Matthew Lickona 11:11 a.m., May 23
Battle of the Bouncers - Concert Security Wars
Local Firms Fight for Rights to Bounce You
Local Firms Fight for Rights to Bounce You
Your average concertgoer rarely pays much attention to event security. Most of what they do goes on out of our view, at least if they’re doing their job right. Sure, it’s nice to know they’re around, just in case someone falls down, something blows up or all hell breaks loose. If you ask them nicely, they can even help wrest your seat back from surly trespassers.
However, unless you’re trying to do something you’re not supposed to do, such as take pictures, smoke dope, sneak in, stage dive, expose your naughty bits, or fight with fellow patrons, you’ve not likely worried much about the (usually) big guys (and sometimes gals) standing (or prowling) around (or behind, or overhead, or sometimes beneath the stage risers…) .
Just whose hands are we in when we take in a local show? Backing up a few years, we first find Los Angeles based Staffpro Inc., the longest lived event security company serving San Diego clients.
Two newer firms, Omni and Elite Show Services, were initially run by former Staffpro employees who chose to go head to head with their previous bosses, vying for their own slices of the San Diego event pie. The competition and rivalry has been, at times, as messy and bruising as any mosh pit encounter, especially between Staffpro and Elite.
“I did not quit,” former Staffpro co-owner Gus Kontopuls told me. He’d been with that company since 1984, when it was known as Event Management, until his departure in February 1995.
“I was locked out of my office. When I showed up for work, I was not allowed into my office by security guards.” Kontopuls would go on to purchase, along with his brother, a small existing security company called Elite. Within a short time, he transformed Elite into Staffpro’s main competitor in the local security game.
I asked Kontopuls what prompted his initial departure/ousting from Staffpro. “I had huge philosophical differences with my partner [Cory Meredith] about how the company should be run, from an operational and ethical standpoint. I also felt that having the majority ownership in Los Angeles wasn’t serving my San Diego clients properly. The San Diego branch was in total disarray.”
At that time, Kontopuls’ office was at the Convention Center. “I was kind of exiled there, put out to pasture for the most part. He [Meredith] just wanted me out of the way, and once they did that, the company started falling apart. The concert, hotel and the entertainment divisions.”
Subsequent to his departure, Kontopuls fired the first legal salvo. “The advice from my attorney was to initiate a lawsuit for breach of my employment contract. I was a stockholder in the company, so there was also a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit. I didn’t have any income, they cut off my paycheck, and I was pretty much left sitting with what I had in my savings account.”
“I filed for unemployment, and Staffpro basically lied to the unemployment people as to what the circumstances were. They said I quit to start my own company, and I said I was locked out. At that point, my future was uncertain because I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Kontopuls’ contribution to Staffpro’s growth and success is a major point in the suit he filed against Staffpro at El Cajon Superior Court. “I acquired 90% of the San Diego business for the company, like the Convention Center and Bill Silva Presents.”
Kontopuls’ relationship with Silva, in fact, predated his employment with Staffpro. “I brought Bill Silva along when I went to work for Cory at Event. I’m the one who negotiated everything, went to all the meetings.”
When asked about that lucrative Silva contract, Staffpro General Manager Hugh Kollar told me “I don’t know if he [Kontopuls] was the guy or if it was Cory Meredith. As I understand it, Cory was the one who started the company, and Gus just happened to be the guy who worked for Cory down there.”
After Kontopuls left Staffpro, Kollar moved from Orange County to San Diego, to bring the branch “solid, stable management.”
Kollar did acknowledge to me that Kontopuls had “a great deal of savvy and knowledge about our operations” and that Staffpro was “concerned with the prospect of him [Kontopuls] using those trade secrets in a rival operation.”
Kontopuls is emphatic in his claim that Staffpro made it impossible for him to get work from other security firms. “I went to talk to a couple of companies about working for them, and they treated me like I was radioactive. Cory was telling people that anybody who hired me was going to get sued, because he pretty much had an exclusive on my life.”
“It’s all in the contacts,” said Kollar at Staffpro, “and when someone has the contacts, they’ve got the inside track on getting the job. If someone else is signing your paycheck while you get those contacts, how fair is it to try and take that business with you when you start up a competing company?”
Kontopuls said that going into business for himself became his only option, and several Staffpro employees came over to his new company along with him, including Director Of Operations Brian Mulder. Many of the guards at Staffpro were initially willing to work for Elite as well, some quitting Staffpro to do so, but Kontopuls said this caused Staffpro to throw another roadblock in his way.
“They did file a lawsuit against me, to try and shut me down but they were unsuccessful,” said Kontopuls. Court papers show that Staffpro attempted to place a temporary emergency injunction against Elite, forbidding them from conducting unfairly competitive business. The injunction was filed just days before the start of the baseball season.
“The judge just looked at them and laughed,” said Kontopuls. “He said their case had no merit, ‘take it to court and fight like adults instead of trying to shut this guy down on the eve of his first big event’.”
In addition to the court injunction, Staffpro also circulated among its employees a paper which they all had to sign, stating that they were not allowed to plug into any competing security firms.
Did Kontopuls feel singled out for such actions, since Staffpro never initiated any similar proceeding against Omni, another company founded by ex-Staffpro people?
“Absolutely. They actually sent supervisors out to the Pacific Beach Block Party, which was one of the first events I did. They had their supervisors tell people ‘If you don’t quit and walk off the post right now, you’re fired from Staffpro.’ Then they’d allow their employees to work for other companies, just not mine. If they called and said they wanted to work for Omni at Street Scene, or something like that, they were allowed to do it, but if they asked to work for Elite, they’d get a no.”
Kollar did indeed back up Kontopuls assertion, but only somewhat. “Sure, Omni and I are friendly competitors. We communicate and we talk, we help each other.”
In fact, Staffpro and Omni were subcontracting work back and forth at the time. When Staffpro manned a local U2 concert, several Omni employees were hired for the evening. Omni put several Staffpro employees on the payroll to help with at least one San Diego Street Scene.
About the exclusivity agreement Staffpro employees were required to sign, Kollar admitted to me “Yes, that did happen. Because of the situation that existed at that time, Staffpro was forced to do that. There was a lot of company information being taken.”
Though Kollar could not be more specific about the information he was referring to (“I don’t think that’s important now”), he did say that he didn’t support the decision.
“The management didn’t feel that it was healthy to let people work for other companies. But, the day I went down there, that changed.”
Kollar said he instituted a policy making it clear that Staffpro employees were welcome to also work for other security companies, if they wish. “In fact, I encourage it. We don’t have a problem. A lot of these guys are part timers trying to make some extra money, and we’re not going to stop them from making ends meet.”
Kontopuls laughed off Kollar’s statement, and said this hasn’t been the case. “Not at all. I’ve never heard of a letter being circulated saying that the policy has been dismissed. I still talk to people who say they’d love to do some work for me, but they know they’ll get fired from Staffpro if they do.”
When asked about his own relationship with Omni, the other Staffpro spin-off, Kontopuls didn’t exactly scramble for superlatives.
“They have their little niche. They do small club shows and they do Street Scene. Omni did refer some work [to us] during the Republican Convention and, I don’t want to get into details but I’ll never conduct business with those guys again. They’re just a competitor, as far as I’m concerned.”
Much of Elite’s eventual ascendance was attributable, said Kontopuls, to the operational differences between his company and Staffpro.
“We really stress the customer service aspect of the industry, and we treat the fans as guests of the event instead of going in there with a Nazi stormtrooper attitude. We’re not attracting your basic, I don’t want to say thug, but you know the kind of guy who can lift a ton but can’t spell it? We only hire about one in eight people who walk in our door.”
He added that Elite employees take a four hour customer service class, several hours of first aid and CPR certification, and particular attention is paid to training in alcohol awareness. “I tried to do this [at Staffpro] but was unsuccessful at it.”
What, in his opinion, most set Elite apart from his main competitor? “I’d say the honesty and integrity of senior management. And the fact that we’re locally owned and operated.”
When I relayed those quotes to Kollar, he wanted it known that Staffpro’s people receive much the same orientation. “They’re trained in techniques of alcohol management. They’re supervised, they know what to look for. One of my competitors once said that if you pay your people peanuts, you get monkeys. I don’t believe that. I believe if you supervise your people, treat them good, they’ll provide a good service for you.”
Regarding the lawsuits between Staffpro and Elite, Kontopuls reported that both sides settled long ago, though terms of that settlement are confidential.
Kollar confirmed that. “There’s plenty of work in San Diego for everyone,” he said, with a thoroughly convinced (if not entirely convincing) tone of finality. “As long as supervisors are loyal and do what they’re supposed to do, it’s not that big a deal.”
Another competitor entered the local Bouncer Wars in 2000. XL Staffing And Security has around 220 staffers dressed to the nines and working around town at about two dozen venues. Their initial contracts included On Broadway (the company’s first client), Aubergine, Stingaree, Ole Madrid, and 94th Aero Squadron.
XL has even become involved in a proposed reality TV show, with footage was shot at Mardi Gras and several clubs downtown. XL Staffing And Security owner Joe Mackey told the Reader “[The show will] mostly focus on our staff, and how they command in suits and ties instead of windbreakers and tattoos. As far as patrons go, we’re still working out how the releases [to appear] will go…people being confronted or asked to leave will probably end up in the show, provided they sign the release.”
Mackey says his family-owned company owns a portion of the program, along with MTV/VH1 producer Rob Cohen. “I wanted to make sure I get something close to final say over what airs. I don’t want them to shoot three months’ of tape and then they accidentally catch someone doing some little thing wrong and that’s the whole show.”
Before the reality show deal was signed, Mackey says several other TV programmers expressed interest in working with XL.
“Court TV contacted us about doing a show. ‘Wife Swap’ wanted to have one of our female guards do a show for them…around ten percent of our staff is female. Fremantle Media, who do American Idol, they wanted us to do a show called ‘Bounced,’ where every episode ends with someone getting physically booted from someplace. We told them that’s not what we’re about.”
“I didn’t want to handle a bunch of thugs…our staffers specialize in communication, not intimidation. They go through forty hours of training covering everything from powers to arrest, club drug awareness, verbal Jujitsu, handcuff training, CPR and first aid, and there are monthly classes that are mandatory to attend. We do background checks going back ten years with the Department Of Justice and the FBI and, before they’re hired, we do a psychological profile to ensure they’re not prone to violence.”