When most INC. 500 companies look for advice on how to manage their fast-growing enterprises, they ask a lawyer or accountant. But the executives at Akal Security Inc., in Santa Cruz, N. Mex., turn to another source: their yogi, Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi-Ji. Yogi Bhajan, for short.
A yogi business adviser is just one of the ways that business and religion intersect at Akal, a private security and consulting company founded in 1980 by four American converts to Sikhdharma, a monotheistic off-shoot of Hinduism. Only its growth rate -- a five-year increase of 1,420% -- is purely secular.
To witness this company is to experience the contrasts of life in these entrepreneurial times. How is it that four meditating, counterculture youths from the late '60s banded together in 1980 to start a private security firm that specializes in guard services, security training, and preemployment honesty tests? "It's simple," says chief executive officer Gurutej Singh Khalsa, dressed for the office in traditional Sikh garb -- a turban swathed around his head, a loose-fitting top, and billowing thin cotton pants. "New Mexico is a small place. We wanted to live here, and the job market was tight. So we started our own business."
Yet, unlike some of their Sikh colleagues who have started health-food and natural-beauty product companies, this group picked the private security business. "I've always been interested in law enforcement and martial arts," explains Gurutej, 35. "My grandfather and uncle were police officers in Atlanta." There was another reason that Gurutej and his friends started Akal: "Our motive was to make a buck. It still is."
Capitalism, as it turns out, is very much in keeping with the Sikh culture. In India, where the 500-year-old religion was founded, Sikhs are regarded as the country's most entrepreneurial people. Historically, they have also been the nation's most valiant soldiers. But those parallels with the men of Akal are just a coincidence, says Gurutej. "I had taken all of the tests for the New Mexico State Police. I scored well, too, but they wouldn't hire me, I suspect, because of the way I looked. I could've fought the discrimination in court, but I might have ended up in a back office."
Instead, he took a job as head of security at St. Johns College near Santa Fe and hatched Akal with three friends. Their first job was an all-night guard patrol service for the shopkeepers in Espanola, N. Mex., near an active Sikh community. From there, the group began to search out work in and around Santa Fe, where the tourist-oriented shops, restaurants, and art galleries required security help. Since then, the company has branched into guarding area gold mines and such special events as rock concerts and movie productions. The result: In less than five years, Akal has grown to 150 employees -- only 25 are Sikhs -- in Albuquerque, Houston, and Los Angeles.
The four friends chose a tough business. There are thousands of security firms nationwide, and competition, especially in larger markets, is fierce. Often the company buttes heads with price-cutting national firms and well-established local independents. "Security," says company treasurer Daya Singh Khalsa, "is a field where you get a last-minute call from a person with a desperate need. They've just been held up or discovered an employee stealing from them for the past five years. They may be upset, but they are still concerned with cost and service."
To attract and retain reliable employees, says Daya, Akal tries to promote from within its own ranks and to pay guards more than its competitors. As a result, its service usually costs more than competitors, but clients seem to endorse the company's approach. "Most security companies will hire anybody who has a temperature and a heartbeat," says Frank Hyder, safety and employee-relations manager at Gold Fields Mining Corp.'s Ortiz mine near Santa Fe. "Akal is good at screening and holding on to people."
To get over the hurdle of a first sales call, Akal's service has to be better. Hyder recalls picking up the Yellow Pages and dialing the firm sight unseen. "I was sitting in my office and all of a sudden I noticed these two guys in turbans headed toward me," he laughs. "I wanted to jump out of the window. Later, I thought, 'If they intimidated me, what would they do to a robber?' If you take a guy who is 5'9" and put a turban on his head, he's gonna look at least 6'8"." Hyder adds, "I was a little disappointed when I found out that all of their employees don't wear the turbans."
Not all prospective clients react as favorably, however. "What we found out was that some people can handle the idea [of hiring Sikhs], and some people can't. At times, I've thought to myself it would be a lot easier if we weren't Sikhs," Daya says. "But we definitely make an impression on people when we show up in their offices. In the end, that's a plus. And the company is growing so fast that I don't think our beliefs will hurt us."
As Akal expands, though, both men worry about the company's image. Their appearance sometimes leads people to assume that Akal is part of a far-out cult. But the two describe the Sikh religion as a faith like Christianity or Judaism. Their life-styles, they say, are rather conventional. Married, with children, Gurutej and Daya live in their own homes. Like other Sikhs, however, they are strict vegetarians and never cut their hair or shave their beards. And both men start their day at 4 a.m. with a two-and-a-half hour group meditation and yoga extra-vaganza.
"Yeah, we like to think that what we do, both in our own routines and in business, will improve the quality of life," Gurutej says. And when he calls Yogi Bhajan for advice, it's not just divine inspiration: This yogi, after all, has a master's degree in economics from Punjab University.