At the height of the Iraq war, Harding Bush, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL teams, provided security for Ayad Allawi when he was prime minister of Iraq. Bush also served in Chad, where he facilitated the evacuation of American personnel from the U.S. Embassy during an attempted coup d’etat. As a civilian, he has protected oil rigs in Yemen and provided executive protection for a controversial scientist during speaking engagements at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Now Bush, an Auburn resident, and business partner Alexander Kemp are offering Bush’s extensive security expertise to a global market. The pair last year founded a Portland-based company called Harke Strategic, which leverages Bush’s background to provide a variety of security services, from risk assessments for companies and their facilities to security training for high-profile corporate executives and journalists traveling to dangerous hot spots. Helping the company is a network of 20 to 30 retired SEALs.

Their services are priced on a case-by-case basis, starting at a couple of thousand dollars for a one-day training session in Maine on up.

Since launching in August 2014, Harke Strategic has worked with about a half-dozen clients, including a major corporation in New York City and another that asked Bush to provide security planning for an executive trip to Monterrey, Mexico. Because of the nature of the security business, Bush and Kemp sign non-disclosure agreements with their clients, and so can’t disclose their identities.

For Bush, the company is an extension of the type of contract-security work he’s been doing since 2010, when he retired to Maine after 20 years as a Navy SEAL. A Massachusetts native, Bush’s last posting was in Kittery at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where he was a senior instructor at the U.S. Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program.

Bush has spent the past five years as an independent contractor and trainer “gigging” for four or five different security companies. Until December 2014 he had been making several trips a year to Yemen, where he worked as a security adviser at an oil production facility owned by a Texas-based company. He also has provided security services for companies in biotechnology, finance and the commercial maritime industry. But being his own boss had always been at the back of his mind.

“As a 1099er” – a reference to the 1099 form that independent contractors file with the Internal Revenue Service to report miscellaneous income – “you are your own business anyway,” Bush said. “And there was a lot of folks I know that have skills to do it and it seemed like a good opportunity.”

For Kemp, Harke Strategic represents a complete change of course after 20 years in advertising. Formerly an advertising manager at Hannaford, he was until last summer a partner at KempGoldberg, the Portland-based advertising and marketing firm he co-founded in 2005.

The pair met at Hurley Travel Experts’ 20th anniversary dinner in the spring of 2013. They were seated at the same table and hit it off after discovering they both played rugby in college. Kemp, who joined the Marines right out of college, was intrigued by Bush’s special-ops background and the security work he had been doing since retiring. When Bush shared his idea about forming his own security company, Kemp jumped on board.

“I was ready for a change,” Kemp said.

CREATING A SECURITY SERVICE NICHE

Bush and Kemp have entered a crowded market. The security business has exploded in the 14 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, as global security concerns became front and center. The U.S. security industry alone is worth an estimated $200 billion, and is dominated by several very large players. They include G4S, the United Kingdom-based company that has more than 600,000 global employees and posted nearly $11 billion in revenue in 2014, and ACADEMI, the security company formerly known as Blackwater that became synonymous with the baseball-hat-wearing, machine-gun-toting private army that the U.S. military hired to provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The demand for security training to protect globe-trotting corporate executives and other VIPs also has increased. Kidnapping and ransom demands have become a successful business model for terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and its affiliates, which have reportedly earned $125 million in revenue from ransoms since 2008, according to a 2014 investigation by The New York Times. American targets are likely to be even more valuable now that the Obama administration has said it won’t criminally prosecute families that want to pay ransoms, Kemp and Bush said.

“Everyone thinks Americans are rich, and if there’s now more potential of getting a ransom out of it … it’s a proven business model (for terrorists),” Bush said.

He first recognized the need for corporate security awareness training while in N’djamena, Chad, on active military duty. His SEAL team was staying at the same hotel as several expatriate oil executives. Curious, Bush asked what sort of security training they had before traveling to Chad. Their response: “None, but I think we have kidnap and ransom insurance.”

Bush was surprised. Insurance may help in the aftermath of a worst-case scenario, but it won’t help prevent it. If those executives had received proper training before their trip, it would have prepared them to potentially avoid worst-case scenarios, Bush said.

He recently wrapped up a 10-hour kidnap-avoidance training for some executives at a New York City company. It involved classroom time and role-playing to help them react appropriately if faced with a difficult situation.

What Harke Strategic has to offer compared with the Goliaths of the industry is a “boutique” approach to providing security services, Bush said.

“I’ve got 20 to 30 guys that I know, I’ve worked with, I’ve been in combat with, I’ve been on security details and projects with,” Bush said of his network of retired SEALs and other special-ops veterans. “I think that’s one of the primary differences when you say, ‘What’s the difference with Harke?’ I’ve got personal relationships with everyone who will work on that project.”

MATCHING SECURITY TO COMPANY NEEDS

Companies looking to improve their security options should be sure the experience of a consultant matches their needs, cautioned Jeffrey Hawkins, a former law enforcement officer who’s been a corporate security director and consultant for more than 20 years.

Hawkins, who is based in the Cincinnati area, said security has, by necessity, become very specialized. Understanding the security concerns at a health care facility is very different than understanding those of a college campus, which is different than those at a nuclear energy plant or a bank, he said.

“Whoever is looking for a security consultant has to look very carefully at who they’re hiring and what their background is,” Hawkins said. “If he’s got familiarity with (protecting) dignitaries, overseas security travel and oil field security that’s fine, but if I’m a bank in Portland, Maine, how does that transfer over?”

Hawkins, who doesn’t know Bush, wasn’t discounting his experience, but pointing out that security consultants can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I think what makes a good security consultant is the one who understands their own limits, because we all have them no matter how long we’ve been in the business or how impressive our resume is,” Hawkins said.

MARKETING A HUSH-HUSH BUSINESS

Although Bush has the expertise that their company is built on, Kemp, who handles the business and marketing side, may have the tougher job. Working in an industry where discretion is paramount and there are no clients to rely on for testimonials, Kemp has struggled with how to market the company. So far, it’s been referrals and word of mouth stemming from Bush’s past contract work and network of contacts.

One challenge is the public’s perception of SEALs as overly aggressive, which makes potential clients sometimes wary of hiring the company.

“The image of SEALs is a very military one, if you like, with amphibious landings and clandestine missions behind enemy lines,” Kemp said. “Yes, that’s part of their training, but there’s a lot of time spent as a SEAL also in terms of mission planning and determining every eventuality. As I’ve learned working with these guys, their whole modus operandi is not to be discovered, not to be seen, and to avoid conflict. If you want conflict, send in the Marines.

“The SEALs are really geared to operate in small teams and avoid conflict, so preparation and planning, mitigating risk, trying to figure out every eventuality, gives them the edge to operate in the way they’re most effective,” Kemp said. “I think that’s the core here of our offering.”

At the moment they don’t have any local clients. Although companies in cities such as New York and Boston, site of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, think proactively about security, companies in Maine aren’t there yet, Bush said.

“People move to Maine to get away from those concerns (and then become complacent), which is wrong,” Bush said. He said there was a reason that the Sept. 11 hijackers chose Portland as a staging area for their attack on the World Trade Center.

He recognizes that the company walks a fine line between marketing its services and fostering anxiety.

“We don’t want to make people feel paranoid,” Bush said. “We want them to understand security is a necessity. People feel they’re doing things correctly, but if they don’t have training or experience, they don’t know what they don’t know.”