Local businesswoman making the world safer

Safe Ports CEO Lucy Duncan runs the only Defense Logistics Agency distribution depot operating inside Afghanistan.

In dangerous corners of the world, Lucy Duncan is helping countries better their police and military operations, secure their ports and transport equipment from continent to continent.

One of her most significant operations is in Afghanistan where her North Charleston-based company, Safe Ports, is working with the U.S. military to pack up and transport equipment and supplies as the United States ends its lengthy presence in Afghanistan.

It’s a high-profile role for a woman in a predominantly male industry, not to mention a country where women aren’t given these kinds of leadership positions.

While she recognizes her special position, Duncan, president and CEO of Safe Ports, isn’t intimidated. This is a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing.

Duncan’s resume has the makings of a page-turning biography with tales of her early graduation from Ashley Hall in Charleston, starting a public relations company focused on the music industry (her first clients were The Commodores), and her chance meeting with the head of the Miami port that led to her work in the city’s growing tourism industry.

But it was after Sept. 11, 2001, that Duncan began to think about how she could use her international experience and her connections with global movers and shakers to aid in the war on terrorism.

After the attacks on the United States, security was immediately tightened at the U.S. borders and at airports but Duncan saw the need for increased port security.

She began talks with congressional leaders to determine if there was a role for a company like hers. Those conversations took Duncan to the Middle East as adviser to the 16-member countries of the Arab League of Ports.

As she learned more about the world of logistics, the defense industry was a natural progression for the work Safe Ports was doing.

The company won a major Department of Defense contract in Afghanistan, where her employees work around the clock at Kandahar Airfield, sorting, organizing and shipping the vast amounts of equipment and supplies the military has been using during the war. “We really fill in the gaps when the military needs to surge,” she said of defense contractors like Safe Ports. “That makes me proud. We are stepping in to fill an important role.”

Safe Ports also has an office in Arlington, Va. Duncan divides her time between there and North Charleston. Plus, she travels around the world where the company has projects and employees, including Jordan, Afghanistan, Philippines, Venezuela, Peru, Honduras and Guatemala.

Safe Ports, which has fewer than 50 employees, was recently recognized by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency for providing outstanding readiness support in Afghanistan.

The company was recognized in two categories: as a small business and as a woman-owned business. Duncan accepted the award at the Business Alliance Awards Ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Va., earlier this week.

“An award like this is the pinnacle,” Duncan said. “It’s the kind of award you work your entire life for.”

And yet it’s made Duncan realize she still has so much to do. She’s taking her international experience and logistics knowledge to other mission-critical markets.

For example, a government in need of modernizing its police force could hire Safe Ports to oversee all facets of the operation, Duncan explained.

Safe Ports would step in to help the government determine how much and what kind of equipment it needs, from police cars to bullet-proof vests.

Then those supplies would be shipped to Charleston for sorting and organizing before being transported overseas.

Once the supplies arrive in the country, Safe Ports’ employees handle distribution and maintenance. Safe Ports also may oversee any construction projects as well as outsourcing appropriate training. “What makes the people here tick, including me, is we like the mission-critical environment,” Duncan said.

She’s taking that same passion for critical situations to Latin America, where drug cartels fuel a global terrorism network. These drug cartels are highly sophisticated, said Duncan, explaining how in one country they hacked a port network so their shipments could come through the port completely undetected.

Duncan isn’t put off by that kind of challenge. Rather, she looks at that situation and thinks, “How can we help beef up security in the port?”

She draws on the work in Afghanistan, experiencing lockdowns and riding out IED blasts in a safe house, and applies it to equally dangerous corners of the world fighting drug trafficking and terrorism. “The lessons learned working in an environment that is so difficult we will take into countries at front lines of this battle.”

Duncan is an example of a woman who embraces her role in the business world, recognizing that women have instincts and communication skills that add tremendous value to the business world.

“There are gifts women bring to the board room, the world stage and the military,” Duncan said. “There’s something in our core instinct, in our DNA.”

Duncan will be helping shape the next generation of men and women working in the security field as a member of the advisory board for The Citadel’s School of Humanities & Social Sciences.

Specifically, she will be offering insights on curriculum for the new graduate and undergraduate programs in national security studies and intelligence analysis.

“I’d like to see more women graduate from The Citadel and come into military leadership,” she said.

Amanda Weingarten, assistant dean for development in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said she first met Duncan five years ago at the College of Charleston when Duncan and her late husband, Ronald Scheman, served on an advisory board there.

Now working for The Citadel and developing a master’s program in intelligence and national security, Weingarten said Duncan quickly came to mind as someone who could help The Citadel build strategic partnerships.

“And, of course, I knew her personally to be somebody very hard working, dynamic and passionate,” Weingarten said. “We thought she would be a great mentor to female cadets.”

Weingarten said Duncan already has been an invaluable resource, working with corporate sponsors at the Southeast Region Security & Intelligence Conference that The Citadel hosted in Charleston earlier this month.

Duncan spoke to the crowd of about 150 of the “who’s who” in the national security and intelligence community, giving an address on the security threats facing the nation beyond al-Qaida: drug trafficking and terrorism funding.

In addition to fostering partnerships and advising curriculum, Duncan will be invited to speak to students, particularly female students in this new program, Weingarten said.

“This is a male-dominated field, and so she really does represent the future of women in national security to a lot of female cadets and the graduate students who will be enrolled in our program.”