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Who Stole Denver Burglar Alarm?

Stew Jackson let one of Denver's oldest family-owned businesses slip away, but his bands play on.

Stew Jackson's big band is at a rehearsal hall at 20th and Lincoln. Two hours from now, they're scheduled to go on stage behind the Supremes at Red Rocks, but they can't decipher the music. The arrangements are a train wreck, Jackson thinks--no one has gone to the expense of writing the shit down.

The day gets worse. Ten minutes after Jackson's band takes the stage as the Supremes' opening act, it starts to snow. Then it hails. People in the audience pull out their plastic rain slickers. The players try using clothespins to keep their music on the stands, but the wind blows the sheets away anyway. After twenty minutes, Jackson pulls his band off stage.

And then a small miracle. The sun sets, the moon comes out, and the fickle Colorado weather changes its tune. The storm breaks, and the Supremes take the stage.

Jackson exchanges a quick hello with Diana Ross. Another man working backstage, who fancies himself a bigwig, tries to get close to her. She turns on him. "Nobody walks beside me," she says. "Please walk in back."

The audience loves Ross and her group's hit-filled performance. "It was one hell of a night," Jackson says.

Actually, it was one hell of a decade for J. Stewart Jackson IV. His big bands and small combos played around Denver hundreds of times in the Sixties and Seventies. When pop-music stars of the day came through town, Jackson got the call. He backed Tony Bennett, the Four Tops, Vic Damone and Sammy Davis Jr. George Benson. Barry Manilow.

And that was Jackson's side gig. For the better part of the twentieth century, his family-owned business, Denver Burglar Alarm, dominated the local industry and set technological standards nationwide. As heir to one of Denver's oldest private businesses, Jackson was a wealthy man before he turned thirty.

The symbol of the company's dominance was a four-story fortress at 1955 Sherman Street. There armed guards patrolled the entrance behind a metal detector. The windows were wire-meshed. Some interior doors wouldn't open until others had closed. Visitors were photographed at the door. You couldn't get to the second floor--the central nervous system for tens of thousands of Denver's burglar-alarm systems--unless you pressed the right code on the security keypads.

"They are synonymous with the alarm business in Denver," says Mel Opel, who worked for DBA briefly but has spent more time as a competitor working with United Security Systems. "If you mention alarm systems in this town, the next question is, 'Are you DBA?'"

But not anymore. In 1996, Jackson sold his family's company to a national conglomerate; a year later, that company sold DBA to a rival security firm. Now Jackson wants his old company back. But just like that night at Red Rocks, it might take a miracle.

Denver Burglar Alarm has its roots in Denver Fire Dispatch, a company that started in 1892 and later became Denver Fire Reporter. In 1915 the fifteen-year-old John Stewart Jackson III joined Denver Fire Reporter, riding shotgun as the trucks barreled to various emergencies and recording water consumption for later billing.

One day in 1917, the company's owner told John that if something ever happened to him, John would get the company. A few days later the owner's clothes were found on the banks of Cherry Creek. He was never seen again.

John Jackson kept the company running while he finished high school and then studied dentistry. Denver Fire Reporter had only three clients: the Daniels & Fisher store, which for years was Denver's major department store; the McPhee and McGinnity Company, a lumber business; and the McMurtry Manufacturing Company, an old paint- and glass-making company. Each paid a dollar a month for protection. The buck didn't buy much: John locked up after business owners who left their doors open and attached red flags to let owners know they could pick up their keys at the police station; Denver Fire Reporter employees watched stores after hours, and when a burglary occurred, Stew Jackson says, "they were pretty good at finding out what had happened before the police did."

In 1929 John Jackson married one of his patients, Sara Robinson, who'd been working at Denver Fire Reporter as a bookkeeper and typist. It was Sara who began to recruit new clients while John ran his dental business. In three years Sara acquired more than 500 accounts, mostly going door-to-door. "I told people you better get [an alarm] soon because you might get knocked off tonight," she told the Rocky Mountain Business Journal in a 1982 interview. "I don't know where I learned such language, but I did real well and was the only salesperson for 25 years."

There was plenty of competition, but Stew Jackson says his folks gained the advantage with their attention to customer service. Old news clippings relate tales of derring-do from the Jacksons, who often hugged the nighttime shadows to case suspected prowlers. Sara once traveled alone to a warehouse the company was protecting and apprehended one of her own employees, a night guard, as he tried to loot the place. She told the guard never to show his face in Denver again.

Stew Jackson rarely worked with his parents, though he did go around to businesses and turn off lights and crank up the awnings. Once he helped his dad catch two robbers breaking into a safe: He knocked on the back door, which sent the crooks running through the front door, where John Jackson, armed with a gun, apprehended them.

By the 1940s, the company was protecting more than 1,400 businesses. The manpower drain created by World War II forced the company to develop more modern, electronics-based systems, so Sara began studying electrical-engineering books and apprenticing with electricians to learn the ropes. DBA stayed ahead of the high-tech curve with an assortment of modern talismans such as wired doors, windows protected with foil, vents with electronic gates, and photoelectric eyes.

The company was one of the first to install motion detectors, which flooded a room with "electrical cobwebs" to thwart prowlers. In 1954 the company added one of the nation's first ultra-high-frequency radio operations. After three astronauts were killed in a fire during an Apollo training simulation in 1967, DBA retrofitted the smoke detectors in NASA's moon-orbiting laboratories. In 1970 DBA developed a video electron detector, a closed-circuit television monitor that could detect movement when it crossed its screen. It was reported at the time to be the first such device in the world.

But Sara and John Jackson made enemies as well. On August 24, 1946, someone bombed the Jacksons' central station, through which all the alarms were channeled. Newspaper accounts suggested that criminals the Jacksons had caught were responsible. The family's home was bombed three times. Once, an explosive misfired and blew out the windows of the home next door. One that hit, in 1944, "blew out half the kitchen and part of the second floor," says Stew Jackson, who was eight at the time. (No one was injured in the blast.)

Young Stew did not dream of taking over the company. He dreamed of being a ballplayer, then a musician. His father, a disciplinarian, forced him to start piano lessons at age eight. He was made to practice fifteen to twenty minutes in the morning before school, the same at lunchtime, and forty minutes more in the evening. His sisters were enlisted to monitor him.

"Music kept me together," Jackson says. "Otherwise, I'd have ended up in the joint."

The only type of piano training available at the time was classical; Jackson's first introduction to jazz came a few years later, when Norman Grantz came to town with his Jazz at the Philharmonic, a large band featuring such legends as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. "It blew me away," says Jackson.

Soon afterward, Sara bought him a tenor sax from a pawnshop, and by seventh grade, he was playing.

A year later, in 1949, John Jackson died of a heart attack. Stew never got over his father's death. "It turned me into one belligerent son of a bitch, just looking for trouble," he says. He took up boxing to deal with his aggression and liked the idea that in the ring, "you have to rely on yourself." He also continued to play sax, especially in Denver's black clubs. No one minded the little white kid with his horn. In fact, many Five Points residents had known Stew's father; he'd been their dentist.

Back then, the sixteen-year-old had his pick of places. At the elegant Rossonian, Jackson says, he once sat in with Count Basie's band. Further down Welton, he played at the small club upstairs at the Rhythm Record Shop. But for Jackson, the best place to be was Lil's, an after-hours club where he could do a little drinking on the side.

Jackson graduated from high school in 1954, then signed on for a stint with the Navy Conservatory, where he wound up playing with the house band for the U.S.S. Intrepid as it toured the Mediterranean. He spent his final year in the service in San Francisco, were he took a few engineering classes at the University of California at Berkeley. He returned to Colorado in 1958 and picked up a business degree at CU in 1962. By then, Jackson says, he was ready to assume his place in the family business--but he also put together a band and began playing regularly.

Jackson began his career at DBA as a salesman. By the late Sixties, he was his mother's right hand. Under Stew, the company helped design the alarm system for the Tower of London. In 1972 a ring of five DBA repairmen and technicians were arrested for stealing $150,000 in cash and goods from the homes they were assigned to protect, but other than that, things sailed smoothly. By 1975, DBA had integrated its modern electronics with its old-fashioned patroling. Computers were installed at 1955 Sherman, and the company essentially employed its own civilian police force, with 100 armed guards roaming the streets in radio-equipped cars and trucks. DBA was the third-largest independent alarm company in the U.S.

"Even though a lot of people thought of him as a playboy and not interested in anything other than his bands, his actions were important in keeping the company afloat," Mel Opel says of Jackson.

And Jackson's bands kept playing. Once he backed Mel Torme and sold the singer a car alarm. He played behind Sammy Davis Jr. for three nights at the Auditorium Theater. During rehearsals, the band and Sammy got so wrapped up in a televised heavyweight fight that they came on stage forty minutes late and almost got thrown off.

"Sammy said, 'Don't worry about it.' When you come to see Sammy Davis, you come to see Sammy Davis," Jackson says. Davis was a beautiful guy, says Jackson. Jackson loves telling stories about the beautiful guys he's known.

Like Denver boxer Ron Lyle, a beautiful guy he met while playing a gig at the state pen. Lyle was serving time there for pushing a guy to his death off a bridge. That was before the boxer got his life together and fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship in 1975.

And Jackson first met Tony Bennett in 1964 in New York. "I played with him many, many times," Jackson says. Twelve years ago, Jackson says, he ran into Bennett on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. The singer had two women on his arm and asked Jackson if he could "take these ladies off my hands."

Jackson himself has been married twice and has six children. He lives in a large home in Bow Mar. In addition to DBA, he once owned the British Double Decker bus company, and he owns a string of restaurants along East 17th Avenue, Denver's so-called restaurant row. A longtime customer of Cliff Young's namesake restaurant, Jackson partnered with Young in 1993, then took over sole ownership two years later. He also purchased the restaurant next door; formerly a swank nightclub called Ruby's, it's now the elegant Vino Vino. This past April, Jackson shrank Cliff Young's to a small ten-table room and opened up Dante Bichette's Sports Grill and Roadhouse in the main part of the restaurant. Though Bichette's name is on it, the Colorado Rockies slugger does not have an ownership interest in the restaurant but receives a "percentage of various revenues," according to Jackson.

Besides restaurants, Jackson also acquired the licensing rights to the name and repertoire of the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1991. (Herman, a clarinetist and alto saxophonist, led several famous big bands during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. By the end of the Sixties, his manager had gambled away the band's income-tax money. Herman sold his home and continued playing with new versions of his group until his death in 1987.) Jackson now handles the administrative end and, on occasion, sits in with the orchestra.

In the 1980s, though he still played plenty of casual gigs around town, Jackson's high-profile shows began to taper off. Some say Denver Burglar Alarm's edge was slipping as well.

DBA still ruled the local market and had offices in Colorado Springs and clientele from Cheyenne to La Junta. But according to Stan Schwab, a friend and rival of Jackson's, "the company was not moving. Decisions were not being made."

Tom Leak, a DBA employee for eleven years, adds, "Everything was rolling along as it had for years. There was no new technology."

Jackson steams at accusations that his company was ever not the best. "Bullshit. Neither one knows half of what they're talking about. Let those no-talent motherfuckers tell me something," he says of his detractors, one of whom, Schwab, is also his golfing partner.

Jackson says that in 1982 DBA developed a new technology that allowed alarm systems and the central station to communicate every 25 seconds via radio waves. And in 1987, he says, the company provided security for the Denver Art Museum's traveling exhibit of the 47-ton likeness of Ramses II's tomb and the treasures contained within.

Skip Swift worked with DBA from 1986 to 1992 and says it was fun; parties on Jackson's double-decker buses were not uncommon, nor were huge open-house affairs during the holidays at Jackson's Bow Mar estate.

Jackson's buddy Howard Pettit, who started working for DBA in the early Sixties and has remained with Jackson ever since, says employees vacationed together in Mexico. "One thing about DBA," Pettit says. "If [employees] made it through the first year, they'd usually stay for ten to fifteen years."

But none of the employees knew that Jackson was thinking merger. In the mid-Nineties, industrialist H. Wayne Huizenga was trying to make his Republic Industries the world's largest security company (a title held--then and now--by ADT). In a matter of six months, Republic had built up one of the largest security companies in the world. Huizenga approached Jackson in late 1995.

"The alarm industry had been hugely fragmented," says Jeff Kessler, a senior vice president with Lehman Brothers who covers the security business. Kessler says the industry was ripe for consolidation.

On a plane ride to Fort Lauderdale, Jackson read Huizenga's biography. According to Gail DeGeorge's book, The Making of a Blockbuster, Huizenga was a fiercely competitive dealmaker who had built two billion-dollar companies: Waste Management (now WMX Technologies) and Blockbuster Entertainment. The former began in 1962 with one truck and one garbage route in South Florida and grew to be the world's largest waste-management company. And from a $7 million chain of nineteen video stores in Dallas, Huizenga built a company worth $4 billion, operating 3,700 stores in eleven countries. (Blockbuster was sold to Viacom, Inc., in 1994.)

Like the waste business and the video business, the security business is based on the repetition of services, and this was another chance for Huizenga to be number one.

The courtship lasted from November 1995 through the following February, when Jackson sold DBA to Republic. In a stock-swap deal estimated at about $82 million, Republic acquired DBA and two other companies. Jackson won't reveal how much the DBA portion of the deal was worth. He says Huizenga recognized DBA as a proven winner and promised no changes. Jackson would stay on as CEO. Republic's deep pockets would enable DBA to offer free installation of its security systems. Jackson thought he had a great deal on his hands.

Patrick Egan, who ran his own security company for a number of years in Pennsylvania and sold to Republic in January 1997, says that an offer such as Huizenga's was just what the medium-sized independents were looking for. "We were waiting for someone to consolidate the independents. Entrepreneurs like Stew and myself saw an opportunity."

Still, Jackson's move caught some in the industry off-guard. "I was personally surprised," says Bob Bonifas, who runs one of the largest remaining independent security companies out of Aurora, Illinois.

For several months business remained strong. Huzienga ordered Jackson to equip his whole service fleet with new trucks.

The happy feelings didn't last, however. Still going after number one, Republic tried to "create a friendly deal with ADT," Kessler says. But when the proposed deal was announced, Republic stock plunged. Investors were nervous about Republic making such a huge commitment when industry growth percentages were "slow potatoes" compared to the auto retail business, which Republic was also attempting to consolidate. (In the past year, Republic has bought out three of the area's largest auto dealerships: the Emich Group, the Chesrown Group and John Elway's six dealerships.)

"The size of the amount of stock they were going to have to issue made the stock quite volatile," Kessler says. "It spooked the chairman of ADT." The deal fell through in September 1996. "To some people, the writing was on the wall," he says. "If Republic couldn't get ADT, they were left in the number-four position. Fourth place wasn't worth it to Huizenga."

"When [Huizenga] found out he wasn't going to be number one, he sold it to Ameritech," echoes Pettit. Ameritech's security division, SecurityLink, purchased Republic's alarm-company assets in October 1997.

Jackson says he was out of town when he got a call from Bob Guerin, president of Republic's securities division. "He said, 'There'll be a conference call. They sold all the assets to Ameritech.' I didn't know who Ameritech was," Jackson says.

But he knew he was on the outs, a fact confirmed when Ameritech officials arrived at DBA headquarters soon after. Jackson says he invited them out for lunch but was rebuffed. It was Friday, and they wanted him out by Monday.

"I think the sale with Republic, he was gonna get the best of both worlds," Pettit says of Jackson. "He got money, got the CEO position--how good can it get? When they sold to Ameritech, he was devastated and betrayed, then pissed."

Stan Schwab, who'd been Jackson's close colleague in the mid-Eighties, had been against the deal from the beginning.

"I think Stew was in a time of his life when he had a lot of things coming at him, inside and outside," says Schwab, who is now SecurityLink's regional manager. "I think in all honesty, Huizenga has a lot of flair to him, a reputation as a superstar. I think Stew was a little mesmerized by the attention."

"Of all the people I know, I'm the last one to be star-struck," Jackson responds. "I've been around stars. But Huizenga's word is like platinum on Wall Street. He's a winner."

Jackson denies any personal or professional troubles, describing the years of the acquisition as "one of the calmer, better times in my life."

But his family was surprised when Jackson sold the company to Huizenga. "I really thought it would never happen, because it's been in our family so long," says Jackson's daughter Mandy. "We all took it personally. I don't know how my grandmother would feel about it."

"I'm absolutely baffled. It's beyond my wildest imagination that [Ameritech would] tear the guts out of the company," Jackson says. Ameritech fired DBA's top 100 people, he says. "The morale declined instantly. Service declined instantly."

"Ameritech customers are jumping off like rats off a ship," Bonifas adds.
Kessler says the company's troubles are common for any consolidation effort. "Whenever you have a small mom-and-pop business and you throw it open to a national company, service is going to initially suffer. That doesn't mean it will last forever, but there is a shaking-out period. There's no guarantee Ameritech will succeed, but there's no guarantee they will fail, either."

SecurityLink officials say the company is doing well, and according to a recent list of the top 100 security firms, published by Security Dealer Magazine, SecurityLink finished number two, with 1,100,000 subscribers and gross revenues of $450 million in 1997.

For all his vitriol against Ameritech, Jackson acknowledges his own role in what has happened to his family's business. "I feel great responsibility to that in many dimensions," Jackson says. "I'm trying not to mitigate it, but I want to give customers another choice."

These days, the four-story building where Sara Jackson lived in a penthouse apartment until her death hardly looks like a high-tech fortress. Now, it looks as if it was abandoned in the 1960s. The walls of a second-floor conference room are covered with cork. The carpeting is aqua, the lampshades green. SecurityLink is shopping for a new place to set up its regional office. The company's central stations are being moved to a handful of national sites; Denver alarms will route through Florida, then back to Colorado law-enforcement agencies.

The headquarters for Stew Jackson's new company, Jackson Burglar Alarm, is just around the corner, at 100 East 20th Avenue. It is, in fact, the former after-hours club where Jackson's band rehearsed to open for the Supremes.

Inside, Jackson works on the old raised bandstand, and four or five other people work nearby. There are no offices, just one big room, some desks and a tiny kitchen stocked with coffee supplies.

The only reminder of the old dynasty is the red-shield logo of Jackson Burglar Alarm--a virtual duplicate of the DBA logo. Already, SecurityLink has sent a letter warning Jackson that the new logo looks too much like the old one. Jackson says he's planning to redesign it.

And he's fighting back with newspaper ads. One is so big it reads more like a printed infomercial. "Ameritech has boasted that they will be continuing to layoff and downsize in order to get everything to Florida as soon as possible," Jackson writes. "The Jackson Burglar Alarm personnel possess many years of experience. All but two employees are from my previous staff at Denver Burglar Alarm."

The JBA logo notes that the company had its start way back in 1892.
"Stew's kind of a colorful guy," says Schwab. "He likes to win. Sometimes he sees things differently than what the facts are." Schwab says a cop once said that Jackson's "1892" meant the company started "18 hours and 92 minutes ago."

"I wish the best for Jackson Alarm," Schwab says. "He has the knowledge, the financial power to drive; he's got the anger."

And Jackson's still the man about town. During an interview in the back room of one of his restaurants, someone pages him with tickets to a show in Manhattan. A week later a promoter in S‹o Paulo, Brazil, is trying to book Jackson and the Herman Orchestra to come to South America.

On a recent Saturday night, Jackson is decked in a gold blazer and black shirt with razor-like collars sweeping around his neck. He's at Vino Vino to see tango stars Daniela Arcuri and Armando Orzuza play before a packed crowd, which Jackson whips up with boisterous "Bravo!"s.

Then it's through the kitchen to Cliff Young's, where several men and women decked in suits, ties and dresses quietly eat under dim lights. Jackson tips the piano man to play some Rachmaninoff.

Then Bichette arrives. The Rockies' slugger is dressed in a white shirt with the Nike swoosh, some black gym pants and a Mickey Mouse fanny pack, so it's over to Dante Bichette's Grill, where Rockies fans approach the jovial left-fielder for autographs.

Jackson met Bichette two years ago at a Rockies fantasy baseball camp during spring training. "I felt like he was the guy who could make it work," Bichette says of his restaurant venture with Jackson. "Plus, he loves baseball."

At the end of the evening, Jackson steps behind the wheel of his 1947 Cadillac. It's a lime-green job with a beige canvas roof, plump whitewashed wheels and bulging wheel wells. There's a gig at the Hornet, and Jackson thought he might sit in and play a few tunes. By the time he shows up, though, he can see through the joint's windows that only the drum stand is still up.

But the Herman Orchestra is set to play on a cruise to the Caribbean next March. And Bichette has agreed to do a commercial for JBA.

"This," Jackson says, "is where the game begins.

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