As a retail security pro at the top of his game, Keith White sports a weighty title and a broad portfolio.
The Division Executive Vice President of Loss Prevention & Global Sustainability at Gap Inc. safeguards the jeans and T-shirts in 3,600 stores worldwide, but that is just the start. White oversees executive protection efforts. He manages a global security operations center and ensures business continuity. “We build these great contingency plans for every situation that you can imagine, everything from wildfires to disruptive events,” he says.
He has spent 30 years in retail security building up his bag of tricks. Before coming to Gap Inc. in 2000, he had lead LP roles at Mervyns and Marshall Field’s. He has been an industry leader as well, serving on the board of the National Retail Federation for a dozen years.
To manage security across a vast enterprise, you need the right people on board, but you also need those people to understand and appreciate what White calls the, “non-negotiables, the things that we really want to make sure happen every day no matter what.”
That includes a commitment to physical safety as the foremost priority. “The safety of our customers and visitors – that’s really the overriding thing,” he says. A respect for established operating guidelines and practices follows close behind.
Both those elements came into play recently when White rolled out an “escalated customer training” program in response to the growing intensity of customer interactions. He introduced a new set of guidelines, along with a new training guide, video assets and other resources.
“It was designed to put our store managers in a position to deal with a customer who became unreasonable with their complaint or concern. In other words, they started to use profanity. In some cases, they got physical. They made the store environment and the people therein feel unsafe,” he says.
That is something White is seeing more often these days, as LP professionals encounter an increasingly confrontational criminal element. LP solutions provider FaceFirst reports criminal acts in retail stores were up 11 percent in 2018 over 2017, and violent deaths in retail settings increased 12 percent in that time.
“What’s been bubbling up to the top lately is the aggressive behavior and the brazenness of potential thieves,” he says. “They seem to steal with a certain amount of disregard for the safety of others and the safety of themselves, whether they’re being very boisterous in a profane way or they’re being aggressive in a physical way. That’s something I think every retailer has seen in some way.”
Thanks to the enhanced training, he said, Gap Inc. got through the 2018 holiday season with few such incidents. White knows this because the data tells him so.
Data collection and data analytics have become increasingly important drivers of White’s efforts in recent years.
“We track all of our stores' activities and incidents. That sets us up to create these wonderful analytics and predictive models where you can deploy resources based on history and experiences that you’ve had,” he says.
Store managers and LP team members are trained to log incidents and they’re given tools to do this simply and efficiently, filing reports from the sales floor via cash register or mobile device. On the back end, White’s team catalogs and correlates that data. “It allows us to understand developing trends in terms of organized retail crime, or potential homelessness issues, and then we respond to it accordingly,” he says.
In one recent case, the data revealed a trend of extreme return and refund activity in a single region.
“It was one of those regions of the country where you hardly ever see any activity, at least at this level,” he says. “We knew we needed to deal with it because it was a harbinger of things to come in the other areas in the country. Those are the types of things that our analytics surface on a pretty frequent basis, and we take advantage of it,” he says.
The rise of data as a front-line LP tool is just one major evolution White has witnessed in his three-decades long career. In that time, the LP profession itself also has seen major changes.
“From when I started in the mid ‘80s to now, it’s night and day,” he says. “Back then, I felt like senior management saw us more or less as a necessary evil. We were something that they just had to have around.”
That has changed a lot in recent years, as security executives have become an integral part of the business team. “Senior management sees the value-add that we bring, how we impact the margin, how we can even impact turnover. With all of that, I feel like we really have a voice at the table,” he says.
White says an unquenchable thirst for knowledge has been the key factor in his ability to rise to that higher level of expectation. “I want to understand all the different components of the business and how they fit together,” he says. “I’ve spent time with my peers, understanding and learning their businesses. I’ve done as much as I could to put myself in their shoes, and it’s really paid off.”
Even as he has worked to develop his own career, White has nurtured the professional development of those on his team. While recruiting and retention are ever a challenge in security, he says that casting a wide net has enabled him to successfully bolster his forces.
White chairs the Gap Inc. Diversity Council and he seeks to hire for diversity, though perhaps not in the conventional sense. Rather than focus exclusively on race or gender, for instance, he looks for a diverse set of experiences and interests.
“I’ve hired people who hadn’t spent a day in security or LP, but the experience that they brought in terms of understanding the business and the operations was invaluable,” he says. He recruits ex-military and LP professionals, but some of his best hires have come from individuals who previously worked as auditors.
Hiring is something he can control. Then there are the big-picture trends that have a profound effect on retail security, but that security executives alone cannot address – things like the opioid crisis.
“To fuel the habit and the use of those drugs, unfortunately people will resort to shoplifting, returning the goods, selling the goods or trading the goods for the drugs,” he says.
It is not just the customers: About 70 percent of the 14.8 million Americans who abuse drugs are employed, and roughly 80 percent of drug abusers steal from their workplace, according to the National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance. Quest Diagnostic’s 2018 Drug Testing Index shows the retail industry with the highest positivity rate of illicit drug use.
While the security team cannot turn the tide on a national epidemic, White encourages his people to better understand the how-and-why of criminal activity related to drug addiction. Understanding the addict helps store managers respond more effectively and influences how the store handles the situation.
“It helps you inform law enforcement,” he says. “There’s an unbelievable partnership there, and it’s important for us to be communicating our concerns. We may help them to connect the dots on something that they didn’t realize.”
While these dramas unfold at the front of the house, White is also busy backstage, where cybersecurity has become an ever-present concern.
While IT can handle the nuts and bolts of cyber, it’s up to security to spot trends, identify business needs and discover the impact of cyber gaps. Today the two functions are so closely intertwined, “we don’t know where InfoSec ends and we begin. We’re that connected,” he says.
Security’s role in that is to be the “connective tissue,” the bridge between business needs and IT capabilities. “We have this unbelievable investigative acumen, so when something alerts on the system, we have ability to investigate it and be boots on the ground and really determine what happened and how much of a loss was potentially caused,” he says. “That is huge for IT because it gives them Intel that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to gather. We’ve made them more effective, and they’ve helped us be more effective in turn.”
For those looking to build a retail security career at the executive level, White says, it’s important to look beyond the immediate horizon. “Performance matters. You have to be amongst the best in terms of what you are producing. You need to be the undisputed champion and expert. That’s item number one,” he says.
“A big part of growth and matriculation involves that intellectual curiosity I talked about before. Do not pigeonhole yourself into this role and be heads down and hope that the work speaks for itself. Branch out,” he says. “Meet people from other divisions. Join organizations outside of LP. Build a network of support and resources one day at a time, one person at a time.”