Above Security looks below
Quebec computer security firm leapfrogs U.S. to build Caribbean client base

You'd think that post 9-11 security spending increases would have provided a boom for companies that can protect U.S. firms from intrusions, viruses and hacker attacks. And they have. But according to one industry pro, Quebec suppliers need not apply.

"Americans talk about globalization, yet many are reluctant to outsource computer security to foreign companies," said Martin Dion, vice-president (technology and professional services) at Boisbriand-based Above Security. "Even though we are right next door and are part of NAFTA, when it comes to security they consider Canada foreign."

So while most Canadian high tech firms look to the U.S. for growth, Dion has been forced to do without. Instead, during the past year he has been increasingly expanding operations in the Caribbean. He got the idea, while handling business there for one of his Canadian customers. During his free time he decided to make a few sales calls, and surprisingly found local firms open to doing business with foreigners.

"There are so many countries and islands in the Caribbean that are used to doing business with each other, that it is not a big step for them to deal with a Canadian firm," Dion said.

Caribbean bookings have been going so well that they now comprise 30 per cent of Above Security's revenues. The company plans to open a 10 man facility in Trinidad early next year, a big step for Dion.

But he's used to pressure. Dion has been a computer nut since his teens. During the early 1990s he was one of the few Quebecers with expertise in helping Novell operating system users who were increasingly migrating to Windows NT. He was in his first year at CEGEP when a head-hunter called at the computer store he was working at to offer him a full-time job.

"I wasn't sure whether to take it," Dion said. "I was young and wanted to finish school. But they were offering me $45,000 a year, and when you're just 17 years old that's a lot of money." Dion's interests quickly expanded and soon he began handling his customers' computer security needs.

In 1999, he talked his father Marcel, an accountant, into backing him in the startup of Above Security. Today the pair own just a bit more than half the company with the balance held by a group of venture capitalists. Marcel acts as president and Martin handles to the technology side.

Dion estimates that North American companies will spend more than $7 billion on computer security this year, with about $500 million of that here in Canada.

"With the recent hacker attacks we've heard about in the media and the Blaster and other viruses, companies are being increasingly concerned about computer security," Dion said. "Information is the most valuable asset in today's corporation. And if it is lost, damaged or stolen the cost can be incalculable."

"But security doesn't just mean doing a firewall," Dion said. that's just the start."

Above Security derives about half of its projected $3.6 million in sales from consulting services, and the balance from information security monitoring, which is done remotely from the company's Boisbriand offices.

The consulting services include a vulnerability and risk assessment, governance review as well as project management, security policies and procedures development and staff training. Managed security monitoring is handled by Above Security staff who spot network intrusions and vulnerabilities online, and provide what Dion calls a computer version of a SWAT team, which detects and solves problems at an early stage.

According to Serge Meilleur, an industry veteran, venture capitalist and one of the company's shareholders for the past two years, Above Security has a bright future ahead.

"They are extremely competent individuals," said Meilleur, one of the founders of DMR Group, who sold his interest in 1985. "Their products are highly avant-garde and reaction has been extremely positive." Above Security currently has about 140 customers in its roster, including major players such as Loto-Québec, government departments and financial institutions.

But according to one observer, Quebec companies are still not taking computer security as seriously as they should. "(It's) not perceived as a big problem here," said Alain Bealieu, an assistant editor at Direction Informatique adding that one big advantage that Dion had was an open field. "I don't know of any direct competitors here in Quebec."

MArtin Dion agreed, adding that his biggest competition comes from enterprise software providers such as CGI, which offer security features as an add-on to existing services.

But according to one customer, a security professional working for a major financial services institution who asked not to be identified, Above Security's products stand out. "I particularly like the way they integrate both intrusion and vulnerability detection services," said the professional. "They are also flexible and very easy to deal with."

As for the immediate future, Dion will have to endure thankless travel to the Caribbean, during coming months to oversee the company's expansion, a task he doesn't seem to mind.

"Its not too bad down there," he said with a smile. "I don't know if you know, but the weather is nice and people are friendly. I'm sure I can handle it."

 

 

 

 

Photo caption: Martin Dion is vice-president and co-founder of Above Security, which provides security consulting and computer monitoring services for banks, Loto-Quebec, and other multinationals from their Boisbriand offices.

 

Sidebar: Getting Ahead

o Marcel Dion got his start in the computer security industry at 17, when a headhunter lured him from CEGEP to a $45,000 a year job, handling Novel to Microsoft NT platform migration.
o As part of his duties, Dion began learning to set up firewalls and other basic security protection, later moving on to system monitoring and intrusion detection.
o In 1999 Dion got his father Marcel, an accountant, now the company's president to help him start Above Security with the help of some private venture capital investors.
o Although computer security spending in the U.S. is growing buy leaps and bounds many companies will only deal with American suppliers, so Above Security has been focusing on the Caribbean market for its recent expansion.

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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