Erik Dean Prince (born June 6, 1969) is an American businessman and former U.S. Navy SEAL officer best known for founding the government services and security company Blackwater USA, now known as Academi. He served as its CEO until 2009 and later as chairman, until Blackwater Worldwide was sold in 2010 to a group of investors. Prince currently heads the private equity firm Frontier Resource Group and is chairman of Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group Ltd. He lives in both Middleburg, Virginia and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Prince was born on June 6, 1969 in Holland, Michigan, the son of Edgar D. Prince and his wife, Elsa (Zwiep),[note 1] and the youngest of four children. He graduated from Holland Christian High School.
Prince’s father had started as a salesman making 40 cents an hour, who founded a die cast machine manufacturing firm, Prince Machine Corporation, in 1965, which became a supplier to the automobile manufacturing industry and eventually a billion-dollar company. As business “exploded” Prince began to invest some of the profit through the Prince Group into other types of car parts and shopping malls, creating a network of companies and real estate worth a billion dollars. In the early 1970s, Edgar Prince’s company patented a sun visor that could light up and sold 5,000 to General Motors. In the ’90s, the company produced 20,000 a day. Prince and his father toured the world together, visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, a divided Berlin, and Normandy. According to his mother, these trips “made a big impression” on the young Prince. In 1990, Prince secured a low-level internship in the White House under George H.W. Bush, but soon left to intern for California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, President Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter. Rohrabacher described Prince as “a bright, driven young man.” At the age of 21, Prince volunteered to search for a mass grave in Nicaragua, to expose killings under President Daniel Ortega and later said that he had found one.
After college, Prince was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy via Officer Candidate School in 1992. He went on to become a Navy SEAL and deployed with SEAL Team 8 to Haiti, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He credits the SEALs for being an outlet for his entrepreneurial spirit. In his autobiography he states that during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, he realized the need for private training facilities for special operations.
Prince ended his U.S. Navy service prematurely in 1995 when his father died. Erik assumed control of daily operations at Prince Machine Corporation for a year until 1996 when his mother sold the company for $1.35 billion in cash to Johnson Controls.
Prince moved to Virginia Beach and personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997. He bought 6,000 acres (24 km2) of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations. The name “Blackwater” comes from the peat-colored bogs in which the school is located.
Prince credits the 1994 Rwandan genocide with his decision to start Blackwater. He later said, “It really bothered me. It made me realize you can’t sit back and pontificate. You have to act.”
From 1997 to 2010, Blackwater was awarded $2 billion in government security contracts, more than $1.6 billion of which were unclassified federal contracts and an unknown amount of classified work. From 2001 to 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) awarded up to $600 million in classified contracts to Blackwater and its affiliates. It became the largest of the State Department’s three private security companies, providing 987 guards for embassies and bases abroad. Prince built a shooting range on his rural Virginia land to serve as a nearby training facility to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. In his memoir Prince says that he provided the CIA with links to Afghan warlords who helped “topple the Taliban and drive al Qaeda into hiding.”