Start to finish: Southlake mounted security company riding high

Betty Dillard

Frank Keller was just looking for a way to make more money with his horses. It was the mid-1980s when the then-19-year-old entrepreneur not only developed a highly specialized and profitable enterprise – a private mounted security patrol company – but also re-invented a long-lost tradition of the American frontier. “It’s become a way of life,” Keller says of his business, Alpha & Omega Mounted Security Patrol, the nation’s oldest and largest private equine public safety company. “We’ve developed a culture that was non-existent in this country. It’s a culture of working with your horse and literally making money. That culture had died with the Wild West but we brought it back.”

Alpha & Omega provides public safety at mass gatherings, including concerts, business improvement districts, shopping centers, arenas, amphitheaters, sports venues and other event facilities. The Southlake-based, family-owned company operates year-round throughout North America with special patrols in the summer for music festivals. “It’s an interesting full circle we’ve come,” said Keller, now 50. “The country was built with the horse and we’ve come full circle back to the animals.” Keller was studying criminal justice in 1984 at New Mexico State University when he and his father, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement, started a seasonal entertainment company providing horse-drawn hayrides for sororities and fraternities and Santa arrivals for shopping centers.

“One day I arbitrarily said, ‘What could I do to use my horses more often during the year to expand my business while going to school,’” Keller recalled. “I wanted to be a police officer but my father told me to stay out of policing, to go into business. I always thought it would be cool to have my own mounted security patrol. We would patrol super regional shopping centers, which were being built everywhere in the ‘80s. The idea was literally born that way.” Keller, a certified mounted police instructor, and his father discovered that there was no private company in the United States providing equine-based security. They spent the next four to five years researching and developing the business. The company’s biblical name was coined by Keller’s father.

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“Dad was sitting in the pew when he came up with it. Alpha and Omega, from start to finish, our service can help,” Keller said. Starting the first business of its kind proved eventful. The two traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where they studied World War I cavalry manuals to learn how to train riders and horses. Wanting a uniform that would be visible, they settled on the company’s now-familiar red shirt, black breeches with gold stripes and, in the beginning – pre-Pharrell – Smokey Bear hats (safety helmets are de rigueur today). No one was using red shirts at the time so the Kellers hired seamstresses to make theirs. Designing a comfortable saddle for both rider and horse was another matter. The pair found an Australian saddle maker in California who transformed the popular Down Under saddle from The Man from Snowy River into one A&O could use. Then there was the equipment, insurance, standard operating procedures and other details that had to be worked out. “It turned out to be a bit of a challenge because we never imagined the hoops we’d have to jump through. I thought I’d just jump on a horse and ride around the mall,” Keller said. “It’s truly entrepreneurial and a family-owned business. We invented it. We pioneered it. It wasn’t designing a better widget. We started this from scratch.” In 1989, the Keller family relocated to Southlake, bought an old farmhouse and land – some of the last remaining green space there today – and began training the riders, called troopers, and horses. A&O became incorporated in 1990 and has evolved from providing security for shopping centers to handling almost any large-scale outdoor event. In 2000, Frank Keller established Kel Executive Services, a full-service event security management company specializing in music and camping festivals. KES handles duties such as site selection and layout, tour security, review of staffing plans, development of emergency response and evacuation planning, consultation on surveillance needs, and integration of security plan with local law enforcement.

Today, the two companies provide both highly visible deterrents to crime with the mounted patrols and behind-the-scenes security via KES. Sixty percent of the companies’ business is music festivals, Keller said. A&O’s foray into the venue began with the band Phish. “After Phish hired us, all the festivals wanted to hire us. Now we’re doing almost every major festival coast to coast,” Keller said. The stable of clients includes the annual Bonnaroo Music and Camping Festival, Coachella, Stagecoach, Electric Forest, Outside Lands, Lights All Night, Allgood Music Festival and Virgin Festival. The company also patrolled at Farm Aid 2006, World Cup Soccer in 1994, Woodstock ’94 and Super Bowl XXVII. Additional clients include The Woodlands Township and officer training for the Keller Police Department. In July A&O will provide security at Pemberton Musical Festival in Vancouver, where Keller recently opened his first international office. “There’s so much opportunity in Canada, especially British Columbia. There’s nobody doing this. It’s a wide open market. Canada is where we expect our growth to be,” he said. Alpha & Omega started with Keller as the only employee and today has about 30 full-time employees in offices in Southlake, Houston (where the company’s largest training facility is located), California (two branches) and Pennsylvania. Seasonal riders can total as many as 650 and travel around the country as needed. Riders provide their own horse, truck and trailer. The intensive training process is strict. Troopers and horses learn effective riding formations, crowd management, vehicle escort, sensory and obstacle management, radio procedures and other patrol techniques. Not every applicant makes it through training. “They have to have a strong relationship with the horse,” Keller said. “The harmony that the horse and rider have can’t be taught. It has to evolve. If the trust isn’t there between the horse and the rider, you can’t do this job.” A&O charges hourly rates based on the number of hours the client needs. Riders make $16 to $30 an hour and receive full benefits, including medical, dental and a retirement plan. “It’s a great job. You get good wages and benefits to ride your own horse, which is what you want to do anyway because you love your horse,” Keller said.

Keller is a graduate of the International Association of Assembly Managers’ inaugural Academy for Venue Safety & Security, which focused on emergency planning and life safety management for the public venue industry. It’s another service Keller is expanding for his companies. Less than 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, Alpha & Omega and KES were the first security providers on the scene. The companies also have provided security after hurricanes hit Houston. In 2012, Keller completed training in handling severe-weather emergencies at large-scale events. In May, the company kicked up its social media presence, revamped its Twitter and Facebook accounts and launched an Instagram account for the brand. “Social media is the place to connect with music festival fans,” said Linda Akins, A&O’s public relations officer. In an effort to handle expected new growth from both social media and increased international exposure, Keller is hiring a full-time recruiter. “Last year was our best year in 23 years. We had the most growth and revenue,” he said. “We look to surpass that this year. We’re really pushing to find more riders so we can expand to other segments and build to our potential. “I’m looking forward to another 25 years of doing this,” he added. “It’s a team. It’s a very tight-knit group of people. We have that feeling of entrepreneurship and of family. That makes this successful as well.”