Business Q & A

A conversation with Curtis Whitten

Almost as long as Curtis Whitten can remember, he's wanted to be in law enforcement.

He has certainly accomplished that goal and now has more than 20 years in the field. In 2005, he converted his existing business, VendTech Enterprises, to a full-service security firm.

"I've always been fascinated by law enforcement," Whitten said. "I enjoy working with the public."

His career journey began shortly after he left his home in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1980 to play football at Wichita State University.

Besides starting as a safety for the Shockers, Whitten also graduated with a degree in criminal justice.

His career has included working for the state's corrections department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He has held two positions with Sedgwick County, first as a probation officer and later as an investigator for the public defender's office.

VendTech provides armed and unarmed security for commercial and government facilities, does background checks and private investigations and serves subpoenas. Among its government contracts are the city of Wichita's Downtown Transit Center, the Historical Society Museum in Topeka and Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.

Whitten, 47, recently was named the 2009 Minority Small Business Person of the Year for the Wichita district of the U.S. Small Business Administration. He began taking part in the SBA's 8(a) business development program about five years ago.

He's also active in the community, serving as co-chair of the Governor's Task Force on Racial Profiling, chair of Kansas African-American Affairs Commission and a leader in youth football.

You started VendTech in 1998 as a vending machine business, but you didn't change names when you converted to security work four year ago. Why?

"We were already 8(a) certified, and I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. I knew the drill. I didn't want to go through a rebranding.

"Our target market is really the federal government. So it just seemed to be an easier transition to keep the name because the government isn't hung up on names."

What drove you out of the vending machine business?

"It was labor intense, capital heavy. The competition here was very intense. There was just me and one employee, and I was still working full time for the public defender's office. A lot of long hours, not a lot of rest."

You've done about everything in the law enforcement field except work as a police officer. Why?

"I have great respect for those in that area, but I thought it was too slow. And by that I'm not talking about action and excitement. I like being able to do different things every day. New challenges. In the security business, no day is the same."

How did the transition play out in 2005 as you switched VendTech from vending to security work

"There was just one guy — myself. I kept my public defender's job through 2008, so I still had a steady paycheck coming.

"We'd pick up parties here and there. We started very slow.

"It gave us a chance to grow. Now we have about 35 employees. I'm an entrepreneur. It was the perfect fit."

What's the biggest challenge of a security firm?

"Finding qualified employees. It's easier with federal contracts, because for the most part we retain the employees already in place. Most of those guys have past law enforcement experience or have worked for other security agencies.

"But in other areas, finding qualified people is a challenge. Finding people who can actually pass a background check is one of our major issues.

"A lot of people think if they can walk and chew gum, they can do the job. Put any Joe Blow in a uniform and he can do it. But there's a lot more to it than that.

"You want people who are in shape so they look the part. But they also need to be articulate. We're there to be a deterrent. If a person is articulate, a lot of potentially difficult situations can be avoided."

Are concerns for security issues increasing the market for your business on the commercial side?

"It's one of those industries that's growing. When you talk about security, it's a wide area. You're also talking about surveillance."

"Finding contracts is a challenge. And it's more of a challenge in Wichita, because it's such a small market. It's not a major metropolitan city where people see security as a need.

"That's another reason why we decided our primary focus would be federal government. But we're adding bits and pieces (of commercial work) in Wichita."