J.J. Frazer, owner of Horizon Security, at Fairfax County’s Old Courthouse, one of the locations where his company supplies security guards. The firm, started with money borrowed from Frazer’s father, is one of the fastest growing in Virginia. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

J.J. Frazer was watching his children enjoy “The Seas with Nemo & Friends” exhibit at Epcot Center in Orlando during Christmas 2007 when he became a Disney junkie.

Frazer was in his early 30s at the time and trying to expand his Northern Virginia security guard firm. He happened to strike up a conversation with a Disney manager standing next to him that day, when he had one of those light-bulb moments.

“How do you keep your employees happy with smiles on their face?” Frazer asked the man. “I told him, ‘My employees are mad, and yours are happy.’ ”

The Disney manager laid out the amusement park’s quality control in great detail, including the personal grooming required of employees, body language and the secret codes managers use to signal to workers that they need to do a better job with customers.

“I went home and studied all I could about Disney,” Frazer said.

He returned six months later and paid for a behind-the-scenes tour to get a closer look at how Disney does it.

He then took what he learned and incorporated the ideas into his New Horizon Security Services, a Manassas-based company that he has turned from a small operation into a sprawling firm that employs 600.

Success didn’t come easy. Back when he took that tour of Disney, his company was sputtering. The margins were killing him.

“I had $2 million in sales and was bringing in only $50,000,” he said. “I would bill a shopping center $14 an hour, and my guy was making $10. Try putting overhead and expenses in those last $4.”

He needed a way to take the business to the next level. He decided Disney’s standards, emphasizing appearance, service and confidence, were the ticket.

He decreed that New Horizon officers will not smoke, chew gum, cross their arms or use their cellphone while on duty. Every security officer must look every person they pass straight in the eye, acknowledging their presence.

He started training classes to instruct employees on how to handle drunks, lost children and belligerent people.

He instituted “mystery shoppers,” which are undercover employees who videotape his security officers. The tapes are reviewed with managers to evaluate and help improve performance.

When he began implementing the Disney ideas, he lost more than half of his employees. “They didn’t want to keep that level up,” Frazer said.

He expanded his human resources department. He started screening prospective employees more closely. He conducted background checks, psychological evaluations and administered polygraph tests.

To attract quality applicants, he began offering health, vision and dental benefits and a minimum of one-week vacation. The average pay at his company went from $8.50 an hour to about $12 now. Managers average $70,000 and some make as much as $120,000.

Frazer pays himself a salary in the low six-figure range but makes plenty more from the company’s annual dividends.

Not bad for a public administration major and criminal justice/business minor at James Madison University, where he graduated in 1997.

His first brush with the security business was a prospective job with the Newport News Police Department, but the $23,000 salary put him off.

Owing $47,000 in student loans, Frazer decided to start his own security company, naming it New Horizon after a park ranger patch he saw on the wall of a barbershop. He found a lawyer in the Yellow Pages and paid him $500 to incorporate.

His father put him in touch with the Rappaport Companies, which owns and develops shopping centers in the Washington market. The relationship has grown, and Rappaport is one of his best clients.

“When I started, I was a guy in uniform at the shopping centers,” said Frazer, who hired a bunch of high school and college buddies to work at his start-up. “I spent all day in a uniform and nights doing payroll. I was the guy standing on the sidewalk, telling people you can’t park in the fire lane and no skateboarding on the sidewalk.”

He noticed that the appearance and attitude of security guards could make people feel more comfortable, which in turn makes them more likely to patronize retail centers.

He also realized that the security person was the only one on the site who was representing the owner.

“We had to become emissaries of the client,” Frazer said.

New Horizon grew along with Rappaport, and he was able to capture other contracts, including work with shopping center operators such as Saul Centers, Edens and JBG Rosenfeld Retail.

He hit a lull in the mid-2000s, stalling at about $2 million in revenue. That’s when the visit to Disney World came, and a light went off.

He decided to put all his cards into upgrading the quality of the company’s service, believing it would differentiate New Horizon from other security firms. The goal was to capture government contracts, which require more professionalism but offer better profit margins than many businesses that use security firms.

It wasn’t cheap. He drained whatever profits the firm had to put into human resources. After his father died, Frazer used $70,000 from the insurance to fund his health-care benefit expansion.

It was touch-and-go for several years, and New Horizon lost money while Frazer waited for his bet to pay off. He didn’t even take a paycheck. His wife supported them on her paycheck as a health-care consultant.

“I almost lost everything,” he recalled.

The big break came in 2010, when he won the security contract for the Northern Virginia office of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Within a couple of years, he won the rest of the state DMV offices and, more recently, the $4.8 million security contract for the Fairfax County government.

Revenue went from $2.2 million 2009 to $8.5 million in 2012 and $16 million last year. Frazer expects $20 million this year. Private clients now constitute a quarter of his business, with the rest being government-related.

“I went from 69 employees and $2 million a year to 600 employees and $20 million,” Frazer said. “I never looked back.”

Frazer routinely sends employees to the Disney Institute in Orlando, where they learn the entertainment giant’s tricks of the trade. Disney has a whole arm of the company that helps train others — for a hefty fee, of course — in the art of service and management. “My supervisors love to go,” he said, “because not only do they get the training, but they also get a trip to Disney World paid for by the company.”

Frazer has become a Disney junkie. He has been to Disney World multiple times, visited Disneyland Paris and plans a trip to Disneyland Resort in California later this year to see how they do it.

“I go to Disney at least twice a year,” he said. “It has made me lots of money. And I find new stuff every time I go.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.