Jules Kroll: Danger Is His Business
With his bullet-shaped head and bulldog face, Jules B. Kroll at first glance seems like a two-fisted shamus out of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett detective yarn. It's an image Kroll has long enjoyed as he built his Kroll Associates into the country's leading private-eye agency. But over the past year, Kroll has moved far beyond the corporate investigative work for which he has become so well known.
Affable, low-key, and wearing his trademark suspenders bearing images of palm trees or ancient Greek statues, Kroll, 57, has branched into a wide array of diversified ventures to tap more deeply into the $4.6 billion global security market. In the process, he has had to learn quickly to manage a much larger and more sprawling organization. "This is quite a challenge," says a characteristically deadpan Kroll.
That's for sure. In December, 1997, Kroll combined his privately held New York-based Kroll Associates Inc. with O'Gara Co., a publicly traded armored-car maker. The deal gave Kroll access to the public markets, enabling him to spend $47 million to gobble up a drug-testing service, a surveillance-camera company, and an accounting firm specializing in fraud detection. More acquisitions are on the way.
SAFETY FIRST. So far, the new Kroll-O'Gara Co. is enjoying boom times, largely thanks to a flare-up in kidnappings and assassinations abroad. The company's stock has doubled over the past year, to 25, while 1998's operating earnings through June 30 soared 42%, to $12.8 million, on $112 million in sales--50% of which came from overseas. "It's a dangerous world out there," says Howard I. Smith, executive vice-president of insurer American International Group Inc., Kroll's biggest client and the holder of an 8% stake in the firm. "It's good to have Jules on your side."
Indeed, Kroll is doing all he can to make sure nervous executives know what he can do for them. In early October, he flew to Mexico City, scene of a spate of recent kidnappings, to expand his office and to reassure a gathering of clients that "our mission is to make the world safer." With global terrorism on the rise and corporate executives increasingly the target of crime, Kroll has shown once again his canny knack for spotting opportunity. In the late 1970s, he helped create a new market for corporate investigations. A onetime Manhattan assistant district attorney, he realized that corporations would pay big for an investigative firm that could dig out employee fraud and other malfeasance. He recruited a savvy coterie of former CIA spies, FBI agents, and prosecutors by paying them as much as twice their public-sector salaries.
But there's more to Kroll's success than waving big paychecks at top talent. He has long inspired loyalty among his staff by remembering the names of even the lowliest clerical workers. He once even lent one promising young investigator the downpayment for his house. The personable Kroll is an avid schmoozer, too. When he nailed down the O'Gara deal last year, he immediately called dozens of staffers. But, recalls longtime associate Joseph R. Rosetti, "he said I was one of three people he was calling. I had to laugh. Jules likes to make you feel special."
Now, the question is whether such folksy management will work at a larger empire. Although it was O'Gara that bought Kroll Associates for $81 million in stock, Kroll is CEO and chairman of the combined outfit and is its largest shareholder with a 17% stake. "I like running my own business," says Kroll. Wilfred "Bill" O'Gara, formerly O'Gara Co.'s CEO and now Kroll-O'Gara's No. 2 officer, says landing Kroll was worth the demotion. "Yielding authority isn't easy," says O'Gara, whose family owns 16% of the company, "but we wanted Jules."
To learn the O'Gara side of the business, Kroll now spends time hanging out in its armored-car factories in Mexico City and Fairfield, Ohio. He's also traveling the globe to ferret out new acquisitions. And having added employee drug-testing to his portfolio at home, he's looking to move into the lucrative field of background checks for sensitive jobs such as airline pilots.
TIME LAPSES. A marathon worker, he packs his days with a dozen or so meetings at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between, then works his five phone lines from his Rye (N.Y.) estate, on the shore of Long Island Sound. His few indulgences include taking his four grown kids on exotic vacations, eating out at pricey restaurants with his wife of three decades, Lynn, and frolicking with his three dogs--Tonka, Twyla, and Thorgis--on the beach in front of his house.
Kroll has long since given up tracking cases himself, but he retains a bit of the eccentricity of a private eye from central casting. Back when he started the firm, he quit wearing a watch so he could better focus. He maintains the habit, saying: "I need to concentrate on what I'm doing without the distraction on my wrist." Although his secretary keeps him on time for important meetings with clients, Kroll is often late for staff meetings. "That can tee you off," says Rosetti, a 21-year Kroll veteran. "But what can you do?"
Kroll still exudes the no-holds-barred attitude that long ago won him notice in the executive suite. He once saved his client, Avon Products Inc., from a hostile takeover bid by Amway Corp. by unearthing embarrassing details about a top Amway executive's personal finances. Kroll has demonstrated that toughness since his days playing high school basketball in Queens, N.Y. "He was like one of those bulldogs that bites you and never lets go," recalls teammate Paul A. Goldberger, now a New York attorney.
Kroll is much more than a clean-shaven tough guy in an expensive suit, however. Associates say he has a photographic memory for details, names, and faces. When briefed on a case, he can speed up results by picking out a seemingly peripheral person involved, linking him to some long-ago scandal. "When you hit a wall," says Steven M. Rucker, executive managing director, "Jules can still come up with an answer."
Consider the time in 1992 when the Kremlin hired the firm to hunt down government money spirited out of Russia by corrupt officials. In one file Kroll happened to glance at, he spotted the name of an obscure American money manager. Kroll remembered that the financier had been suspected of money laundering years before. His hunch led to a huge stash of hidden assets.
COOL CUSTOMER. Despite his charisma and his knack for remembering names, Kroll flopped at his chosen career--politics. While at Georgetown University School of Law, he worked part-time for Robert F. Kennedy, then a U.S. senator from New York, before heading off to the Manhattan D.A.'s office to handle corruption cases. But when he got a chance to actually run for office, Kroll lost the 1971 primary for New York City Council by a wide margin.
Looking back on the debacle, Kroll sees it as a blessing in disguise. Using his background as a prosecutor, he got into detective work, at first specializing in printing-industry embezzling scams. His big break came in 1980, when drug wholesaler Foremost-McKesson Inc. (now McKesson Corp.) hired him to investigate Victor Posner, who was then mounting a takeover bid. His findings remain confidential, but the raider backed oFf and Kroll became a luminary to the corporate establishment. Another high-profile job was tracking down Saddam Hussein's hidden assets in the West, which authorities seized.
Even as CEO, his line of work has its perils. When his firm was on the scent of Saddam Hussein, Kroll gathered his wife and kids around the kitchen table and warned them to be on guard for possible attacks. "He didn't get excited," says son Jeremy, "though we knew there was real cause for concern." That's Jules Kroll: cool, collected, and ready for business--the 1990s answer to Philip Marlowe.