Home-Grown Success: Witt Turns Expertise Into $40 Million Business

by Mark Carter  on Monday, May. 16, 2011 12:00 am  

James Lee Witt has successfully transitioned his model from FEMA to the private sector.

The business of emergency management and planning for disasters has never been so relevant.

As Cabinet-level director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under then-President Bill Clinton, Arkansan James Lee Witt transformed FEMA from a dumping ground of political appointees into a model organization emulated by countries.

Witt, the former Yell County judge tapped by then-Gov. Clinton to lead the state's emergency management efforts, and later asked by Clinton to take over FEMA, parlayed his experience into a multi-million dollar private enterprise that maintains a presence in Little Rock.

Witt and his partners paid $22 million last year to buy back their emergency management company from Global Options Group, which had absorbed Witt Associates in 2006 for $6 million and stock options.

The firm's 2010 revenue topped $40 million.

According to SEC filings, the Witt emergency management arm of Global Options brought in revenue of $30.8 million, $39.1 million and $39 million in the years 2007-09. During that time, the five to eight companies operating under the Global Options umbrella combined for revenue of $100 million; Witt's crew was responsible for a third or more of Global Option's revenue each year that it was a part of that group.

"We knew this niche of business would be fairly good," Witt said recently from the River Market regional office his firm shares with retired Gen. Wesley Clark. "There was no one else doing it. It's become a competitive business now."

Own Private FEMA
Witt Associates not only helps companies, cities, states and countries prepare for and respond to disasters, it helps them navigate the federal regulations and deal with the red tape that follows in the wake of catastrophes. (Domestic clients can pay standard Government Services Administration schedule rates.)

Witt hired many of his former FEMA colleagues, and their familiarity with the process and expertise in turning a government bureaucracy into a model of efficiency is renowned.

The firm's client list includes U.S. cities, states, university systems and countries. The Chinese government discovered many deficiencies in its emergency management process following the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 and remembered Witt's expertise as FEMA director. It asked him to help establish a Chinese FEMA equivalent. Witt even opened a permanent office in Beijing, where the firm's charge is enhancing urban search-and-rescue capabilities, training center design and development, firefighter safety training, airport safety and emergency planning.

Witt lent FEMA's expertise to Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and his firm has been back. It was in Southeast Asia following the 2004 Asian tsunami, contracting with the governments of Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, and provided about $1 million worth of pro bono work in Haiti associated with the 2010 earthquake there. Witt hinted at potential future work with the Brazilian government in a recent talk to Little Rock Rotarians, but wouldn't supply details.

Essentially, Witt Associates has become its own private FEMA.

Kim Fuller, director of media relations and communications for Witt Associates, said the firm often is hired by other emergency management companies.



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