In 1973, Bill Mullis moved to Columbia from his home in Monroe, N.C., borrowed some money and started a lucrative business selling high-priced guard dogs.
By 1991, Mullis would have up to 70 dogs at the old Columbia city dog pound near the water treatment plant at any given time. None ran loose, because they were threats to each other and to Mullis’ customers.
One night that year, someone broke into the pound, stole some prime Rottweiler puppies, computers and tools. Then it happened again. Frustrated, Mullis threw up a crude electric fence around his property. It worked.
When a county jail in Georgia wanted to buy some guard dogs, Mullis offered them an electric fence because it was safer for employees and inmates. Then a salvage company asked for fencing when one of Mullis’ guard dogs bit off the owner’s thumb.
From there, an innovative company with an odd name was born – Electric Guard Dog.
“It was a combination of necessity and fluke luck,” Mullis said.
Mullis sold the business to a private equity firm in 2007, and it has since been sold again. But the name has remained the same. And, to some people, it’s confusing.
“For people who aren’t familiar with security, they confuse us with electric dog fencing. That’s a negative,” said current chief executive Jack DeMao “However, when they hear our story, the logic of the name sticks with them.”
Today, the company – located on the University of South Carolina campus – installs high-tech, solar-powered electric security fences in 48 states for companies such as FedEx, UPS and United Rentals. Last year it was voted Dealer of the Year by Security Distributing and Marketing Magazine.
And, unlike any other security company, Electric Guard Dog installs and maintains the fence and equipment for free and charges a monthly subscription service. The average subscription is about $1,000 a month on a 36-month contract.
“Nobody is doing what we’re doing for commercial security,” DeMao said. “We took the concept of farm fencing, connected it with solar power, a monitoring system and an alarm system.”
Using solar power is not only green, Mullis said, but ensures the security fences keep working when the power goes down during a storm or other emergencies.
“I did solar from the beginning, because people would ask me about power outages,” Mullis said. “I was solar before solar was cool.”
Electric Guard Dog has been expanding its business by 15 percent each year since 2007. The goal is to expand by 25 percent per year in the future, DeMao said.
Currently, the company draws about $3 million a month in subscriptions,” he said.
The company recently moved from its offices on Fairfield Road to the new, five-story Innovation Center office building at the corner of Assembly and Blossom streets. The building is a partnership between the university and Atlanta developer John Holder.
IBM also has a presence in the building.
“We’re pleased that Electric Guard Dog has found a home at USC,” said Bill Kirkland, director of USC’s Office of Economic Engagement. “The Innovation Center, and the Innovista district in general, is an ideal place for growing companies who want to be in a vibrant location where researchers, students and entrepreneurs can interact on a daily basis. That’s a big part of the reason companies like Boeing and IBM have chosen to create partnerships with the university, and we look forward to even more successes in coming months.”
Electric Guard Dog spent $800,000 to build out the entire 20,000-square-foot fifth floor of the building. The move allowed the company to double its staff from 60 to 120. It also has 100 contractors nationwide.
DeMao said being on campus has multiple benefits, from tapping into university research on such technologies as improved batteries and solar panels, to being able to draw from a large pool of interns and young professionals connected to USC.
“It will be easier to find people to hire going forward,” he said, “I can offer (interns and new graduates) practical experience.”
Because the technology is new, Electric Guard Dog often has to negotiate new regulations with individual states, counties and cities.
“We’re Uber-like in that regard,” he said, referring to the ride-hailing app. “The rules that exist don’t include electric security fences.”
DeMao has made a career taking startups from founding to the next level, both domestically and internationally. The workspace at the Innovation Center is bright, cheery, flexible and, well, innovative. DeMao himself is engaging, enthusiastic and dedicated to the company and his employees.
But there is a major downside to the job. To show customers and others that the fence will deter thieves, but isn’t deadly, DeMao often touches a small, mobile grid of fence carrying 8,400 volts of current, the same as the fence.
“It’s the least pleasant part of my job,” he said. “It hurts really bad.”