Joe Ambrefe can't remember where he was the day he invented a new business. Denver, maybe?
It was December 2001, and Ambrefe, the frequent-flying national sales director of a pharmaceutical company, had already endured post-Sept. 11 security at two or three airports that day.
This much he recalls vividly: people dropping watches, car keys, cameras and jewelry in bins that looked like dishwasher racks. He'd seen other airports use milk crates and what looked like wicker baskets.
Slow lines and lack of standardization in the security process led Ambrefe to conclude that "there's an opportunity with a lot of people standing around focused on containers holding personal, prized possessions.''
Ambrefe sat down at an airport bar and ordered a bottle of Bud Light. A better system would require standardized bins. But how would that make any money? Then, an idea: Sell advertising.
He grabbed a cocktail napkin and sketched out a rough business plan that included the types of companies that might buy ads. The list had firms that sold drugs, consumer goods, foods and beverages.
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Today, Ambrefe is co-founder and CEO of Security Point Media. The St. Petersburg company supplies bright white airport checkpoint bins — with an ad laminated inside each — to federal screeners at 24 U.S. airports. That includes New York's three major airports, O'Hare and Midway in Chicago and Los Angeles International. Ambrefe boasts that 1 million air travelers each day see messages Security Point sold to clients such as Microsoft, Honda, Sony, Rolodex and Charles Schwab.
"It's a good business, with good margins,'' said Ambrefe, 43. He won't disclose the private company's finances. Airports get a slice of the advertising revenue. At big airports, that can amount to a six-figure number annually.
Ambrefe met with Tampa International officials in September. But talks were put on hold until after new airport CEO Joe Lopano arrived and settled in. "We'd love to be in there, but I understand the timing,'' he said.
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From the start, Ambrefe realized he needed a system demonstrably superior to that of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
He focused on details.
TSA had started using gray plastic bins. But people associate that color with things ''dirty and industrial,'' Ambrefe said. "Colors have an emotive'' effect on people, he said. For his system, he chose white, "which is bright and clean.''
He developed carts to make it easier for security officers to whisk bins back to the front of the line. He lengthened tables where passengers put items for X-ray scanning.
He eliminated a lip that caught bags as they were fed into the machines.
Ambrefe had to show bin ads didn't distract people and his new system did not end up slowing security lines. "It would have to be at least neutral,'' he said.
In fact, Safe Skies found the changes to TSA's procedure reduced wait times by 16 percent, Ambrefe said.
After the Knoxville pilot program passed the test, he quit the pharmaceutical business and devoted himself to Security Point Media.
Next came a successful pilot program at bustling Los Angeles International. Security Point got TSA approval to expand into 14 more airports. Now, any airport can take part.
Security Point provides TSA the bins and carts for free. That saves the agency as much as $700,000 a year, depending on how often they need replacement.
"This program is a good example of a … partnership to reallocate taxpayer dollars to serve a security purpose,'' said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.
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At any one time, Security Point has 30,000 bins (made by Rubbermaid) in airports. They are replaced every 90 days, sooner if they're chipped or otherwise damaged, Ambrefe said. Old bins get shredded and recycled.
Grumpy, stressed-out travelers facing body scans might seem like a bad audience to pitch products to. No so, Ambrefe said. "Even a seasoned traveler has all his senses heightened,'' he said. "You're opened up for a good creative message.''
Security Point caused a buzz with an Amtrak ad in bins at Chicago airports showing a sleek train and the message: Upgrade to Coach. Airlines called to object, and travel blogs picked up the controversy.
Metro New York airports would not allow the ad.
"Some airports have sensitivity to advertising a competitor,'' Ambrefe said. Airport managers have the final say about whether an ad is appropriate for their customers.
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Declining airline traffic in recent years gouged airport income on everything from parking to car rentals to food and drink sales. Many airports are looking for new types of advertising, like Security Point's bin ads, to juice up revenues.
Clear Channel Communications sold ads last year promoting Pinellas beaches on Tampa International shuttle car windows. Other ideas are under consideration. Ad revenue at TIA grew from $750,000 in 2007 to $943,530 last year.
At Chicago O'Hare, an offshoot of Clear Channel Communications plans to display video or still ads on select bathroom mirrors.
Ads cover the whole mirror when no one is standing in front of the sink. When people step up to wash their hands or fix their hair, the ads shrink into a corner.
"Airports that have been more conservative are really interested in these new revenue streams,'' said Shauna Forsythe, owner of Alliance Airport Advertising in Las Vegas.
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Security Point runs lean. Most of the seven employees handle operating details with airports and the TSA.
The company will grow to accommodate ambitious plans, Ambrefe said. Security Point expects to add 20 new U.S. airports in 20 months.
"Canada and Europe are the next logical steps.'' Ambrefe said. "Or a courthouse. The concept is bigger than airport checkpoints.''
Contact Steve Huettel at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.