24 Oct 2013
Engineering a More Secure World
A personal mission has shaped Anthony Harris's (MBA 1979) professional career.Re: Damaune Journey (MBA 2005)by Francis StorrsTopics:
by Francis Storrs
On April 14, 2013, a sheriff's deputy pulled over a truck cruising down Interstate 55 in Mississippi. What started as a routine traffic stop became more serious when the deputy noticed scratches around the gas tank and began to suspect it was transporting contraband. He grabbed a CSECO Fiberscope—a fiber-optic inspection device that resembles a plumber's snake—and fed it into the gas tank. He peered into the scope's eyepiece.
"Generally, if you interdict a northbound vehicle, you find guns, drugs, and identification documents," says Anthony Harris (MBA 1979), president and CEO of the Fiberscope's maker, Campbell/Harris Security Equipment Company (CSECO). "If you catch vehicles going southbound, you generally interdict cash." This truck was going south: In the tank, in dozens of bundles sealed in plastic, was $547,620 in cash.
Hearing stories like that, Harris knows he's in the right line of work. Alameda, California–based CSECO, the world's leader in portable contraband-detection equipment, has a customer list that includes the Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, and about 60 foreign governments. But Harris's satisfaction is as much personal as professional. "I come from inner-city Chicago, an area that was decimated by drugs," the 60 year old says. "To think we can do something to prevent some young people from following the wrong path is quite fulfilling."
As an undergrad at Purdue University in the early 1970s, Harris saw lots of classmates veer down the wrong path. Seeing the high failure rate among minority students, he joined a campus group of black engineers, where, he says, "Our entire objective was to help keep each other from flunking out." In his senior year, Harris took the idea nationwide by cofounding the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). As the NSBE approaches its 40th anniversary next year, its 400 chapters and 30,000 members make it the largest student-run organization in the country.
Harris applied to HBS after eye-opening internships at Shell and American Can Company. "All the guys who were making the decisions in the corner offices had advanced degrees," he recalls. "I wanted to call the shots." At HBS, Harris learned about leadership and motivating teams, citing courses such as Industrial Marketing and Production and Operations Management.
Harris approached the three decades after HBS as if he were tackling case studies in entrepreneurship. From executive positions at utility companies and owning a car dealership, to launching a Silicon Valley startup, each of "the starts and stops were learning opportunities—they led to where I am now," he says. And each helped him create a model for the kind of business he ultimately wanted to run.
In the middle of the last decade, Harris submitted a detailed list of parameters for his ideal business to his network of HBS, Purdue, and NSBE alums. The leads came rolling in. "People generally really want to help you, but they don't know how," Harris says. "It's pretty easy to get help if you can be specific about what you're looking for." He bought CSECO in 2006.
Seven years later, another deal might now be on the horizon. Two of Harris's employees—his son and director of domestic sales, Anthony Curry Harris, and his director of international sales, Damaune Journey (MBA 2005)—are hoping to buy CSECO. Harris says that would certainly give him more time to serve on boards, such as the nonprofit SFJazz, which recently opened a $64 million performance center, and to consult. In fact, a buyout would suit him nicely. "I still want to be intellectually challenged," Harris says with a laugh. "Just without the financial exposure."
Class of MBA 1979, Section I