Sitting in the offices of a security firm he built up over a quarter-century, Robert F. Johnson helped his friend William Bratton come up with a plan for reducing crime in New York City. It was the mid-1990s, and Bratton was gearing up to be police commissioner there.
“Bob was adamant about the importance of goals: setting goals and measurement, measuring against those goals,” Bratton said, “and that was something that always stuck with me.”
Mr. Johnson, who cofounded and ran First Security Services Corp., one of the largest security firms in the Northeast, died of Alzheimer’s disease Nov. 5 in his Marblehead home. He was 74.
With three employees and a small, 500-square-foot office, he started his business with just $1,700. Expanding over the years, the company grew to more than 5,000 employees with about $140 million in revenues.
During those years, law enforcement officials such as Bratton sought Mr. Johnson’s expertise as they dealt with challenges their agencies faced.
“They exemplified the America success story, very humble beginnings,” Bratton said of Mr. Johnson’s company.
In its early days, when its office was nothing much to look at, First Security Services staff often met with potential clients in a nearby restaurant, but they didn’t need fancy furnishings to establish the company’s reputation, family and friends said.
First Security Services Corp. ‘exemplified the America success story, very humble beginnings.’
“Bob himself was admired in that world because of both his success and how he obtained success,” said Bratton, who has led police departments in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City. “He was a man of values whose work was his bond.”
Bratton added that “in a very competitive industry, he was very highly regarded.”
Early on, the investigative arm of First Security Services took on a series of arson investigations for several insurance companies, which helped lead to dozens of convictions and built a name for the company, which Mr. Johnson steered toward the niche of high-end security, tapping into the tremendous growth of high-tech companies in New England.
He also stayed involved in Boston law enforcement, assisting when Bratton was Boston’s police commissioner by helping fund various initiatives to help the department, including acquiring bicycles for police officers.
“There are obviously a couple of very dangerous people out there who act with total disregard for public safety,” Mr. Johnson told the Globe in 1993 after he donated $5,000 for a reward for information leading to an arrest in the killing of a 9-year-old boy. “Our purpose is to help solve this quickly and get these people off the street.”
Mr. Johnson made sure his security officers were highly trained and well paid, his family said. He also was known among employees for using mistakes as teachable moments.
“He respected everyone and everyone in turn respected him,” said his daughter, Janet Husband of Marblehead. “He showed you what he wanted you to do, but didn’t expect you to just know.”
Each of Mr. Johnson’s four children had the chance to work in the company, she said, and each learned a great deal about the security industry, a subject that filled bookcases in their father’s office. He often cited his favorite quote from Gandhi : “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Mr. Johnson grew up in the Fields Corner section of Dorchester, graduating from Dorchester High School in 1956.
He served in the Navy for two years and met Sandra Huddy during a dance along the Charles River. The two married in 1960 and began raising their family on the North Shore.
Mr. Johnson worked at Burns International Detective Agency before starting his own company.
He attended night courses at Northeastern University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1972. He went on to receive a law degree in 1976 from what is now New England Law Boston.
“He was a person who was very determined, but he was also very ethical in the sense that he would always do what he thought was the right thing,” said his sister, Patricia, of Marlborough.
In 1999, First Security Services agreed to be acquired by Pinkerton USA, part of the Securitas Group. Mr. Johnson stayed on as a consultant for a year before retiring. He also served for a time as leader of the International Security Management Association.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Massachusetts officials tapped Mr. Johnson to be a member of a special advisory task force for Massport.
“I always said that you’d never know how successful he was,” his daughter said. “He could have been the manager of Starbucks, just a regular Joe kind of guy.”
A service has been held for Mr. Johnson, who, in addition to his wife, daughter, and sister, leaves three sons, Mark of Tracy, Calif., Michael of Phoenixville, Pa., and Paul of Newburyport; and nine grandchildren.
“Bob was a big guy all his life, but he had an outsized personality to go with it,” Bratton said. “He was a tough businessman. You wouldn’t want to go against him, but he just had a big heart and probably the world’s best laugh. He loved life, he loved his family, and he loved making a difference.”