George R. Wackenhut, the founder of a global security company that has guarded U.S. embassies, nuclear power plants and the trans-Alaska oil pipeline as well as neighborhood malls and countless private homes, died Dec. 31 of a heart ailment in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 85.
A hard-nosed businessman who began his career as an FBI agent tracking down counterfeiters and check forgers, Mr. Wackenhut capitalized on the nation's growing concern about corporate and personal security as he expanded his Florida-based company from a four-man operation in 1954 to a multibillion-dollar corporation.
George Wackenhut's firm protected nuclear plants and embassies.
In 1984, he launched a subsidiary to design and manage jails and detention centers for the burgeoning private prison market in the United States and abroad. In time, Wackenhut Corp. became the nation's second-largest private prison operator. When Mr. Wackenhut sold his company to a Danish firm in 2002, it operated in 54 countries and had $2.8 billion in revenue.
Mr. Wackenhut was an outspoken political conservative with ties to powerful Republicans and high-ranking leaders of the military, FBI and CIA. His office, with chairs carved in the shape of elephants, reflected his political leanings.
Frequent rumors that his company was in the employ of the CIA were never substantiated, but Mr. Wackenhut, who was obsessive about high-tech security gadgets in his private life, seemed to relish the suggestion. Several of his senior executives were, in fact, former CIA operatives, and his company's board of directors included former FBI director Clarence Kelly, former National Security Agency director Bobby R. Inman, and former Defense secretary and deputy CIA director Frank Carlucci.
On rare occasions, his company's clandestine work did land in the headlines. In 1991, a U.S. House committee investigated charges that a Wackenhut executive, working for a consortium of oil companies, illegally spied on a whistleblower exposing environmental damage caused by the oil industry. The executive, who had also discussed trying to implicate a California congressman in his sting, resigned immediately after a meeting with Mr. Wackenhut.
Wackenhut-operated prisons have had problems as well. In 1999, the company lost a $12 million annual contract to run a jail in Texas when several Wackenhut guards were indicted for having sex with female inmates.
Nonetheless, Mr. Wackenhut cultivated an image of probity, toughness and precise military order. His teak-and-granite office was spotless, and he kept a barber's chair in his private bathroom to avoid leaving the office for a haircut.
George Russell Wackenhut grew up in Upper Darby, Pa., outside Philadelphia. An outstanding athlete, he was a professional soccer goalie with the Philadelphia Nationals in his youth. He graduated from what is now West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
Stationed in Hawaii with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Wackenhut was present at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He recalled that he was so close to a Japanese warplane that he could see the face of the pilot.
After serving in the Pacific, he moved to Baltimore, where he received a master's degree in education from Johns Hopkins University and taught classes in physical education and health.
In 1951, Mr. Wackenhut joined the FBI as a special agent in Indianapolis and Atlanta, resigning in 1954 to launch a company in Coral Gables, Fla., with three other former agents. At one point, they had to pass the hat to meet payroll, and the company's total assets amounted to $1.56.
After early struggles -- including a fistfight between Mr. Wackenhut and one of his partners -- he took sole control of the company in 1958, naming it for himself. After working all day in the office, he sometimes worked as a security guard at night.
By 1964, he had contracts to guard the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as well as the Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear test site in Nevada. He branched out to include food service for prisons and to provide protection for companies going through labor strikes. The core of his business, though, was providing security guards to watch out for criminal activity.
Ironically, his company moved from the Miami suburb of Coral Gables to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in part because Miami's high crime rate made it difficult to attract good workers.
In 1994, an 800-page biography of Mr. Wackenhut, called "The Quiet American," was published. When he sold his company for $570 million in 2002, he owned more than 50 percent of its stock.
Even with a tight profit margin of 2.5 percent, the company's earnings allowed Mr. Wackenhut to live lavishly in homes scattered throughout the country. Until he moved to Vero Beach nine years ago, his primary residence was a $10 million turreted mansion near Miami decorated with firearms and medieval suits of armor. His house was wired with infrared and laser sensors, closed-circuit television monitors and photo-cell surveillance and had private radios for his family.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Ruth Wackenhut of Vero Beach, who was the company's secretary for many years; two children, Janis Ward and Richard Wackenhut; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.