find witnesses other investigators couldn’t and that he now uses the former agent regularly. “He’s an expert witness who can testify as to the foreseeability of a crime at a particular location.”

LaSorsa said that other clients – he keeps their names confidential for obvious reasons – have retained him to develop corporate security plans, guard executive offices after potentially disruptive personnel moves, investigate potentially bogus workers’ compensation claims, find embezzlers and convince them to return the money they stole and even to design the occasional safe room – three in South Florida and one in upstate New York.

And he’s promoting a solar-powered wireless security system that can be quickly installed to protect the perimeter of an estate or a docked yacht.

Promoting yacht security, of course, means attracting the kind of clients who own yachts and it’s to them that LaSorsa aims his marketing. He’s taken ads in magazines that cover life’s finer things for those who can afford them, including the DuPont Registry, Robb Report and Ocean Drive . And he’s sent direct mail pieces to every attorney in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

He’s even designed some security rooms, four modest installations in South Florida and one high-end under construction in upstate New York .

But LaSorsa is only beginning to capture that elusive high-end clientele he mapped his business plan to pursue.

He’s off this week to conduct three executive protection seminars in Australia that developed after a Melbourne man attended one of LaSorsa’s seminars here.

He’ll then spend a week at an undisclosed destination providing security for a vacationing international business consultant from Palm Beach County and his family.

“I’m not doing too much close-in security,” LaSorsa said. “I’m beginning to think that many people in this area still think that they’re not vulnerable.”

LaSorsa is convinced that’s flat-out wrong.

“The wealthier you are the more of a target you are,” he said, predicting that world crackdowns on terrorist finances may spark the kind of kidnappings-for-ransom South American rebel groups use to fund their activities. “It’s not only going to be international terrorism coming to the shores of the U.S. I see the foreign kidnapping plague becoming a U.S. plague.”

Neil Reisner can be reached at nreisner@floridabiz.com or at (305) 347-6611.