The Inner City 100: Creative Branding

No one knows Newark like Gateway Security's Louis Dell'Ermo. As it turns out, that's become a powerful selling point

Car-theft capital of the nation in the late 1980s. Ground zero for urban riots in the 1960s. Ranked most dangerous city in the country by Money magazine in 1996. Many businesses would do anything to avoid being identified with the city of Newark, which has been branded by its critics as a byword for crime, poverty, and hopelessness. But for Gateway Security (#66) founder and CEO Louis Dell'Ermo, a lifelong city resident, his Newark roots and connections were crucial in building a brand identity for his security company. "We were here when no one wanted to be," he says.

In fact, Dell'Ermo got into the security business precisely because his first customer wanted local talent. In 1979, when Dell'Ermo was a cop--he's a 23-year veteran of the Newark police force--Prudential approached him about handling security for the Gateway Center, a 2.2-million-square-foot office-and-hotel complex in downtown Newark, then the premier office space in the city. "They felt that the people that had to do security in an area like Newark had to know the demographics and respond to the site-specific needs," recalls Dell'Ermo. What drew Prudential's attention to him, he says, was his involvement in civic groups like the Police Athletic League (PAL) and the Boys Club, which gave him a high profile in the community.

Dell'Ermo tapped into his police-department and city connections to recruit his first employees: retired or off-duty police officers and firefighters, and teachers. "That gave us some credibility," he says. Other employees came from the PAL football team that he'd coached. Eventually, he also began hiring graduates of local security-training programs. "When you hire people, you try to hire people from the community," he says. "They can tell by the noise of the traffic what's happening. They know what to expect." Being truly familiar with the turf is more than knowing which neighborhoods are safe and which aren't, he adds. Just as important is understanding the city's pressure points: knowing the roads that close if there's an emergency at the airport, for instance, or the police and fire units that work in a given area.

That experience also means knowing when to come on strong--or soft. One early customer wanted to use dogs to protect his downtown Newark facility, until Dell'Ermo convinced him that not only was it unnecessary, but it would be a bad PR move also: the memory of cops using dogs against minorities in the 1967 urban riots was still too fresh. Dell'Ermo generally sends out unarmed guards in blazers. "It's a soft look," he says. "Not police-state."

In the early years, Gateway's Newark identity gave it a natural edge against its competition, which tended to be national companies. In recent years more local competitors have appeared. But, says Dennis Frost of Cogswell Realty Group, Gateway still stands out for its strong Newark connections, whether it's being able to consult Gateway's off-duty cops about city regulations, for instance, or tapping into Dell'Ermo's own Newark network. "He could introduce me to a city councilman, or any person in the system that I have a question for," says Frost. "It boils down to a more nebulous thing, like being part of the neighborhood. That's what Gateway does for me; it makes me part of the neighborhood."

Emily Barker is a senior staff writer at Inc.