Planned Improvisation

In today’s turbulent business landscape, the business models that worked in the past are often no longer relevant, and leaders must devise new approaches to a changing marketplace. This is especially true of the not-for-profit sector, where societies and associations have been forced to become more self-sufficient. One example in that sector offers lessons for all of us.The ProblemFor most of its 81-year history, Commissionaires BC has provided jobs to former military and police personnel, primarily guarding government buildings and offering other manpower services the public requires. A member-based society, it depended almost exclusively on governments for revenue, which in 1998 reached $14 million and supported 600 member employees. Throughout the 1990s, changes to tax rules – along with government campaigns to diminish funding for not-for-profits – all but killed the way the organization had operated for most of its life. By the late ’90s, Commissionaires BC found itself bereft of a viable business model and began a search for a new one.The SolutionUnder new CEO and president Allen Batchelar, Commissionaires BC began a sweeping change of its operating model in 1998. The first step was to recognize that it was in fact a business, albeit a not-for-profit one, and to begin by formulating a strategic plan. That forced the organization to assess its strengths and survey its options for revenue-producing services. The plan identified its primary strength as its large force of experienced security providers; it also recognized an opportunity to offer higher-value services in an industry that was fast becoming a low-paying, low-value business. Its value proposition would be to offer higher-value security services to buildings, workplaces and institutions of all kinds. The organization launched a plan that has helped it become B.C.’s largest security company.

Over time this brand promise, as much internal as external, led to recognition of other areas of Commissionaires BC expertise. For example, it always conducted fingerprinting services when asked, but had never really gone beyond that. As identity security became important, particularly after 9/11, it quickly moved into providing identification services of all kinds. Today the organization provides digital fingerprinting, digital background checks and other identity services.

But the application of its strengths didn’t stop there. Now it also provides bylaw enforcement and related services to smaller B.C. municipalities. It has moved into security, first-aid and tourism training. Most recently, it has launched a business continuity consulting service. (Senior vice-president of operations Douglas Stuckel, for example, recently earned a designation as an anti-terrorist expert.)

Today Commissionaires BC has doubled its revenue to $30 million a year; it employs 1,600 members and is on a path of strong growth.Lessons

  • Know your own skills and then improve on them. A new model requires a new value proposition.
  • Stay focused on the vision. Organizational change can take years to play out, and it’s easy to be attracted by short-term opportunities that present an easier way.
  • Bring discipline to your new business direction. You must be tenacious in blazing a new path, but flexible enough to recognize and seize the opportunities that arise.