Keith Walawender and Mike Biller served with one of the Navy SEALs' most elite teams, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group--also known as SEAL Team 6 and DevGru--which undertook the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. After they left the SEALs, they recognized their special-ops experience could be invaluable to law enforcement groups and corporations, and formed Tomahawk Strategic Solutions. --As told to Tom Foster
Keith Walawender, CEO: I was just 17 when I joined the military. All I wanted to do was be a Navy SEAL. I did five years with SEAL Team 2 and eight years with the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Eventually, I got injured in combat and was medically retired in 2014.
I hurt my back in a helicopter crash overseas. I can't say anything else about that crash.
Mike Biller, president and COO: I remember being 12 and riding bikes with my friends. One kept saying that becoming a Navy SEAL is impossible--nobody can do it.
I was a little bit talky back then, and I said, "I can do that. I can definitely do that."
I was 17 when 9/11 happened, and a kid came up to me and said, "That means we're going to war. You're not going in now, are you?" I said, "That's why I am doing this. I do want to go to war. I do want to fight and kill bad guys. That's important to me."
KW: Mike and I were on the same five-man DevGru team for years. He ended up having a medical issue as well, and got out around the same time as I did.
In our previous life, we'd hosted law enforcement agencies to teach them some of our lessons learned. It was very rewarding. That work was the genesis of Tomahawk Strategic Solutions. We also distribute equipment--body armor, Night Vision, flashlights. Anything we used in our past career, we have become a vendor for: This is vetted, this works. This is the best stuff out there.
MB: One of our first clients was Jersey City, New Jersey. They wanted us to assess their tactical team--structure, equipment, everything. We didn't want to be the kind of company that comes in, trains a few officers for three days, and leaves. We wanted to get our hands on training your whole team--get them integrated with patrol officers, work with the paramedics and firefighters, set up a rescue task force--and then test that.
We did that for Jersey City, and then set up a full-blown training exercise at Newport Centre mall there, so they experienced all that integration of different responding authorities, and got to work face-to-face with officers they wouldn't have unless a situation arose.
KW: Sixteen months later--this past January--there was a report of an active shooter at Newport Centre. It was gang violence up on the third floor, in the food court. Law enforcement came in using the training that we'd set up for them, and the only people injured were the instigators. Everybody else was safely evacuated. No loss of life. No stampedes.
MB: When we talk to people about active-threat scenarios, we can tell them what it actually feels like to get shot at--what it feels like to be the person on the other side of the door. All the spaces you deal with in an active-threat scenario are basically what we attacked when we were SEALs. We mostly hire military veterans and former law enforcement officers--we have officers who were the first responders to the Virginia Tech shooting.
KW: A lot of our work, for public- and private-sector clients, comes down to active-shooter preparation. It's a very unfortunate growth industry.
MB: We had a great culture in our previous life. Our goal was to set up a business with that same culture. When you're on a five-man team and you spend 200, 220 days a year together, you become really good buddies. That allows for brutal honesty. We didn't always see eye to eye then and we don't now, but we're able to have it out and still know we're headed in the right direction.
KW: And just as the battlefield can be very fluid, so can entrepreneurship. The flexibility we've learned in our past life is huge.
MB: With DevGru, on the more sensitive missions, there were so many other dimensions than going in on black helicopters and then coming home. We'd work with other government agencies, and had to achieve outcomes by adapting to those cultures. That directly translates to what we are doing today. We're working with a large Fortune 500 organization one day, the next day a school, and then one of the nation's premier law enforcement agencies. What works with one client won't necessarily work with the next. So you build out that arrow quiver, and then you pick out certain arrows that you need for each problem set that comes up.