Every year at the General Motors factory Family Days celebration in Flint, Mich., the plant foreman would ask the workers’ children, “Do you want to work here like your mama or your daddy when you grow up?” And every year, Xavier Peterson would hold his mother’s hand and politely answer, “No, I want to be a businessman or a fireman.”
“I never thought that I was going to be an athlete or an actor or anything but a businessman or a fireman,” said Peterson, 47, the CEO of Quality Investigations Security Services in Henderson, also known as QI.
He fulfilled his business dream with room to spare. Armed with a new $63 million federal contract, he’s built his security business into a national powerhouse with 390 employees and become an example of what a determined Nevada small-business owner can achieve.
Upon graduating from high school, Peterson’s plan was to bypass college, serve 20 years in the military then start a company. He chose the Air Force because he wanted to see the world and gather cultural experiences that would help him when he started his business.
Even though he had been stationed in Europe during his time in the service, the Air Force promise of world travel had really never “panned out as advertised,” he said. So when he left the Air Force, he took a job with a security company in the Marshall Islands and embraced the opportunity to learn more about the people and culture of the South Pacific. During his three years on the Marshall Islands, he put his military training to use and honed his skills in security law enforcement and investigations.
He accepted a transfer to Las Vegas in 1992 when the overseas company secured a contract to provide security services to the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser.
“I always tell people I came to Las Vegas because of Jerry Lewis,” he said.
But in 1995, the association moved to Los Angeles and the security company shut down its Las Vegas operations. He was offered an assignment in Kuwait but decided to stay in Nevada.
“By that time, I had kind of gotten a foot in the door with several people,” said Peterson. Peterson licensed his first business in 1996 working in partnership with people who funded the opportunity.
Peterson watched and learned as the Las Vegas market boomed, stabilized then imploded. His target market was high-end housing communities and elite business owners.
“I didn’t think that there was a rope that prevented me from going across those areas,” he remembered. “I wanted those big gated communities, the best the casinos had to offer, not the scraps.”
By 2001, he separated from the original arrangement, took the assets and partnered with QI, which was then owned by a local businessman. By 2004, he had bought out his partner.
“When you’ve got someone else that’s funding you, you don’t have that ‘business anxiety,’” Peterson said. “I didn’t have that anxiety of, ‘How are we going to make payroll?’ ‘How are we going to pay for insurance?’ So I really (needed) to take this on and say, ‘I’m in business for myself now.’ ”
He had a vision for his company. But when the market started to change, people suggested he should set his sights lower.
As customers realized they could no longer afford his company’s services during the recession, Peterson saw those relationships fizzle.
“When things were going good and money was flowing, everything was good but when the recession hit, companies realized they needed ‘A through Z business practices’ to survive,” Peterson said. “And they didn’t know the alphabet yet.”
An early mistake, Peterson acknowledged, was that his portfolio was too heavily concentrated in high-end real estate when Las Vegas’ real estate market was growing.
“I never wanted to go do security at the Taco Bell parking lot. I never wanted to do convention work,” he said.
People advised him to lower his prices and services to keep his clients.
“If two customers make up 60 percent of your revenue, when they cut service, what do you do with the trucks and employees?” he said. “That’s a call that I never prepared for.”
He learned the hard way that a business relationship based on one specific person is precarious if that person moves on or retires.
“You find out you weren’t in the will,” he said so “it might be time for recalibrating.”
He had to build on existing relationships that he never wanted to end but also meet new businesses and individuals to bring into his portfolio.
“Diversify. It’s so important to expand and not be limited to one industry,” he advised.
He said his company provides services to many different industries now.
“If the opportunities aren’t in Las Vegas, maybe they are in (Arizona), maybe Utah or California,” he remembered.
“I can’t be limited to how Clark County is doing at the moment because I was never in charge of how Clark County was doing in the first place,” he said emphatically.
In 2004, Peterson applied for and entered the Small Business Administration 8 (a) program. The nine-year program business development program certifies small businesses considered to be socially and economically disadvantaged. The program helps companies develop and grow through one-on-one counseling, training workshops, management and technical guidance. It also provides access to government contracting opportunities.
This year, Peterson was named the SBA’s Nevada 8(a) graduate of the year.
He was recently awarded a $63 million, five-year contract with the Department of Transportation and NASA headquarters in Washington, D. C. and a $23 million contract with Arkansas Homeland Security.
SBA spokeswoman Judith Hepburn described Peterson as determined and enthusiastic. She explained that the SBA 8(a) gave Xavier the opportunity he needed to win government contacts and grow his business.
Besides numerous local personal and commercial accounts, the QI portfolio includes Nellis and Creech Air Force bases; the DEA in Washington, D.C., Quantico, Va., Fort Worth-El Paso, Texas; and a NASA facility in Huntsville, Ala.
Jerrie Merritt, board chairman of the Las Vegas Urban Chamber of Commerce, described Peterson as the “perfect example of how to start a small business and be successful at it.”
Peterson said he fosters relationships by talking to his clients, not texting or emailing, every 90 days. Because of the growth of the company — from 42 employees in Las Vegas in 2004 to 390 employees today in nine states — he may not be the person that personally makes the phone call. But the person in charge of that account will make that call, he said.
Natalie Allred, former vice president of management at American Nevada Co., said, “Xavier always treated our account with the utmost care with a sense of priority and genuine concern.” The 15-year association included providing security and consulting for a portfolio of more than 3 million square feet of commercial properties.
Peterson recognizes what worked in the past or the present may not work in the future. He said his challenge is to learn from each experience and to grow and recalibrate.
“By 2020, I’d like to have an international presence,” said the Henderson businessman who was once a kid from Flint, Mich., with a big dream and determination.
For Xavier Peterson, small business success comes from adhering to a set of axioms:
We are not a nonprofit. We are expected to make money.
Be patient. Understand your market.
Don’t be a good small business. Be a good business person, period!
Your product or service is a function. If you don’t have infrastructure, it doesn’t matter if you have a good product or service.
You’ve got to pay your bills.
Your business needs checks and balances. As the business grows, the structure must evolve.
Reassess skills. Don’t stop growing because your staff needs more training. Invest in education and technology.
Don’t limit yourself.
Be aggressive with opportunities, be open to the fact that sometimes you will hit the ball and sometimes you will miss but keep batting.
Hire a person but with a placement in mind.
People will tell you things in an interview if you listen.
Don’t get bogged down with all that extra communication. Not everyone gets an opinion or a vote.
You either have ethics or you don’t.
You either have integrity or you don’t. Don’t ever be a person who would undo what you would do if you got caught.
Keep your standards. Either this is right or it’s not.
My silence is acceptance.