US-based Kurt Takahashi leads Netwatch’s innovative solutions for corporate safety
Carlow’s Netwatch is probably the first brand that comes to mind when a lot of Irish person think about security and surveillance, that is if they do at all.
The company’s signs seem to be everywhere – on office buildings and warehouses, outside building sites, in parking garages – signalling to potential intruders or troublemakers that they are being observed.
But despite some high-profile break-in and burglary cases in recent years and a very sparse population outside the main cities, most Irish people probably aren’t all that security conscious, even if the days of the never-locked back door are mostly in the past.
When an Irish person thinks of high-levels of property security and surveillance they’re more likely to see the United States near the top of the list.
From the electronic eavesdropping exposed by Edward Snowden to aggressive daily policing and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, Americans seem to live in a highly monitored environment, often one small step away from a heavy-handed response for even the most minor infractions.
So why has Netwatch picked the Land of the Free as its major growth opportunity? Isn’t the small but growing Irish company trying to do the modern day equivalent of carrying coals to Newcastle?
Well, it turns out Americans aren’t the only ones with remote eyes on them. Its businesses in Ireland and the UK that have been deploying cameras and remote detection technology for decades to improve safety and reduce the labour costs of security.
Despite an often paranoiac fear of crime the US is actually behind the curve.
Notwithstanding higher crime rates, Americans have tended to rely on manpower for security and been slow to adopt innovation.
Meanwhile, Netwatch has pioneered what it calls a hybrid model of security dubbed “proactive remote monitoring” that combines specialist video processing, machine learning and human intervention to deter trespassing and property crime rather than just react to it.
And it turns out a combination of Covid lockdowns, wage inflation and the housing crisis in the US have combined to create an ideal environment for a tech-enabled, affordable service to protect underused property from intruders.
“It’s an undefined lane,” says Kurt Takahashi, Netwatch’s CEO for the last year. The company went for a US-based American, despite its Irish origins and headquarters, because the prize available from US expansion was so great.
“The great thing is that we’re big, we’re able to use the experience of Ireland to help our team in the US. Because the value proposition is just as strong if not stronger in the US, because they’re having dramatic compelling issues there with wage rate increases, which drives the issue with guards, insurance, the shortage of labour.
“There’s all these unfilled positions within the guarding space. And the rates continue to go up. The number one thing that the US market wants to do is reduce how much they spend. So the compelling drivers in the US are the same as they are here, just at a different level.”
The model Netwatch has chosen is based on technology development in Ireland with an agency sales network in the US, so it’s a light presence Stateside, fronted and driven by Takahashi’s natural enthusiasm for both solving problems and selling solutions.
Takahashi has a long pedigree in security. He was appointed after The Riverside Company, a private equity firm, acquired Netwatch and consolidated it with three other security businesses to create a beefed-up challenger group.
He started his career in the 1980s and 1990s, going door to door on LA’s chic Melrose Avenue selling security tags to high-end fashion shops.
Security products were evolving rapidly with the advent of handheld and mountable small video cameras, VHS, CD and DVR data storage and live CCTV. Soon he was pitching upgrades and more integrated systems and services to owners who wanted to outsource security so they could focus on their core business.
“And then as the technology started to get better and better, the cameras got better, then the DVRs came out,” he says.
“Then we went through this whole analogue to IP version. And that was this huge transition, and then there was this whole world around access control and how do you handle identities?
“How do you do all the workflow and software development? It was this ever-growing, evolving technology space that I really enjoyed.”
That technology now includes artificial intelligence that can detect the difference between a fire and leaves blowing in the wind, or between an intruder or some other benign movement in a monitored space.
Netwatch deploys this AI and visual tech with human controllers that can intervene to prevent crime or damage rather than just provide reactive evidence after a problem occurs.
“Let’s just look at a physical guarding situation where you have a guard, and you have an outside of your building to surveil, to make sure if there are people that aren’t supposed to be there,” Takahashi begins, relishing the educational aspect of his job.
“Take an auto dealership. To pay a security guard to do that at night, one guy, to cover the entire lot is not very effective. And it’s extremely expensive. But you already have video cameras on your lot. So how do you take that idea and then incorporate tech enabled services like ours, where now if somebody comes on the lot after hours we can voice down and say, ‘Hey, you in a black sweater, you don’t belong here. If you don’t leave now, we’re going to dispatch the police’. Now we’re able to push those people off the lot before anything ever happens.”
Takahashi is a somewhat unusual leader for an Irish firm.
We’re used to Americans with Irish heritage coming back across the pond to run the local outposts of multinationals, flattering us by saying at every opportunity how delighted they are to have returned to the auld sod.
But Takahashi’s origins in a Japanese immigrant family had him looking across a different ocean in his Californian childhood.
Takahashi grew up with a very particular immigrant double-consciousness in La Habra, a community south of Los Angeles that was evenly split between white Anglos and Hispanics.
Takahashi was the only Japanese kid in his high school, his best friend the only African-American.
“It wasn’t really an experience, it was just that was my life,” he says.
“The only other Japanese families I grew up with were my extended family. It was only when I got into say high school where I started playing in the Japanese baseball leagues. That’s when I was like ‘Wow, there’s other Japanese people around here!’.
Takahashi’s great-grandparents arrived in California in 1918 to pursue the American dream. They integrated very quickly and became successful farmers, owning 100 acres in the state’s fertile and sun-drenched Central Valley. They acquired citizenship and, within a generation, Japanese wasn’t even typically spoken at home and the kids were given English names like Curtis and Warren.
Tragically, that changed on December 7, 1941, with Imperial Japan’s surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. In less than three months, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order authorising the internment of people of Japanese descent in designated “military zones”, which included California.
By August of that year more than 110,000 people had been put into camps in remote locations of the west, including both sides of Takahashi’s family, who lost everything they had built up in more than two decades as productive Americans.
“They were very successful farmers,” says Takahashi.
“And when the war happened, they signed over their property to their neighbour, because they were actually hoping that when you come back, you would get it back.
“But when they came back, obviously, they didn’t get it back.”
Takahashi’s mother was born in an internment camp in Nevada, while his father was born in a stable at the Santa Anita racetrack outside Los Angeles, which was a temporary detention centre for Japanese prisoners.
Once the war ended, Takahashi’s grandfather had to start again with nothing – mowing lawns for a living and selling plants out of a wheelbarrow for extra money – an enterprise that he eventually grew into the biggest nursery in La Habra.
This extraordinary turnaround in fortunes, from riches to rags to riches, seems quintessentially American both in terms of its shattering injustice and its vindication of the bootstrap mentality that built everything from the Empire State Building to Silicon Valley.
“When they got out, surprisingly, there wasn’t this overwhelming bitterness,” explains Takahashi. “It was, ‘you’re an American, you’re integrating, work hard, get educated, you’re gonna succeed’. And that was instilled in all of us.
“The one underlying thing, at least within our family and my friends who are also Japanese, is the same thing. Don’t focus on all that other stuff that happened that has no relevance to anything any more. It doesn’t affect you. Yeah, focus, dream big. And go after it. Because if they could do it, you could do it. And so we just never lingered on all that stuff.”
It’s impossible to gainsay Takahashi’s personal experience and family history as an American. After all, he is living proof of the doctrine of opportunity and hard work that every immigrant pursues.
But it is hard not to see the connection between the American tendency to perceive threats everywhere – often expressed as racial panic and xenophobia – and Netwatch’s market opportunity in the country.
In the wake of highly publicised instances of police brutality in recent years, most prominently the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it’s fair to say Netwatch is pushing into a market where the traditional fall back on “law and order” policing is becoming highly contested.
The marketing copy on Netwatch North America’s website falls full square behind the police:
“Police officers and other first responders are some of the most heroic individuals in our society. They are the ones who run toward a threat, rather than running away."
Takahash’s response is that Netwatch’s role is functional and technological.
“Obviously, you have to be conscientious about the social implications of what you’re doing.
“I think video surveillance is something that’s necessary, it’s accepted. Now, what you do with that information is where the ethical lines would probably get drawn. I don’t think we get into those categories.
"The customer is the one who owns the data. We wouldn’t be intervening with somebody locally on the ground if they weren’t doing something wrong. We wouldn’t be dispatching the police if they weren’t doing something wrong.”