In the Line of Pliers
"We were always taught in the Service that if even one person didn't know what the plan was, someone could get hurt. I tell my employees that very thing."
WHO: Reginald A. Ball, 50, entrepreneur and former bodyguard of presidents
WHAT: Ball's company, RB Industries, in Sterling Heights, Mich., sells hand tools and other products to the auto industry.
ROOTS: Born and raised in the greater Motor City area. Dad worked for General Motors for 36 years. Mom worked for Ford Motor Co. for 23 years. The family favors Dodges.
HE GOT THE BEAT: A semester shy of graduating from the University of Michigan, Ball ran out of tuition money and took a job with the Ann Arbor Police Department. (He finished his degree in 1975.)
AGENTS OF CHANGE: When a foreign dignitary visited the city in May 1974, patrolman Ball met some Secret Service agents, who encouraged him to apply for a job. At the time, the Service was trying to increase diversity, says Ball.
OBSTACLE COURSE: To qualify for the Service, Ball had to pass a written test, sit for a panel interview, and provide his tax returns and credit information. Next came a physical examination and a drug test. Finally, Ball had to submit to a background check "so extensive it was almost like they asked, 'Who was the doctor who smacked you on your rear end?' "
THE SUMMONS: "I was at home eating pizza one night when a man from the Secret Service called. He told me to start working for him the following Monday, and so I did," Ball recalls.
MAD MONEY, MAD PEOPLE: Early assignments included busting counterfeiters and looking into threats against the president.
BREAKING NEWS: Ball was guarding Maureen Reagan's house on March 30, 1981, the morning President Reagan was shot. "A news crew showed up at the house right away," Ball recalls. Later that day, the president's four children boarded a military plane and flew to Washington. "We arrived in D.C. at 5 a.m.," Ball says. "The mood was somber."
BULLET POINT: The next year, Ball joined the Secret Service's elite Counter Assault Team. Traveling in the menacing Suburban behind the president's limousine, a "CAT" team is a five-agent squad prepared to defend the president in an ambush.
SO IS HE A GOOD SHOT? "Absolutely."
HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL: As an agent, Ball went to Russia, Australia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Germany, and Kennebunkport, Maine.
ON RONALD REAGAN: "I loved him. He's like a grandfather. A very friendly guy, always ready to tell a joke."
ON GEORGE H.W. BUSH: "An athlete. He loved to play golf and pitch horseshoes."
ON HILLARY CLINTON: "She is the nicest person. When she would meet people like mayors or governors, she would make a point to introduce me. She didn't have to do that."
SECRET'S OUT: Ball retired in 1997, after 23 years in the Service.
"AUTO" DIDACT: "I decided I wanted to start a company," says Ball. "Security, I could do. But distribution -- that was totally new to me. It was a challenge." After taking a week's vacation, the budding entrepreneur went to a vendor to the Big Three automakers and asked for help. "I was very naïve," Ball recalls, "so I spent those first months just learning sales and how to make discounts and how to collect the money and how the money moves."
TRANSFERABLE FUNDS: Ball made a nice dividend working with two retired colleagues to provide security consulting. That cash -- in addition to a $62,000-a-year federal pension and a $50,000 loan from a friend and business owner -- helped Ball support himself while launching RB Industries.
TRANSFERABLE SKILLS: "We were always taught in the Service that if even one person didn't know what the plan was, someone could get hurt. I tell my employees that very thing," he says.
MINORITY RULES: Ball, who is African American, leverages carmakers' strong supplier-diversity programs to get contracts. Obtaining certification through the Michigan chapter of the National Minority Supplier Development Council took some lobbying, since Ball had taken a loan from a man who was not a minority. "Things are relaxing now, but when I started, it was almost like it was taboo for me to associate with somebody who was a nonminority," Ball says. "But business today is all about joint ventures and strategic alliances. So how can you only work with other minorities? It's impossible."
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW CAN'T STOP YOU: "One month after I started the company, my wife realized she was pregnant," says Ball. "Three months later, a sonogram revealed that it was twins."
AGE OF TWINS TODAY: Three years old.
REVENUES OF RB TODAY: $12 million.
In the Line of Pliers
The Bucks Stop Here
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