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Investigative Firm Keeps Eye on Ethics : Intelligence: Newport Beach company performs background checks on corporations, business partners and individuals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When political candidates want to check out an opponent, they call in an opposition research team. And when an Orange County company wants to determine the weaknesses and strengths of a business competitor, it calls Thomas C. Lawson.

A certified fraud investigator, Lawson created a company called Apscreen in 1980 to perform background investigations of job applicants. But demand for his services has since spread to various industries, including so-called “sweetheart checks” on a client’s mate and, most recently, to gathering information on a company’s competitor.

Now, with annual revenues approaching $2 million, the profitable Newport Beach company has more than 2,000 clients worldwide and maintains a large archive of public documents. With eight employees and 53 independent contractors, the company can check litigation, driving, property, corporate, bankruptcy and credit records throughout the nation.

“We’re one of the only games in town and this is the fraud capital of the world,” said Lawson, who said he often works with private investigators or the Newport Beach Police Department on his cases.

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A relatively new area for Lawson is what is known as “competitive intelligence"--loosely defined as any information which gives a company or executive a competitive edge. Usually the information is gathered through public documents, interviews and other standard methods, but some companies use shady methods, such as bribing employees, to acquire information.

Though a young industry, there are already some big players in the secretive world of competitive intelligence, probably the most well-known among insiders being Kroll and Associates, a New York-based firm that has a 20-person Los Angeles office. There is even a Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, a trade group located near Washington.

Lawson stresses that he consistently remains aboveboard in all his corporate dealings, even going so far as not to call it competitive intelligence gathering but referring to it as “due diligence” or “corporate background.”

Regardless of labels, in the highly competitive 1990s, Lawson said, more and more executives are coming to him to help them get a jump on their competitors.

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“Let’s say you are a computer company and you want to know what AST Research (the Irvine-based computer maker) is doing. There are ways to find out,” said Lawson.

Lawson uses public documents, interviews and research methods to determine what things are going on with a competitor. He will scrutinize a rival’s number of employees, all pending and possible litigation, discover when leases are scheduled to expire, interview people about a company’s reputation, and examine the financial condition of the company.

But Lawson said there are limits to his business--and some things he just won’t do. For example, he won’t hire a helicopter to fly over a company and count cars in the parking lot, bribe people inside a company for information or sneak a “plant” inside a company.

“I want to bring ethical standards to this business,” said Lawson. “Since I’ve had an opportunity to become tenured in the field, I have a chance now to create industry standards in what was and still is a cottage industry.”

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A Pasadena native, the 38-year-old Lawson left Cal State Sacramento to start his own business, called Tomsupply, a wholesale distributor of radio control models, such as airplanes. At 22, he sold the company at a profit, then moved back to Southern California to work for a furniture wholesaler.

Lawson said he was successful at the furniture business, but his career took a turn when he met ex-FBI agent Ted Gunderson. The agent had started his own security firm in Westwood and talked Lawson into working for him and learning the trade. Lawson worked with Gunderson for several years, learning everything he could about the investigative trade and getting his certified fraud examiner’s license along the way.

Lawson decided to strike out on his own, founding Apscreen with less than $10,000. He quickly acquired a few clients, mostly defense companies. Now, at least 40% of his business is Orange County companies, with about 30% in Las Vegas.

“It wasn’t hard,” he said. “I was always an entrepreneur, always very enthusiastic. I think FDR said it best: ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Especially in the 1990s, with everyone losing their jobs, it’s easy to be afraid.”

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Richard D. Rogge, once an FBI agent for 30 years who now runs his own Westlake Village firm, Dick Rogge & Associates Investigations, has known Lawson for 13 years. Lawson often uses Rogge to do investigative work for him.

“I feel I’m qualified to pick out good fellows, and he’s one of them,” said Rogge. “I think he runs a formidable firm--one of the best in Southern California, maybe in the nation. He’s extremely ethical.” Lawson remembers the day a Tustin factory called him after a worker killed two people. For $75 a person, Apscreen evaluated all the company’s employees and any prospective hires for potential violence.

“The thing we work for is for our customers not to need us anymore,” he said. Lawson found the company had an extremely poor morale and several workplace problems and eventually the entire staff was turned over in two years.

“He does great work,” said Charlie Beswick, a retired fraud investigator with the Newport Beach Police Department who has worked with Lawson for 10 years. “Lawson’s tenacious and wants to get to the bottom of things--he’s got a pretty good mind.”

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If your Orange County company has annual sales of less than $10 million, we would like to consider it for a future column. Call O.C. Enterprise at (714) 966-7871.

O.C. Enterprise: Apscreen

ABOUT THE COMPANY

* Location: 2043 Westcliff Drive, Suite 300, Newport Beach

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* Owner: Thomas C. Lawson

* Business: Helps employers and individuals screen prospective employees and business partners. Also conducts background checks on mates and spouses. Checks out weaknesses and strengths of a business competitor.

* Management: Daily operating authority is controlled by president and owner Lawson. The division manager for asset research is Lisa Gee, and Linda Cooley and Simon Pinkas are the accounting staff. Lawson’s wife, Lyn, manages the employee screening division.

* Founded: 1980, with owner’s savings and $5,000 loan from a partner.

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OWNER’S REFLECTIONS

* What was your biggest challenge?

“Convincing the business community to do employment screening. When I started, nobody did it. It was not in vogue in 1980.”

* What was your biggest mistake?

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“In 1986, I had 32 employees on site and that was too many. Now we have only eight people on staff, with 53 (independent) contractors in California.”

* What was the best advice you received?

“Never do anything that’s less than perfect.”

* What was the most important lesson you learned?

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“Don’t ever fall asleep at the switch or get distracted from your goal.”

* What advice would you give someone starting out?

“Just remember for the first five years, expect to stay awake 24 hours a day. You have to believe in yourself and provide great integrity. Don’t cheat people. You’ll get back tenfold what you put in.”


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