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Anthony Zagami: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of SISCO

Trust your instincts, hire good people. Ask the right questions and do the right checks and hire them for the jobs that you do not need to do. Time is your enemy there isn’t enough of it in a day for a CEO, delegate and verify. Build a reporting network that supplies the summary information you need to pilot the ship and leave the minutia for others to handle.

Do what you do best, meaning, stay focused on the business at hand and what you spent years building. Distraction is very common when you become successful and could take you off the path of a successful business. All that glitters is not gold.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Zagami.

Mr. Zagami has over 40 years’ experience founding companies that develop security systems and software solutions. His early professional development includes classified engineering and design work in the aerospace industry with companies like Lockheed, Curtiss-Wright, and Grumman.

In 1979 Mr. Zagami founded Fair Security Systems, which developed and operated the largest radio central alarm monitoring facility in the New York area. In 1985, he patented an electronic detection system still used in the corrections industry today. In 1990, he founded AVS Engineering a security consulting firm that designed, integrated, and assisted in the installation of high-security access control and weapons detection systems for large military sites including CCTV, perimeter detection, and access controls for a diverse roster of clients, including Rikers Island Correctional Institution, Bacardi Rum Headquarters, New York State Department of Corrections, and Timex Corporation.

Mr. Zagami founded SISCO in 1994 which specialized in maritime security and safety systems. In 1995 SISCO was awarded a fleet contract to supply a solution that would photograph and identify all crew, passengers, vendors and visitors boarding and deboarding Princess Cruise Line vessels. Since then all major cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Costa, Norwegian, Dream Cruises, Celebrity, AIDA, etc.) have contracted with SISCO for A-PASS® which has become the de-facto industry standard. SISCO developed and patented Fast-Pass, a technology used daily to credential hundreds of thousands of people daily in hospitals, schools, commercial buildings, jails, and many other facilities since it was first introduced and installed in 1999 in NYPD Headquarters in NYC. In 2004, SISCO pioneered a customized version of Fast-Pass® that was credited in playing a key role in Accenture winning the contract (US-Visit) for the protection of all U.S. Borders.

Mr. Zagami has a BS Degree in Engineering and an AAS Degree in Accounting and Finance. He has been published in trade publications and lectured on the subject of electronic security systems and their application in combating terrorism. He has been featured on FOX, CBS and NBC News, as well as numerous periodicals and radio broadcasts. He periodically lectures at the Maritime Security Council-Coast Guard events, Seatrade (Maritime) conferences and the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) annual trade conferences.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After selling my alarm monitoring company in New York, my wife and I moved to South Florida to semi-retire. In 1993, we took a trip to Greece and boarded a small ship to cruise the Greek Islands. Throughout the cruise, I noticed that the boarding and deboarding process was inadequate to provide an accurate account of the passengers on or off the ship. Studying the business case, asking many questions throughout the cruise and months later, I developed an idea for a product that may solve the problem.

Software and devices were needed to be able to electronically record the passenger, crew or visitor boarding or de-boarding the ship. I hired a software engineer and we rolled up our sleeves and developed a process on the basis of what I have seen. In a few months, we had a crude working prototype, which we named A-PASS and I re-emerged from retirement. In 1994, Security Identification Systems Corporation aka SISCO was formed and we started to market the product to the Cruise lines.

With a stroke of luck, some good friends and business acquaintances we made a sale to Princess Cruise lines and today we are the De-facto Standard in the Marine industry on 106 vessels. Then, with a company of 19 people strong we were not finished by a long shot as we knew the Cruise Line market had a limited audience and we had to come up with another product and market that could carry the company further. I noticed a void in almost every industry in that Access Control accounted for the employees electronically but nothing but a paper logbook for visitors was used. Obviously, this method had many flaws and needed a total revamping. The logbook had to go and we replaced it with a system that took your photograph and issued you a paper visitor pass with your name, an expiration date, bar code and who you’re visiting. We named the product Fast-Pass which got immediate acceptance and became one of the first electronic visitor management systems that was able to support a wide variety of vertical markets. Since its birth in 1999, we have installed hundreds of Fast-Pass systems in Hospitals, Schools, Multi-tenant buildings, Jails, Government Buildings and corporate entities. Today we boast 38 people strong, in a 23,000-square foot facility and have a presence in 39 states.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

When you are new to the software world, technology changes very fast and it’s mandatory that you keep up with new innovations. Hardware changes just as fast and the two in my world of security work hand and hand to provide viable solutions. The biggest challenge I had to deal with early on in the security software business is that you were no longer dealing with just the security director or security manager of a facility. IT (Information Technologies) Director or Manager played a critical role in the decision to acquire a specific system whether it be predominantly hardware or software; IT was consulted and usually had to buy in on the purchase. The take away from this is to bring in IT early and alleviate their concerns, or it will be an uphill battle to win the job.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

Listen to what the customer has to say and understand the business case. Most of what you are dealing with is driven by logistics and policy. Policy is the big one as it may involve legislation, compliance, privacy and of course grand old politics. Once you understand what they really need you can recommend the proper technology that may include modifications to policy and processes. Once you have the customer’s confidence and the overall benefit is realized you will be much further ahead of the competition, unless of course, the customer has a relative in the security business.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

Starting out as an entrepreneur managing my own business the CEO title came along with the job. When I started out single and grew to a five-person company, President seemed to be a proper title without too much ego involved. But when the company jumped to twenty-five people and later to thirty-seven with revenue in the millions, CEO seemed to fit the persona. During a forty-year tenure in various facets of the security business there are many things that I wished someone had told me that may have made my trek a little easier, so here goes:

  1. First and foremost is what I had said in the previous question “Listen to your customer,” they know their business better than you. I found out soon in the process and it doubled my success rate and cemented long-term relationships with my customers.
  2. Expect disappointments, (there will be many) each one comes with its own lesson and experience factor. Don’t get too caught up in trying to justify failure, don’t dwell, learn from it and move on.
  3. Trust your instincts, hire good people. Ask the right questions and do the right checks and hire them for the jobs that you do not need to do. Time is your enemy there isn’t enough of it in a day for a CEO, delegate and verify. Build a reporting network that supplies the summary information you need to pilot the ship and leave the minutia for others to handle.
  4. Do what you do best, meaning, stay focused on the business at hand and what you spent years building. Distraction is very common when you become successful and could take you off the path of a successful business. All that glitters is not gold.
  5. “Cash is King’’ I am sure you have heard that expression many times. Although many accountants and business analysts would say do not keep an abundance of cash on the balance sheet, I beg to differ, the more cash the better. You would be surprised what a difference it makes to have cash available when you need it. Also, debt, I am a big believer in zero or as close as you can come to zero. No debt and a sizable amount of cash in the bank gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility to do things that others would have difficulty doing if you have to move quickly to seize an opportunity. I am speaking about small businesses not large conglomerates.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

If you are a workaholic (most CEOs are) you thrive on busy days, developing new ideas, working out difficult situations, persevering and leading the charge while others may have flatlined. You breathe new life into seemingly impossible situations and get everyone enthusiastic again because your leadership role demands it. This, on a daily basis including the day to day business, would tend to run a person down over time, so, take an unscheduled break. There is nothing in the CEO rulebook that says you can’t take some time off and clear the cobwebs out of your head. If you have the right people in place the train will not derail while you’re gone, you can just pick it up at the next station and be brought up to speed. With today’s tools and communication systems you’re just a ZOOM call away. Mini vacations (2–3) days are great and usually work well with a busy CEO, if you tie it to a weekend you get the effect of 4–5 days off. In my case by the 3rd day, I am itching to get back to the office. This gives you enough rest without missing anything, which is much of what we are really concerned about. Obviously, nothing beats the planned 10 to 14 days in the French Riviera or visiting Rome or Venice or Sicily, but that’s a planned event with your wife doing most of the planning.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have had several in my 40-year trek, all were amazing people and unselfish in sharing their business and life experiences that in many ways, educated, influenced and energized me in a direction that led me to where I am today. One that stands out the most is a fellow I met at a trade show who later became my partner in a security monitoring business I started in upstate New York. There was a 27-year age gap and he was a former vice president of a large company semi-retired looking to invest and work in a company. We worked side by side for months, I was teaching him the security business and he was teaching me about his life experiences. He was not technical but given a set of instructions could deduce very complex things and produce the correct result with very little help. He taught me how to Zen whereas I became mesmerized by the art of concentration and to be able to connect with things around you. He taught me that stress causes you to get a cold and if you can relieve the stress the cold will go away. Explaining that the cold is always lingering in our body waiting for a weakness to emerge. Stress weakens our immune system and the resistance to fight back, so therefore when you’re stressed you get a cold. By using Zen techniques, I was able to actually fight off a cold in less than an hour. The secret is, find out what is bothering you, it may not be something that is staring you in the face but something less apparent in the back of your mind. This took months to learn and years to master, but once I did it, I almost never got a cold. You will probably note that most CEO’s do not get colds, they do not have time for it, their minds are too busy, no time for subliminal messages to sneak in. There are many other instances where Zen helped me both in business and in personal goals, I could write a book telling you about them. It changed my way of thinking and communicating about life which supersedes anything else I have ever learned.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

I have been in the security field for 43 years. Professionally I am looking to sell the business and retire, do some part-time consulting to keep me busy and in touch with the industry. I intend to travel with my wife in the US and Europe and spend more time with my family and grandchildren. I like to tinker with some of my antique cars and do some boating between the traveling. However, since I am an engineer and invented the A-PASS and FAST-PASS products, I still have a few ideas that could help businesses, hospitals, schools and cruise lines coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s another story.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I am happy knowing that my patented inventions are helping to keep people and businesses safe. Although people may not remember my name, the company and products will be remembered for many years to come. The company has supported many employees and their families since it was founded in 1994 and it was my honor to know them all. As it is the employees and the relationships formed over the years that make the company great. It is my hope that SISCO and the A-PASS and FAST-PASS products will continue into the future with the same innovation and enthusiasm under new leadership when the company is finally sold.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

The COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the world, almost all walks of life have been affected. It has brought out the best and the worst in people and has shown us how vulnerable and amazing we are. If we have learned anything from our history, we should be tackling the virus (common enemy) not each other. We need to talk rather than scream and not let politics replace logic. If I were to start a movement it would be based on discussion, whereas people would be respectful of each other’s ideas and voice their opinions openly. I know this sounds like pie in the sky but ultimately this is how things end up after war and that’s too late. I would comprise a group of people divided equally that would give equal time to both sides of an issue and open it up for discussion. The rules being no shouting, yelling, name-calling or physical disruptions, just plain common-sense discussion. Hopefully, this or some facsimile will take hold and more people will start thinking like this.

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