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Regis Becker: The Heavy Lifter

Jun 01, 200513 mins
IT Leadership

PPG Industries' Regis Becker may well lead the leanest security team in the Fortune 500. If he makes it look easy, that's only an illusion.

Take a gander at Regis Becker’s jam-packed, 25-plus-year career, and it’s hard not to feel like a bit of a slug. Becker bangs not one, but two or three drums, and marches at the same timealways moving forward. His souped-up career includes getting his law degree at night while also working a full-time job (at the Allegheny County prosecutor’s office); getting his business degree at night while working at another full-time job; heading up corporate security departments, with only a handful of full-time staffers, at multibillion-dollar companies; and volunteering with a number of professional organizations, including ASIS International and the American Chemistry Council.

Oh, and in his spare time, he likes to do Olympic-style weightlifting. (He pumps iron three times a week.)

Becker is global director of security and compliance at PPG Industries, a Fortune 500 company based in Pittsburgh that manufactures industrial coatings, glass and chemicals. With a staff of four in a company of more than 31,000 worldwide, managing the day-to-day security operations is no small order. But, since the mid-1980s when he first became involved with ASIS, he’s always found time to give back to his profession.

That dedication, paired up with an engaging personality, has garnered Becker a lot of respect not only within PPG but in the security field at large. “He’s able to relate to people very well,” says Don Walker, chairman of Securitas Security Services USA and a mentor and friend to Becker. “I’ve never known him to be shaken or be overwhelmed by any issue. He’s very level-headed. No matter the challenge, he’s very calm and rationalizes what needs to be done,” he adds.

Becker’s office on the 39th floor of PPG’s downtown headquarters building offers a front-row view of the landmark Three Rivers (where the Monongahela meets the Allegheny to form the Ohio River), as well as of the the city’s new football and baseball stadiums. On the day he meets with this reporter, he is casually dressed: yellow oxford shirt, olive khakis, brown tassel loafers. He’s thick-limbed, as if from Midwestern farm stock, with light brown hair and a ruddy complexion. He has broad shoulders and an acre of back, a testament to his weightlifting passion. (He also played semipro football at one time.) Becker is outgoing, but not in an over-the-top, slap-on-the-back kind of way. On a brisk late-winter day, Becker, 50, talked about the CSO role, how he’s built the security department at PPG and the challenges he’s faced during his nearly 20 years in the corporate world.

Change Agent

After graduating from Penn State in 1978 with a major in law enforcement (he’d been wowed by some State College, Pa., FBI guys), Becker parlayed an internship with the Allegheny County DA’s office into his first full-time job. He became an investigator, principally focusing on white-collar crime and political corruption cases. He also began attending Duquesne University law school at night.

During his final year of law school, he was accepted to the FBI, and he began training following graduation. Becker served on the criminal reactive squad, working on traditional FBI crimes such as bank robberies, fugitive warrants and extortion claims. But around 1986, after eight years in law enforcement, Becker began contemplating a move to the private sector. He enjoyed his work with the bureau but says, “There’s an old saying in the FBIif you’ve worked 10 bank robberies, you’ve worked a thousand.”

That year, he became a special investigator on a five-person security team at Union Carbide (UC, now part of Dow Chemical). The team was part of Union Carbide’s internal audit department. A year or so later, he was promoted to manager of the team. While at UC, Becker attended Western Connecticut State at night, adding an MBA degree to his résumé. After five years, the company spun off its industrial gases business, which became Praxair. The new company offered Becker the position of director of security, and in January 1992, he jumped ship. He had a team of four, including himself. “I wouldn’t want to write any primers based on how we did [security] in 1991,” he jokes.

A few months later, he heard PPG was looking for a security director. Becker told PPG’s general counsel he’d be happy to refer some people, but after a few phone calls, PPG offered Becker the position. He accepted. “The lure of home won out,” he says.

Small Staff, Big Job

From a team of four at Praxair, Becker became a team of one. He reported into the environment, health and safety department, and did a little of everythingpolicy development, investigations, facility security, workers’ compensation (he had third-party support for that, but he held accountability). When asked about his one-man show, Becker relays an old saying at PPG: “If it doesn’t put glass in a box, we don’t spend any money on it.”

Slowly (as in five-years-slowly), as Becker proved himself and built up trust, he was able to add a contract investigator, who did site surveys and later became a full-timer. In 1998, Becker added compliance to his list of responsibilities. “I was dealing with so much of the misconduct and was involved with ethics issues and, because I was a lawyer, they thought [compliance] was a good fit,” he says. In 2000, PPG moved security out of environment, health and safety, and into the law department.

Today, Becker’s staff has grownthough that word is deceptive. In a company of more than 31,000 employees and some 120 manufacturing facilities worldwide, his department stands at only four full-timers. Besides Becker, there’s a corporate security manager whose main responsibility is investigations, a site security specialist whose duties include vulnerability assessments and managing guard relationships in the field, and a security and compliance specialist who does the heavy lifting on case file management and ethics surveys. (There’s also some administrative support.)

Mike Frankovich, director of corporate security at Duke Energy and a friend of Becker’s, says, “I think Rege has been very adept at being able to do a lot of different things with a fairly small team.”

Becker reports to James Diggs, the senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. Because infosecurity resides in the IT department, Robert Wagner, the director of IT security, reports to the CIO but maintains a dotted line to Becker. He and Becker meet every two weeks for an hour. “We review current events, threats, that type of thing,” says Wagner.

Becker’s portfolio covers three major areas: corporate security, crisis response, and ethics and compliance. Because he has more support on the corporate security side, Becker can spend more time on ethics and compliance. Twice a year, he teaches a module on corporate ethics at the company’s management leadership strategies course, a two-week session attended by people around the globe. He also oversees PPG’s global code of ethics, which some 15,000 people are required annually to read, understand and sign.

Another key component of the company’s program is the ethics hotline, which was put in place in 1999 and is run by a third-party vendor (though PPG investigates any allegations). “It’s been very successful. The first year I think we had 180 calls. We still get 120 or so calls a year,” says Becker.

The crisis management portion of Becker’s purview manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, he manages the crisis-response processPPG has a 24-hour call function, with prescriptive policies that require employees in the field to contact the crisis response unit (CRU) call center if, for example, there’s a plant evacuation due to an environmental spill or if there’s media interest in an event outside of the regional area. (The CRU gets about 30 to 45 calls a year. Becker’s boss, Diggs, heads the CRU; Becker coordinates it.)

In the corporate security arena, Becker must safeguard a wide variety of manufacturing plants, including four major chemical plants in the United States. Recently, he was able to hire a full-time security manager at one of the plants, a chlorine manufacturing complex in Lake Charles, La. “It’s a pretty tough task to justify a new position that didn’t exist before, but Regis was successful in doing that,” says Jim Rock, environment, health and safety manager at the plant.

Giving and Getting Back

As a longtime giver to and recipient from the security profession, Becker puts a high value on community. He has been energetically involved in organizations such as ASIS, ISMA, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the American Corporate Counsel Association, the Labor Policy Association, the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council and the Ethics Officer Association.

ASIS has gotten the lion’s share of Becker’s volunteered time over the years. He first joined in 1984, while still an FBI agent. He became active with the group nationally in 1988, when he joined the investigations committee. Securitas’s Walker first met Becker at an ASIS function in the mid-’80s. “I thought right away he was one of the up-and-coming security managers in the field,” he says.

Becker was invited to run for the board in 1991, and served two terms in the years between 1992 and 1997. During that time, he was asked to join the executive committee and served as president in 1996 and chairman of the board a year later. Regarding his ASIS involvement during those years, Becker says, “It was an interesting and good development opportunity. I learned some functional things about investigations and about security, made some terrific contacts and got some good management lessons through the board service.”

One benefit was having fiduciary responsibility for the ASIS budget, which he says was probably between $12 million and $15 million in the mid-’90s. “It was good for someone without P&L responsibility [at PPG],” he says, regarding the opportunity to work out his financial-management muscles.

The work was time-consuming. Becker estimates that he spent 30 percent to 35 percent of his time on ASIS business while he was president. He flew to 25 meetings around the world during his 15-month tenure, though he often was able to mix in PPG business, such as site assessments, during his trips.

How did PPG feel about his time away from the office? “When I took the PPG job, I was on the [ASIS] board. I asked during the interview process, Do you support people working in this kind of organization?’ They were absolutely supportive. I’m not sure it would work now, given that the [security] department is much more operational and more structured,” he says. Becker has continued to be active in ASIS and is now chairman of its guidelines commission.

The ACC is another organization to which Becker has devoted time. Prior to 9/11, he chaired a subgroup for plant security. He says the guidelines they worked on helped lay the foundation for the ACC’s responsible care security code, which was launched after 9/11 and requires companies to develop and implement a security vulnerability assessment model at their facilities. Becker says PPG has done assessments at 60 plants so far and is moving forward on more.

Asked about the the role of regulation in his industry, Becker’s answer seems consistent with many private-sector security honchos: Let us do it our way; we know best. “We don’t want a lot of layered-on, third-party ideas from people that don’t understand the industry. Moderate, well-thought-out, well-intentioned legislation would be welcomed by industry. What we don’t want is people with adverse interests against us regulating us, telling us what to do,” he says.

On the topic of public-private partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to help secure the critical infrastructure, Becker is skeptical of the benefits. “I generally don’t do much different based on what DHS does or doesn’t do. We’ve all paid lip service and talked about how we need this public-private partnership. But at the end of the dayat least as of right nowit doesn’t really have much to do with our operation here. We’ve got people working very hard and trying to think innovatively and cost-effectively about ways to protect our stakeholders, assets, people, products, reputation, infrastructure. We’re going to continue to do that day after day,” he says.

Frankovich has known Becker since the late 1980s, when both served on the ASIS board of directors. “Rege has a really uncanny ability to cut through the BS. Rege is so smart about how things work in our business. He’s able to chuckle away the pomp and circumstance and get to the heart of what can make the security profession better,” Frankovich says. “He has more leadership quality than anybody I’ve ever been around.”

The Good, the Bad, the Future

Schooling, law enforcement, corporate security, industry issuesover the course of a few hours, Becker has patiently sketched out the Cliffs Notes version of his life. Outside, the sun has set and the Fort Pitt Bridge is jammed with rush-hour traffic. Inside, the conversation finally turns to why being a CSO is so rewarding to Becker. “These are the two major things: It’s interesting and important work. Even though we’re a big company, a Fortune 500 company, we’re small enough that you can make immediate impacts for the better. You can physically see the relief on people’s faces when you give them options or an answer to a problem, whether it’s the threat of violence or a major investigative problem,” he says.

It’s interesting work. The things you can get involved in are limitless, he says, citing, for example, investigations that have brought him to Zimbabwe, Costa Rica and China. “I wouldn’t have had those kinds of opportunities if I had stayed in law enforcement.”

And what of the future of the CSO position? Does Becker believe that the trend toward elevating the role of the security chief will continue? “There’s no question it’s a higher-profile job now,” he says. “I’d like to think it’s going to continue because people are seeing the value. We’re getting better people. I’ve been in the private sector 20 years, and you don’t see as many of the ex-police captains. Not to demean police captains, but guys then were sort of managing the guards. It’s much more business-oriented, much more sophisticated now, and we’re seeing a lot more people doing things like briefing their boards of directors.”

Becker isn’t implying that a law-enforcement background is a negativeafter all, he’s ex-FBI. In fact, he says that working in life-and-death situations gave him confidence as a manager that he can “sort out the wheat from the chaff.” And the years in law enforcement gave him great people skills as well. But, as he notes above, a CSO is far more than a company cop these days. Regarding his oversight of the compliance function, which combines his security and legal background, he says, “It’s another way to take skills you already have and the value you already add and marry them to another higher-profile function.”

Ultimately, it’s business skills that Becker believes are the trump card when it comes to succeeding as a security leader today. “When I speak to college classes, I always encourage them, if they’re interested in security, to get a business degree,” he says. “For the most part, the security function is a business function.”