As a person driven by mission, Erik Antons had only one regret at 33 years old: he had never served his country or worked in public service.
Shortly after graduating from Ohio University with a Bachelor’s of Science in journalism and public relations, Antons moved to the Chicagoland area to work for a small company that produced international adventure travel programs. On the side, he dabbled in real estate, flipping single-family homes.
Eventually, Antons and his wife, whom he met while working in the travel industry, teamed up to go into the real estate business, renovating, converting, managing and selling real estate in the Chicagoland market — something he continues to do today.
But everything changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. “It just became very, very clear. I needed to do this. So I actually enlisted in the Army at the ripe old age of 33,” he says. He joined the Army National Guard and, shortly thereafter, was hired by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) as a Special Agent in late 2003.
During those 10 years with DSS, Antons learned the value of having a diverse skillset. “With DSS, you must have a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and be creative to find multiple methods of getting the job done with sometimes very limited resources. It really comes down to creativity, diplomacy skills, and being sensitive to inclusion and diversity, particularly during overseas assignments,” he says. Mastering these skills positioned him to take on security roles outside the national security realm.
When he left DSS in 2014, Antons joined Sempra Energy, a North American energy infrastructure company as Manager of International Security and Executive Services. There, he supported the corporate security departments of the company’s international business units, advised senior management on international security issues, started an enterprise-level crisis management program, managed the risk of executives and members of the Board of Directors, and led security for special events.
After four years at Sempra Energy, he returned to Chicago to join Hyatt Hotels as Vice President and Chief Security Officer (CSO). At Hyatt, Antons was responsible for safeguarding more than 127,000 associates and more than 900 hotels, offices and assets in 65 countries. He delivered a best-in-class security program with innovative emergency management, business continuity programs and security training. “Everything was going great until the pandemic hit, and it pretty much wiped out the hospitality industry,” Antons says.
One thing led to another (learn more in this article penned by Antons himself), and Antons joined Whirlpool Corporation in October 2020 as CSO, where he now leads the physical security risk management program for the $22 billion enterprise of more than 69,000 employees across 170-plus countries.
“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says the most primal need of the human condition is security,” Antons explains. “Without security, nothing else matters. It applies to everything we do — from safeguarding our people, property, information and processes and in making people feel comfortable and safe, which are very critical to the bottom line.”
At any other time, the first 90 to 120 days at a new job would have been packed with site visits and in-person meetings. Since he was hired in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Antons conducted approximately 40 virtual onboarding calls with everyone from executive assistants to regional presidents and focused on four questions: first, what are the biggest challenges the security department is facing (or likely to face) in the near future? Next, why is the department facing these challenges? Third, where are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth? Lastly, if you were me, what would you focus on in the next three to four months? The most common responses fell within one of four categories — governance, workplace violence, crisis management and travel security.
With the support of the global security team, chief legal officer, cross-functional partners and vendors, Antons has implemented departmental, operational and technical standards, enterprise-wide workplace violence prevention and crisis management programs, while making headway in establishing a travel risk management program.
Whirlpool now has a standardized global incident reporting platform and global security website, the latter of which is a central repository for all things global security-related, including policies, standards, training materials and intelligence reports. Antons has since restructured the security team to add a dedicated regional leader for North America, a new enterprise account manager for the guard force, and a contracted technical security team.
All of these initiatives have been implemented with the end game of creating a culture of security, Antons says. “It’s a whole paradigm shift from when it was more about response and recovery and less about preparation and prevention. The latter are the heartbeat of the security program.”
While establishing and crafting a new vision for the security program was certainly important, Antons is a firm believer in not changing a “damn thing for the first 90 days” — something a mentor and friend once said to him. “It really forces you to command the fundamentals in the first place. Everyone wants to be an influencer, a thought leader, a change agent, or whatever trendy LinkedIn titles are being used this week,” he says. “But if you don’t understand the basics, you will fail.”
Instead, if there are no burning platforms, Antons believes it’s absolutely critical for security professionals to establish credibility and trust within the organization during the first 90 to 120 days on the job. “Take the time to listen, don’t change a thing, be empathetic and ask for help — be a trusted team member. Trusted team member may not be a sexy or trendy term, but if you have the trust of your colleagues and supervisors, it says a lot about who you are as a person.”
One way Antons establishes trust is by getting into the field as much as he can, visiting the largest home appliance factories in the world, to visit with line workers, whom Antons refers to as the heart and soul of Whirlpool and “the connective tissue between what we do at the flagpole and what they are doing to support the entire organization.”
To continue to grow and develop as a leader, Antons is an avid reader and learner. “When I’m not working, I’ll likely be reading something about risk or crisis management theory,” he says. Antons has carried a passion for learning throughout his life. He was 47, for example, when he went to graduate school at San Diego State University to obtain his Master’s degree in homeland security. People told him he was too old, that he should be in front of the classroom teaching everyone else, and that it would require a lot of humility on his part to be taught by professors who didn’t have as much experience.
But humility is a characteristic every leader should possess, Antons believes. “For me, humility forces me to remain grounded,” he explains. “It is incumbent upon us to make the most of these lives that we’ve been granted on earth. That creates a sense of urgency, knowing that we have limited time to positively impact our environments and others.”
For Antons, contributing outside his corporate security role is a means of growing and developing as a leader. Antons is a member of the board of directors for the International Security Foundation, an associate board member at the Pat Tillman Foundation, a committee chair with the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), an adjunct faculty member with the San Diego State University Department of Homeland Security, as well as a member of the International Security Management Association (ISMA) and ASIS.
“It’s incredibly humbling to be in the room with people I consider to be mentors, of great influence and motivators,” Antons says. “We’re always benchmarking with each other. We’re all collaborative because we have a servant-leader mentality and understand that no one has a monopoly on good ideas.”