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An investor brings biometric ID back to airports
In Caryn Seidman-Becker's world, it takes just one hour to get from downtown Orlando, Fla., to the airport and into a seat on the plane just before the door is closed and the flight takes off. "One hour, door to door, done," says the chairman and CEO of Clear.
How does she do it? Her company allows users to circumvent the biggest bottleneck in air travel: the security line. Wielding chip-embedded membership cards, Clear subscribers are fast-tracked past the queue by checking in at special kiosks where their identities are biometrically authenticated through either fingerprints or iris scanning.
Founded in 2003 by entrepreneur and journalist Steven Brill, New York City-based Clear (then called FlyClear) had won the hearts of 200,000 paying members, contracts with at least a dozen airports and $75 million in venture capital before the economic downturn, an unattended laptop full of customer data and $33 million in debt bankrupted the company in December 2009.
Seidman-Becker was a hedge-fund investor with stakes in companies like L1 Identity Solutions, the technology firm that powered Clear's technology on the back end. Unfazed by Clear's collapse, she believed that biometrics still had the potential to change the way people live, work and travel. She had built a successful career working closely with management teams to understand how to allocate capital and create long-term value, and in cracking open Clear's books, she saw that buying the company would make great business sense.
"The company died from self-inflicted wounds. It shouldn't have gone bankrupt. It had a lot of debt; it had a big core structure," she says. "We saw that Clear could be very successful if we ran it like other businesses that we had been involved with, and that's about thinking about the lifetime value of a member … and how to run an efficient organization."
Her investment firm, Algood Holdings, bought Clear for $6 million in April 2010. Her first decision: keep Clear's easily identifiable blue-cube branding, which the former owners spent $40 million rolling out. "Customers knew it, so it was about rebuilding the trust and the integrity of that brand with them," Seidman-Becker says.
To that end, Clear pulled out all the stops. The company honored the curtailed memberships from the previous ownership. Seidman-Becker listed her e-mail address on the company website, sent signed letters to former customers and called the most critical members to chat personally. "People can write anything in e-mail," she says. "But when you get them on a phone, they're far more docile."
She also had to convince airports and the Transportation Security Agency that the new Clear was different. "She's tenacious--she doesn't give up," says Brigitte Goersch, former deputy executive director of Orlando International Airport, the first to reinstate the service. Since relaunching in 2010, the 200-employee company has opened 30 lanes in nine airports, verifying the identities of its 250,000-plus members--each of whom pays $179 per year--at least 1.3 million times. "It's really very rapid improvement," Goersch says, "and that's because of her personal involvement--that's what's been a key to their success."
That involvement extends to her family life. When Seidman-Becker takes her three children on business trips to Orlando, they're able to use Clear to squeeze in a little extra time for fun. "That efficiency, it makes you feel so differently," she says. "I was with my kids at Disney World and I was like, 'Oh no, we can stay longer.' That's just a great feeling." --J.P.P.