After hitting rock bottom, Jeff McDowell picks himself up and starts a security company
By Emily Sparacino
Photographs by Dawn Harrison and Contributed
2010 is the year Alabaster resident and McDowell Security founder Jeff McDowell starts with when he tells the story of how his company formed.
It’s the year McDowell, a 40-year-old husband and father of two, lost his job, applied for government assistance and scrambled to figure out how he was going to support his family again.
“I was contracted as a consultant with another company, and they ended my contract unexpectedly,” McDowell said. “We were broke. We had nothing. We were trying to make ends meet.”
2010 was a pivotal year for McDowell, without question. It’s the year McDowell’s life experiences came into play in a bigger way than they ever had.
Starting from scratch
In December 1984, when McDowell was in the second grade, his family’s house in Gardendale burned to the ground shortly before Christmas.
“I remember my second grade class, everybody in my class, they bought us a Christmas tree,” he said. “I remember all the kids in my class bringing ornaments for us to put on that tree. I remember other people bringing food and other different things for our family. All these years later, that still sticks with me.”
In the time it took for the flames to reduce his family’s home to a mountain of ashes and charred debris, McDowell realized how it felt to have everything and then to have nothing, right before the holidays.
However, he also realized how it felt to be lifted by the selfless support of the people around him.
“I remember that was a community that rallied around a family that needed help, and I think that was one of those moments that, when you’re that age, it’s those things that impress upon you, those things that move you forward,” he said. “I liked the way that made me feel back then, and now that I’m older, if I’m in a position where I can help people like that, I want to do that. Anytime I see there’s an opportunity to jump in there and help someone, I want to do it.”
As a father himself, McDowell can sympathize with his dad’s position as the head of the household during such a devastating event for his family.
“I look at it as a dad now with my kids and how my dad must have felt a week before Christmas losing everything,” McDowell said. “Perspective helps you understand things differently. I’ve learned how to look at things from different people’s viewpoint.”
When McDowell lost his job without warning six years ago, that feeling of panic became even sharper.
Bills were piling up, and he had to make the gut-wrenching decision to apply for food stamps to buy food for his family.
In the midst of turmoil, one of McDowell’s former clients called him and said he had another contract he wanted McDowell to work.
He told McDowell to start a security company, and he would be McDowell’s first client.
“I said, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t pay rent,’” McDowell said to the man, who asked for McDowell’s address and sent him a check to put toward a business license to start the company. “I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘Something tells me I’m supposed to help you,’ and I remember that. To this day, he still won’t let me pay him back.”
Six years ago, with a check and the hope of a fresh start, McDowell started his company, McDowell Security, from his living room.
Learning to lead
Working in security was not a new concept to McDowell when he opened his security firm.
He had his first paying job in law enforcement when he was a student at Mortimer Jordan High School in Kimberly.
He was a dispatcher for the Kimberly Police Department, and he served as an Explorer for the Gardendale Police Department.
“I highly encourage parents to get their children involved in an Explorer program, if they can, for any potential career, whether it’s law enforcement, fire, any Explorer program,” McDowell said.
He entered the Explorers program with the desire to become a police officer.
“My career path did not work out to be a police officer,” McDowell said. “However, I would not say I’ve had a disappointing career.”
After graduating high school, McDowell entered the military and served 14 years in the Army Reserve National Guard, including time overseas.
Then, he started working as a security guard.
Starting his own firm wasn’t as big a leap for McDowell as learning how to operate a growing business was.
“I grew up in the home of an entrepreneur and small business owner, so for me, it’s really all I’ve known my whole life,” McDowell said. “It wasn’t much of an adjustment. Learning how to do it has been an adjustment. Learning how to go from a small business to a larger business that we are now has been a big adjustment.”
McDowell Security launched with 200 square feet of office space and 12 employees.
“Fast forward a few years, we were rocking along and we were making a living,” McDowell said. “We weren’t exploding in growth, but we were making a living.”
He teamed up with a vision coach to help him craft a written vision statement for the company, including weekly and quarterly milestones to reach.
“I said, ‘Here’s where we’re going to be in six years,’ and we’re knocking it out,” he said. About two-and-a-half years into it, the company was reaching milestones McDowell had set for the fourth year.
His ultimate mission for the company came into focus when tragedy struck a member of his staff.
After the employee didn’t show up for work one day, McDowell went to his apartment to check on him out of concern, and discovered the man, had taken his own life at 40 years old.
“In that moment I said, ‘I want my time here to matter,’” McDowell said. “Forty years here, and it came down to this. The more I thought about it, that just plagued me. I just nagged at me.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to make a difference owning a security guard company?’ I thought, ‘You know what, it’s my vehicle. God gave it to me. Where I choose to drive it is up to me.’”
Vision to succeed
Before McDowell turned 40 in May, he led his company to higher benchmarks than he thought possible.
In just a few years, the company transitioned from 200 square feet of space and 12 employees to 4,400 square foot space in Pelham with about 160 employees.
In the beginning, the company did uniformed guard services only, but now, it also provides event staffing services.
McDowell is in the process of obtaining the proper licensing to do security alarms, cameras and access control.
“By the end of the summer, we’ll be a true security integration company, which means we’ll be able to handle any of our clients’ security needs, whether it be electronic or physical,” he said.
After struggling financially at home, McDowell gained the means to support his family, his employees and even others in the community with the company’s revenue.
His goal to help people beyond the walls of his home––just as his classmates helped his family at Christmas many years ago––has come to fruition.
“One of the things we talked about in the vision was being able to serve the community,” McDowell said. “Last year, we donated security services where we would send guards to do services at discounted rates, sometimes at no charge, for non-profits in certain cases. I was able to give more last year than I personally made the year I started this company. That’s why I do this. I know what it’s like to not have anything, and I don’t like it.”
McDowell often thinks about his former employee ending his life, and how it opened McDowell’s eyes to the shortness of time people are given on earth to make a difference.
“A lot of times I think the purpose of his life was to bring me to that point,” McDowell said. “I think God used his life to bring me to that point.”
In his company’s vision statement, McDowell wrote it “exists to help people do what they do best.”
“That’s just who we are,” he said. “We do things in a customer-service-focused way. We believe the best way to do this is to be like we’re an extension of our clients’ brand. That’s at the heart of what we do: Remembering our clients’ reputation, making sure they’re able to do what they need to do without worrying about their security, not their physical security and not their reputational security.”
Since McDowell knows how it feels not to have a steady income, one of his priorities ever since he opened McDowell Security has been to make sure his employees don’t have to worry about their paychecks or how to navigate unexpected situations that affect their jobs, such as sudden lack of transportation.
He has paid out-of-pocket for a taxi to pick up an employee stuck at home without a functioning vehicle to drive to work.
“Those are things that people really worry about, and I don’t want my employees to worry about those things,” McDowell said. “I had a pastor that told us you can’t out-give God. I also believe that if I don’t do something good with this (company), I also don’t deserve to keep it.”
In August 2016, McDowell was named to Birmingham Business Journal’s FastTrack 30, a list of the area’s fastest-growing business. Several months ago, he received one of BBJ’s Top 40 Under 40 awards.
He is on the Hoover Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors and is a graduate of the Leadership Shelby County class of 2017.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it,” McDowell said. “A quote I’ve become most known for lately is ‘I’m a high school graduate trying to figure this out.’ I failed my way through most of this.”
But fail completely, he has not. If anything, McDowell said, he got to where he is now by working hard, treating people right and doing what he promised people he would do.
“When I tell somebody we’re going to do something, we do it,” he said.
He also recognizes his company’s limits and doesn’t commit to projects outside of reasonable boundaries, even if a contract seems too good to pass up.
McDowell Security is licensed to operate in Alabama and Mississippi.
The company has covered events at Venue 31 in Pelham, Aldridge Gardens, Samford University and Hoover’s Moss Rock Festival.
“On the uniformed guard side, we do several businesses in the Hoover area,” McDowell said, adding his firm provides security for shows at Avondale Brewery and Iron City, the Magic City Art Connection, the Outlet Shops at Grand River and even the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa kennel clubs’ dog shows in Columbiana.
McDowell has opened another McDowell Security office in Huntsville.
He admits he has had to learn how to celebrate the small victories that have combined to create the large victories, like expanding to different cities.
“What I found was it was not the big swings that mattered; it was the little daily steps, doing the little daily activities that got you closer to the goal, and celebrating the victories along the way,” McDowell said. “Something I had to learn how to do is congratulate myself. We’re always trying to swing to the fences, and we’re not grateful for the singles and doubles. It’s the singles and doubles that get people around the bases and score the points.”
For McDowell, any victories he experiences are shared with those close to him.
His daughter and sidekick, Kayleigh, 7, looks up to McDowell and is too young to remember when he didn’t operate his own company.
“She asked me one day, ‘Daddy, have you ever worked for someone else?’” he said. “We started this business when she was 10 months old. She doesn’t know any different. This is what’s normal for her.”
McDowell’s wife, Candyce, who co-owns McDowell Security, homeschools Kayleigh. The two spend much time at McDowell’s office during the week.
Kayleigh even has business cards with her name printed above the title “Princess in Charge.”
She accompanies McDowell to Chamber events, talking to people and handing out her business cards.
“People in the Chamber know her. She will stand there and shake hands with somebody and look them in the eye,” McDowell said. “People ask where she is if she’s not with me.”
The couple’s 13-year-old son, Cameron, is on the autism spectrum and attends public school.
“Having a son with high-functioning autism, I’ve learned how to communicate with people on a different plane because I have to communicate with him,” Jeff said. “People just want to be respected.”
To know if he has struck a healthy balance between work and home, McDowell just has to talk to Kayleigh for the answer.
“I was tucking her in one night, and she looked up at me and said, ‘Daddy, sometimes I forget you own a big company,’” he said. “That told me I’m spending as much time with her as she needs me to be.”
Last year, the McDowells took their first family vacation since starting the company. They went to Disney World, a theme park that wouldn’t exist without the creative and entrepreneurial vision of a man named Walt Disney.
“That man changed the world by drawing a mouse, and I’m worrying about what can I do owning a security company,” McDowell said. “Whenever I doubt myself, I look back to that and I remind my kids of that. We can all make a difference.”
One of his favorite Disney quotes is: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
“I’m living that one,” he said.
Every quarter, Jeff checks in with his vision coach and sets new milestones for the company.
A statement he wrote in the original vision as a goal statement remains in there as motivation: “I’ve had people comment that if our company closed up shop there would be a void in the community.”
“We’re not there yet, but I want to get there,” Jeff said of the statement. “I didn’t expect it to grow as fast as it has. We’re building some momentum now. We want to make that difference in the community.”