It would be so easy to write the cliché. Here's John Brown, born in poverty 47 years ago, now living in one of Columbia's finest subdivisions. A black boy from the country who didn't know what indoor bathrooms were until he went to school, now living in a mansion with 10. A teen-ager who raced school buses for fun, now racing race cars and driving a Mercedes - more than one. Another highway patrolman working wrecks in the rain, now flying first-class around the world to get business for his own company.
It's a great rags-to-riches story, and you can al-most see it in the movies. Lots of drama and strife, with a triumphant ending and victorious music.
But hold it. Something makes all that seem fake. And that's Brown himself, probably one of the most unfake people around. Brown had that million-dollar smile way before he made his first million seven years ago. He had it as a child, he had it as the first black security officer at the governor's mansion, and he has it now as CEO of the largest minority-owned security business in America. You can bet he'll have it when he becomes a billionaire in the next several years.
"People used to say, `There's that John Brown, always smiling,' " said Brown, smiling. "That was my trademark."
Once, the chief of security at the governor's mansion told him to quit smiling. "He said, `You got to look mean and tough!' And I told him, `Chief, I don't know how to frown.' "
And so John Brown - multimillionaire, workaholic, drag race lover and unquestionable success - is also an incredibly likable man. He wins over waitresses, executives, reporters and governors.
"I call him my black son," said former governor John West, whose wife and daughter were under the care of Brown in the early '70s. "He's like a member of the family."
West says his wife Lois and daughter Shelton became very attached to him during their years in the governor's mansion. Today, Lois West is on the board of Am-Pro Protective Agency, Inc., the company Brown started in 1982, and they're proud of his success. Maybe even a little surprised. "I knew he had a lot of ambition," West said. "Ordinarily we think a guy has to have a college education to go up in the world, but he's got qualities of leadership and that's what counts."
Brown's education is from C.A. Johnson High School, Palmer Junior College and Columbia Business College. But he'll tell you a lot of his education came from his three years in the Army - 13 months of which were spent in Vietnam - and his 13-year career with the South Carolina Highway Patrol. To him, education isn't half as important as exposure.
"Let me tell you something, darling. You know what life is all about? Life is about being exposed. If you don't get exposed to anything, you don't know any better. If we don't expose people to the possibilities in life, then they will never dream, they will never have the vision, they will never have the desire. If you keep somebody in captivity, if you keep somebody in the country, then that will never happen."
John Brown on his soapbox is as mesmerizing as any old-time politician or preacher. He fumes, he gestures, he laughs, he springs from his chair in excitement. No doubt his convictions come from his own experience. "Exposure's everything! And that's why some people get ahead faster than others, and people don't understand that. They think, `Well, that person is smarter than me or this person is better than me.' That person is no better; that person was exposed."
Growing up in Richtex, 15 miles north of Columbia, made for a pretty unexposed childhood. Young John Brown, with his three sisters and one brother, churned milk into butter, hauled water from a spring and ate syrup with cornbread. But he had ambition even then, and he told his cousin he'd be a millionaire one day. He wasn't sure how, but he would. That cousin still reminds him of that.
Brown found his fortune when he noticed a need he thought he could meet. There weren't enough security officers to provide protection at state functions and other events. Law enforcement officers were pushed to the max trying to meet the demands. Brown saw the beginnings of his own business, and Am-Pro was founded. Am-Pro stands for "I Am a Professional," a name he hit upon after much thought. "It was different. It was catchy. It fits with what I want to be," he said. A more obvious choice, "Brown's Security," was too "country" for him.
Am-Pro today is an empire, with 1,400 employees across the country and revenues of $40 million. Am-Pro has protected Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles and Boris Yeltsin. It provides security for the headquarters of four federal government agencies in Washington - the Department of Energy, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of State and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Am-Pro also is responsible for security for the DOE's national laboratories in Illinois, the State Department's Mission to the United Nations in New York and its Passport/Visa Operations Center in New Hampshire.
Outside the United States, Am-Pro handles security for the US Army Strategic Defense Command in the Marshall Islands and at Camp Doha in Kuwait. On a local level, Am-Pro has contracts with the University of South Carolina, BellSouth, BMW, E.I. Dupont, Fluor Daniel, Amick Processing and Darlington International Raceway, among others.
Compared to some private security companies, Am-Pro is small. But its reputation is growing, and Brown feels his company at last is "part of the club." His goal is not to be the biggest security company, but the best. "The most important thing is to deliver service that is second to none, and that no one in the entire world can stand up and say they can do what we do better."
Though much of Am-Pro's work is in Washington, its headquarters remain in Columbia. "I grew up here and have such an allegiance to this place," Brown said, cruising down the interstate in his Mercedes 600 SEC. He nodded at the overgrown fields off the highway in northeast Columbia. They remind him of the fields where he picked berries and plums as a child, of the dirt road that led to the Broad River, where he fished with his uncle. He's not nostalgic for those days, nor does he miss his life in the governor's mansion or as a highway patrolman and sheriff's deputy. He's grown away from that. But he never forgets.
In his expensive office of dark wood and leather, Brown keeps a black-and-white photo of himself as a child. The smile is there, but his collar looks frayed. Dressing well took time and help; when he and his wife Gwen were dating, they "nearly fell out" when she told him his pants were too short. These days, Brown is likely to help a friend with a tie that's too short, or offer some other fashion advice.
Brown can't forget the poverty - and the embarrassment that went with it - and he won't forget Affirmative Action. Unlike some people who believe the need for Affirmative Action is over, Brown thinks it's necessary. "I'm a product of Affirmative Action, and I'm a product of all the civil rights things that have happened, regardless of the fact that I've never marched in a march for freedom. So for me to say it's no good and we should do away with it would be stupid. I would be forgetting where I come from. I understand where I come from. But I've seen people who sometimes forget."
He's on another soapbox. "Some people who claim they are successful get to the top and pull the ladder up. I think you need to let the ladder stay down. You need to reach down and pull other people up, and that helps America be strong; that helps the community be strong. That helps the whole environment."
Brown has put this sermon to work. A few years ago he hired Red Lanier after Lanier lost his job as colonel in charge of the highway department. Once, Brown worked for him. Today, roles are reversed and Brown says hiring Lanier is one of the best things he's done for the company.
"That's the great thing about John Brown," West said. "He remembers people who helped him."
Though primarily devoted to Am-Pro - he's out of town on business three or four days a week - Brown stays active with community projects. He's cochairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus Corporate Roundtable and a member of the Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100, United Way Board of Directors, Gillcreek Baptist Board of Trustees and South Carolina Business Network. His awards are so many he doesn't have room for them all; they're stacked against a wall in his offices at home and work. He's been a Small Businessman of the Year and South Carolina's Entrepreneur of the Year. He's won awards as a highway patrolman and the Order of the Palmetto. Some of his favorite charities are his church, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Muscular Dystrophy and the Urban League.
There are plenty of individuals who ask him for money - many who never repay it. Slowly, he's learned he can't be a one-man finance company.
Brown started Am-Pro on the side, while he was full-time with the highway patrol. He wanted more for himself, his wife and three sons - now teen-agers. His brother K.C. and childhood friend Woodrow Wilson are executive vice-presidents. The three of them know how hard it was to make Am-Pro work - the 15-hour days, the struggle for financing. It took a long time and a lot of confidence to get where they are today.
Today, employees know a mellower John Brown, one who isn't as intolerant of imperfection or apt to use a commanding military style. Stress brought on blood pressure problems, and he was forced to delegate - a trial-and-error, step-by-step process he believes difficult for any entrepreneur. In the beginning, Brown did it all: trained the officers, handled payroll and personnel, even cleaned.
But some things are the same. Brown's sense of fairness, for instance. Though his brother and two of his sisters work for Am-Pro, it's because they "qualified," he said. Other family members have been fired. And he wants his company to be hired because Am-Pro is the best, not because he's black. Merit means everything.
Brown has proven he doesn't mind doing what it takes to get what he wants. He's never been complacent; he's always been competitive. When he was a drill sergeant in the army, he slept on the floor because he didn't want to mess up his bed.
And when Am-Pro employees started a kitty a few years ago to give as a prize to the person who lost the most weight, John Brown won. K.C., his brother, came in second. But Brown knew he'd win. "I told them when we started, `Y'all might as well pay me now.' "
His laugh is big, and his smile is wide.