Blackwater Sheds Name, Shifts Focus
By Dana Hedgpeth
Blackwater Worldwide, a private security company whose work in Iraq was plagued by trouble, said yesterday that it is changing its name to Xe as it shifts its business focus.
The company, based in Moyock, N.C., has more than a dozen business units that are owned by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and heir to an industrial fortune. Prince grew the company over the past decade from a small firm that offered training for law enforcement and small military units to landing part of a lucrative State Department contract to provide security in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Its work in those countries was plagued with problems. In 2004, four of Blackwater’s guards were ambushed by insurgents in Fallujah. The company made headlines again on Sept. 16, 2007, during a chaotic confrontation in downtown Baghdad, when Blackwater contractors allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqis in a crowded square. That incident led to congressional inquiries and protests that it be removed from the country. Last month, the Iraqi government refused to issue a new operating license to Blackwater, and the firm is winding down its work there.
In a memo to employees, the company said its main focus will be on operating training facilities.
Anne Tyrrell, a spokeswoman for the company, said it was changing its name because “the idea is to define the company as what it is today and not what it used to be.”
“We’ve taken the company to a place where it is no longer accurately described as Blackwater,” she said.
Tyrrell said there is no meaning to the new name, which is pronounced “zee.” “It was just a choice of a name,” she said. “We thought of it internally.” Xe is also the chemical symbol for the element xenon.
The company got its start in July 1996, when Prince used about $900,000 of his share from selling off his father’s auto parts business to begin buying up land for a training facility in North Carolina, not far from Norfolk. The company’s name — Blackwater — was inspired by the dark, brackish water on the land, near the Great Dismal Swamp.
Tyrrell said the company spent over a year searching for a new name before choosing Xe. She said the Blackwater name is being shed from all business units. Blackwater Airships, which offers surveillance services for intelligence gathering, becomes Guardian Flight Systems. Blackwater Target Systems, the unit that develops and builds targets, is now known as GSD Manufacturing. The most well-known part of the business — Blackwater Lodge and Training Center — will now be called U.S. Training Center.
Company executives have also taken on new positions. Gary Jackson, longtime president of Blackwater Lodge and Training, is now president of Xe.
RJ Hillhouse, a national security expert and author of the blog called The Spy Who Billed Me, said the company is “obviously trying to distance itself from their image as reckless cowboys that’s etched into the world’s mind from the September shooting. With a new name, “there are a lot of people who probably won’t connect the dots,” she said. “In a year or two, people won’t remember that’s Blackwater.”