Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2020 Best Industries report.
Like any good Navy SEAL, Clint Emerson knows how to adapt. In 2009, while still serving as a SEAL, he took many of the skills he'd learned from his 20-year career and spun them into a guide for amateurs called Escape the Wolf: Personal Security Handbook for the Traveling Professional. Six years later, Emerson retired from the military and had already spun the book into a full-fledged security consulting business based in Frisco, Texas.
Now Escape the Wolf, the business, is part of a crisis-management industry that's seen major growth for grim reasons. In 2019, the U.S. saw 417 mass shootings, up from 337 such incidents in 2018, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group Gun Violence Archive. And in many cases, the violence has happened inside businesses, such as the August 2019 shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that killed 22 people. Tragic incidents like that are compelling many businesses, including some of the nation's biggest retailers, to hire crisis-management consultants to train employees for active-shooter and other dangerous workplace scenarios. According to a December 2019 Market World Report, the Incident and Emergency Management Market reached $92.17 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to $130 billion in 2024.
While loss of life and serious injury to team members are obviously the worst outcomes of a workplace shooting, an incident can also have a serious impact on a company's bottom line. As The Wall Street Journal noted in August 2019, companies like Dave & Busters Entertainment, Del Taco, and the Cheesecake Factory have listed the possibility of active shooters as "risk-factors" in their annual reports to investors. In 2019, MGM Resorts International agreed to pay $800 million to the families of those killed and injured during a mass shooting two years earlier.
Escape the Wolf offers online and in-person courses to train individuals on what to do in a crisis situation, as well as consulting services to help security and HR professionals develop zero-tolerance guidelines for workplace violence, and protocols around safe travel and cyber threats. The company's most recent offering is the Solution, a collection of 47 short educational videos and printed materials Emerson calls "crisis management in a box."
Escape the Wolf's clients include national retailers, a hospitality chain, and a health insurance company, though most are reluctant to be named because of sensitivity around the subject of workplace violence.
"A lot of the things he talked about woke us up," says an executive at a retailer that has worked with Escape the Wolf for several years. "You feel better about it and more secure and confident."
Adapting to entrepreneurship
Emerson spent 20 years in the military, serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the globe, as detailed in his recent memoir, The Right Kind of Crazy. As he told an interviewer in 2015, "The biggest quality [of being a SEAL] is being adaptable, being creative." That has transferred well to his second act, as an entrepreneur. Of his approach to business strategy, he says, "I still continue to evolve. I say yes to everything and try to figure it out later."
The "say-yes-and-figure-it-out-later" ethos began shortly after he co-wrote Escape the Wolf, in 2009. The book came to the attention of an executive at the Dow Jones Company, then parent company of The Wall Street Journal, who hired Emerson to train 700 journalists on safe travel practices. (In 2002, WSJ reporter Danny Pearl was killed in Karachi, Pakistan, while on assignment.) Suddenly, Emerson was a travel security consultant.
From that first gig, Emerson bootstrapped his company while also writing a series of 100 Deadly Skills books. "I burned a long fuse before going into money-making mode," says Emerson, 46. "What surprised me was how many global security directors were looking for solutions, but there weren't too many to choose from. I assumed I was going up against a dozen other companies, but there weren't that many."
Competition ramps up
A decade later, Emerson oversees a team of six along with contractors who provide threat assessment, training, and tools for large and midsize companies across the country, with contracts in the six figures.
He also has more competition. Large companies like Chicago's Hillard Heintze, a part of Jensen Hughes, with 1,200 employees worldwide, and small startups like San Francisco's Mindglow, which uses virtual reality to train people for active-shooter scenarios, offer their own approaches to workplace violence-prevention and training. Then there are the current and retired law enforcement officials, even heads of martial arts studios, hanging out shingles and offering active-shooter training.
One person who has observed this industry's development for decades is Bobbi Lambert, co-founder of Confidante, a California-based workplace violence-prevention consultancy. "That these terrible events have occurred and are getting more attention is forcing more employees to think ahead, [to think] 'This could be us,'" says Lambert. "You hate to see these terrible things occur for people to get the message that this is a problem."
Aside from loss of life and injury, Lambert says the financial cost can be extraordinary. "The PR nightmare is something; lost days of work; associated medical costs; the loss of morale," she says. "Really good people leave." She adds that clients can be generous in the wake of a tragedy, but will leave if a company can't respond to their needs.
This may be one reason some executives are feeling the pressure to be prepared. "It's picked up," Emerson says of inquiries from potential clients. "This past year, we've been getting a lot of traffic through the website. Lately, we've gotten a lot of churches hitting us up."
"Believe it or not, most companies don't have a program in place," he adds. "They want to just wing it. I tell people all the time these are skills everyone should know but no one should ever use. What used to be 'the wrong place at the wrong time' is now anyplace at any time."