Although he had a business plan tucked in his desk for years, Richard Cottom needed a push to start Sovereign Security.

It came when his job as Vice President of Public Safety at Drexel University was eliminated in 2004.  By the following spring Sovereign Security had opened shop in the Sovereign Building, located at 7th and Market streets.

“I don’t know why I didn’t do this a long time ago,” Cottom said from his new 16th floor offices at Broad and Walnut streets.  “Well, I know why I didn’t, I was a vice president making decent money and life was good.”

A decked out office space, one employee and desire were all he had.

“We didn’t have any contracts, we didn’t have any business. We didn’t have nothing,” Cottom said. But in that first month Sovereign picked up several clients.

Building a business is never easy, and in industries dominated by billion-dollar conglomerates the task can be even more daunting.

Cottom recalled that although he had decades of security experience – as a manager with SpectaGuard (now Allied  Universal), as head of security at the Community College of Philadelphia and through his position at Drexel – early on it was tough landing clients. Although potential clients respected his experience, he often heard “We don’t want to be your test case.” or “We don’t want to be your first.”

Cottom recognized growing his business would require him to partner with larger, more established security firms.

Sovereign is a subcontractor for Covenant Security Services, one of the nation’s largest firms, in handling the security needs for PGW.

Covenant employees work at PGW’s headquarters and at some of its other sites; while Sovereign has officers in the six customer service centers and patrolling the Passayunk plant.

“Covenant gets it,” Cottom said of the two companies’ relationship.

Other large security firms look for ways to take back business from their subcontractors, he said about prior relationships.

“But Covenant has been a real partner that embraces us and seeks opportunities for both firms,” he said.

“It was a natural fit,” said Greg Iannuzzi, president of Covenant Security.

Sovereign had a great reputation, was connected locally, and most importantly treats its people well, Iannuzzi said of Covenant’s desire to collaborate with Sovereign.

The partnership is part of PGW’s efforts to support Minority-, Women- and Disabled-Owned businesses.  In fact, both security firms qualify: Covenant is Women-Owned and Sovereign is Minority-Owned.

Last year, PGW spent $12.7 million with Minority-, Women- and Disabled-Owned businesses from the Philadelphia area. Supporting local businesses that hire area residents benefits the local economy and helps to ensure that PGW’s economic impact benefits the Philadelphia region.

With a growing reputation and more than 250 employees, Cottom has started to bid on contracts solo. He said his company recently landed contracts in northern New Jersey and is looking to expand outside the Philadelphia region.

But getting funding can be an issue for small businesses, he said, especially minority firms.  There always seems to be an excuse, he said of lenders.

Another challenge can be collecting payment for the work that we do, he said. Although the firm has contracts, it can be months before payment arrives.

As the head of a company that pays its workers weekly, Cottom said he constantly looks at his bank account to make sure Sovereign is on solid ground. “We have yet to miss payroll since I have been in business,” he said with a smile.

Not content to grow his business, Cottom has also nurtured the talent of others, in his role as a mentor.

Some of his former employees now work for the National Park Service at Independence Hall, while others are heads of security at businesses and institutions around the city. “I get a kick out of that,” he said. Cottom is also a board member of the region’s African-American Chamber of Commerce.

A key principle for his success is to treat his employees well.

He regularly visits workers at their posts and talks with them about their lives. He used to know them all by their first name. I don’t know everybody by their first name now and I feel guilty about that,” he said.

I try to make my employees feel as though we are all family, Cottom said, and that keeps him up at night.

”Now it’s not just my family that I am responsible for, I am responsible for my employees and their families. And so the last thing I want to do is fail them.”