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Alum oversees safety, security at Chicago’s Willis Tower

Keith Kambic atop Willis Tower

Illinois State alum Keith Kambic ’86 was recruited to oversee security and life safety for Willis Tower in 2004.

Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Downtown Chicago is a city within a city. One of the tallest buildings in the world, the tower is home to more than 100 different companies and their 12,000 employees. Approximately 2,000 business guests visit daily along with as many as 15,000 tourists to the building’s iconic skydeck, which boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding metropolis. These 26,000 individuals rely on Keith Kambic ’86 to keep them safe and secure.

Kambic has completely reimagined security at Willis Tower since he was recruited to oversee security and life safety for the building in 2004. Though three years had passed since the September 11 attacks that toppled the World Trade Center in New York City, security practices had not shifted to reflect a healing nation.

“In the Midwest we feel isolated,” said Kambic, who is senior director of security and life safety. “9/11 was so new to Midwesterners, especially for property managers and building owners. The immediate reaction was to throw as many people as you possibly can at the problem.”

The security staff had been increased to maintain a striking presence in the building. Guests and employees alike were required to pass through metal detectors immediately upon entering the building; creating a time-intensive process that drained security staff resources and taxed the patience of prospective tenants, employees, and clients.

“You can’t maintain that kind of expenditure and stay successful,” Kambic said. “You have to provide a safe and secure environment for people to come to work in. But at the end of the day you have to manage the business.”

Kambic immediately identified methods to create a relaxing atmosphere in Willis Tower, while still maintaining a high level of security. He removed the metal detectors and X-ray machines from the immediate entrance that deterred guests from shopping or stopping for refreshments in one of Willis Tower’s nine restaurants. Kambic also created an ID system so that regular employees could pass quickly through checkpoints on their way in and out of the office.

In addition, he and his team implemented a new visitor management system and began requiring businesses to register all guests in advance. Surprisingly, the change decreased the daily business visitor traffic from 1,700 to 1,200 in 2004—evidence that a staggering number of people in the building were solicitors or attempting to scam their way up to the skydeck.

Implementing new technology and procedure changes were only the beginning of Kambic’s plan. He also set out to create a shift in culture among his security staff. Until Kambic arrived, security staff wore hard uniforms modeled after the Chicago Police Department. He recognized that the ominous presence could be unnerving to visitors in a city that had begun to relax since 9/11, so he redesigned the uniforms. All 75 of his staff members are outfitted in sharp, tailored suits with vibrant, bright ties.

He did not only change the uniforms. Kambic also instilled a strong sense of customer service in his team.

“When I hire security staff here I am not necessarily looking for security experience,” Kambic said. “I am looking for the ability to talk to people. You can teach someone to do rounds or evacuate people, but you can’t teach human interaction.”

Kambic notes that talking to a suspicious person can be as much of a deterrent as metal detectors or bold uniforms. He trains security personnel with the skillset to distinguish between a lost tourist or a person conducting surveillance on the building for future theft or other crimes.

“U.S. Equities (which oversees management and leasing for Willis Tower) and the new owners knew that to become a successful building, we had obstacles that we needed to overcome,” Kambic said. “We needed to change the posture of security to give a feeling of comfort to people here and to attract new tenants.”

Kambic’s planning has shown positive results. In addition to receiving praise from building tenants and visitors, occupancy has increased. When he started, Willis Tower’s occupancy ranged from 70–80 percent. Today it is almost 90 percent.

The path to Willis Tower

The success is sweet for Kambic, especially given he came to ISU expecting to study chemistry until he found he didn’t have any aptitude for the subject. During a year off to reassess his career goals, Kambic took police tests and read up on criminal justice, deciding it was a fit and enrolling in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State.

Kambic noted that graduates of the program knew they were “either going to be a police officer, probation officer, or a prison security officer.” Kambic had interned at the Tazewell County probation office and decided he didn’t want to work in probation. He also knew that he didn’t want to work in the prison system. Kambic decided to become an officer, testing for a number of programs before accepting a position in Joliet.

However at the same time he received an offer to become a security, safety, and quality control officer for a retail distribution center. Kambic was encouraged by his cousin, who had already served several years as a police officer, to take the job.

The position saw Kambic exploring internal theft and safety cases. He discovered that he enjoyed the security field and had a knack for the work. After four years in the industrial environment, he accepted a position at Montgomery Ward at an inner-city Chicago store. Kambic dealt with shoplifters, learned the art of internal theft, and gained the skills to unravel simple and complex schemes. Often he would rely on verbal craft—interviewing and interrogating to eventually get individuals to admit that they did something wrong.

“In that type of venue you really get to see the good, you really get to see the bad, and you get to see how weird people are,” Kambic said.

Over the next 10 years he expanded in his role. Kambic transferred to the Montgomery Ward corporate office where he learned corporate protection, celebrity protection, and how to conduct investigations into credit card fraud, kickback schemes, and other white collar crimes.

“You really end up seeing the dark side of people in this work,” Kambic said.

Eventually Kambic returned to the field as a district manager for Montgomery Ward, overseeing all of Chicago—19 stores and a distribution center. Annually he and his team would catch 1,000 internal theft schemes and 5,000 shoplifters.

Though he thoroughly enjoyed his work at Montgomery Ward, Kambic recognized a looming corporate bankruptcy and a hot job market as signs to seek a new challenge.

He joined Kroll Worldwide, where he worked on security and risk assessment projects for the Lincoln Museum, the University of Chicago, International Monetary Fund, and the Dominican Republic’s Banco Popular.

Working with risk analysis and planning, engineering, and bidding out integrated security systems was a career turning point for Kambic. It set the stage for him to be placed in charge of security for the Aon Center (formerly the Amoco Building). The work in turn prepared him to assume responsibility over Willis Tower—a burden he shoulders with pride.

“I believe I have one of the best jobs in the country,” Kambic said. “I work in a place where I can go anywhere in the country, say I work in this particular building, and most people will know where I work and what I do. There are only a handful of jobs that are like that.”