News & Features » Miscellany

A team of Richmonders designs embassies that foil terrorists.

The Secrets of Security


Terrorists had made it clear: Americans weren't welcome.

Yet here was Michael W. Matthews, a world away from his Richmond office, standing amid the rubble of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

A month earlier, in August 1998, the embassy had been bombed along with the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 190 people — including 11 Americans — and injuring more than 5,000.

"I felt perfectly safe," says Matthews. He concedes that his confidence may have been boosted by a local guard who manned a machine gun nearby.

Working in such politically unstable territory is part of the job for Matthews, president of Richmond-based Hankins and Anderson Inc.

He and his colleagues are building-systems consultants. About 20 percent of their business consists of helping build and upgrade U.S. embassies abroad. In the case of Tanzania, they had been called in to help construct an interim embassy.

It's work that few people will know about. The nature of their assignments, which require security clearances from the Department of Defense, prevents them from discussing project details — even with spouses. Blueprints are kept under lock and key. Trips to third-world countries often are required at a moment's notice. Only 20 of the company's 70 employees are allowed to perform embassy-related work.

"It's all controlled," says William L. Turns III, the company's senior vice president and chief electrical engineer. But that doesn't stand in the way of it being a thrilling job, he says: "It's exciting. It's fun to do."

And it keeps them busy. On a Monday afternoon in late February, two employees are on their way to a job in Algiers, Algeria. Matthews gets a call that the company has landed a five-year, $5 million renewable contract to provide electrical engineering services for the State Department. Tomorrow, Turns leaves for a two-week assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Because of the time and money involved, it's not easy to get into embassy work, says a state department official who asks not to be named. "It's a lot of effort for a company to get their personnel cleared," she says.

But it's a good time to be in the business.

Although there was a push to improve U.S. embassies after the 1983 bombing of the embassy in Beirut, the effort lost steam. Then in August 1998, attacks on the embassies in Africa renewed concern. So the U.S. Department of State asked Congress to increase funding for security upgrades and new embassies. One oversight panel recommended $1.4 billion a year for the next 10 years. About $1 billion is in the budget for 2001.

Executives at the 54-year-old Hankins and Anderson hope to funnel a good part of that investment their way.

Already, they've received some plum assignments: working on a new office building in Cairo, Egypt; restoring the embassy in Maputo, Mozambique after disastrous flooding; performing energy conservation studies for 12 embassies, including two of the largest — Tokyo, Japan, and London, England.

The work is also challenging, they say. They must design air conditioners to withstand drastic climate conditions, develop stable electrical systems regardless of unstable foreign utilities and create easy-to-maintain buildings in countries where a Lowe's isn't around the corner.

They must also take safety precautions. Typically, Williams says, employees join a state department representative at their destination, meet with a State Department security officer for a briefing, then head to the embassy to learn more about their job.

But they usually feel comfortable, Williams says. And besides, the risks are worth it. The best part of the job? "It's everything," he

Add a comment