SDM 2018 Dealer of the Year: Bates Security/Sonitrol of Lexington
Bates Security/Sonitrol of Lexington recently chose to branch out through a combination acquisition and startup; as well as pilot a groundbreaking standardization program — all while never compromising the family atmosphere that started it all.
A NEW STANDARD
Despite all the positive attributes of a family-owned and run business, complete with calculated risks and rewards, there was one area that needed addressing. While employees were happy with what they were doing, as the company grew and expanded, they started to feel overwhelmed, says Cindy Neuman Ponder, general manager.
“We were busting at the seams. We were doing very well business-wise but we were working ungodly hours. I have always told my managers to come to me with any problem or challenges and I take pride in helping them find a solution. But when they came to me and said, ‘I am tired; this is wearing me out,’ I couldn’t fix it and that was very eye-opening to me.”
Around the same time, Jeremy Bates was at a franchise meeting in Indianapolis with Stanley where they were talking about the Stanley Standard. As a past president of the Sonitrol National Dealers Association (from 2014-2016) Jeremy was very involved in the franchise and he, along with another franchise owner, immediately recognized the potential of this new standard for their own businesses. “We were all looking across the table as they are describing this concept and what they are trying to do and we were thinking, ‘Hey can we have this, too?’” Jeremy Bates recalls. “We were working very hard to have a very driven company and everyone was working at full throttle, and here is our franchisor describing this whole ‘work smarter not harder’ concept and we just raised our hands and asked if they would be willing to share it with us.”
When he proposed the idea to Neuman Ponder, she jumped at the chance. “Jeremy came to me about the Sonitrol Standard pilot and I said, ‘Yes! I will do anything to help my people who are about to burn out.’ I was on board immediately.”
The Standard itself is a set of operational procedures and practices with the goal of driving operational efficiencies, improving job satisfaction and providing better service to all of its customers. Stanley Security began training key Bates/Sonitrol staff on The Standard in February 2017 at a three-day long boot camp.
Because Stanley is a large multi-branch company, Bates decided to adapt The Standard to fit their needs — at the time they were primarily a one-location company based in Lexington. “When it rolled to us we were under one roof and were just starting up the Jacksonville branch,” Neuman Ponder says. In addition to charging her with the responsibility of rolling it out at the Lexington headquarters, there were other changes Bates wanted to make to ensure The Standard would fit with their family culture. “We started integrating other departments such as the business department, and looked at how every task they do affects everybody else,” she says. “We looked at customer service to see how they impact those metrics. We focused on how every single position, every chair someone sits in, whether it is in a vehicle or an office, has an impact.”
They also wanted to make sure they got buy-in from all the employees. The company also invested in an initial rollout meeting with the entire company for about half a day that Neuman Ponder says was “one of the most expensive meetings we have ever had.” In an open discussion forum employees could ask any questions they had about it. They also kept up weekly management meetings to make sure the initial enthusiasm didn’t die out and keep the momentum going until the process became automatic.
Under The Standard, each day begins with an 8 a.m. morning call by department (both service and installation), where they go over their daily agenda, jobs and goals for each day, and concludes with an end-of-day email from the technician to their manager and dispatchers with a summary of completions.
After a year of full implementation the results have been dramatic, including a 33 percent increase in completed service calls per day; a 91 percent same-day close average; a 10 percent decrease in time spent on-site to resolve a service ticket; and an average of 15 truck rolls saved per week. But the real value isn’t measured in percentages.
Neuman Ponder likes to tell the story of her installation manager who came to her just before The Standard was rolled out, concerned that he couldn’t continue to do his job much longer, although he loved what he was doing. “I told him to give The Standard a chance and he said, ‘If you think I am going to drink some sort of Kool-Aid you have another thing coming,” she recalls. “About six months later the smiles were back, for him and the other employees. It totally changed our culture and made it a happy place again. There was a big difference with morale and job satisfaction.
“One of the things The Standard does that we really grabbed hold of is empower your employees to do their job,” she says. “If the service dispatcher creates a ticket without the right information she isn’t helping the tech do his job; but when she does it correctly she is empowering someone else.”
While The Standard is an internal metric, customers too have noticed. “Our attrition is lower than ever and our WOW program from customer comments has gotten so voluminous we can’t read them all at the quarterly meeting,” Neuman Ponder says. “I think it has created a contagious culture that makes this the best place to work because you know exactly what is expected of you and you can see your accomplishments and have a lot of job satisfaction every day. We were doing very well before but as far as morale and culture this made all the difference in the world. I love my job and I love coming to work every day and working with others on this.”
Neuman Ponder is also frequently asked by Stanley to talk with other Sonitrol franchises about The Standard, to give advice and sometimes assist in the boot camps, as well. To date Stanley has now trained 22 Sonitrol franchises, in large part based on the experiences of Bates/Sonitrol of Lexington and the other beta franchisee, Sonitrol of Southwest Ohio.
With a solid culture and The Standard propping up the back end, Jeremy and Bryan Bates both felt the time was right for some new ventures.
First, Bryan had decided to open his own Sonitrol franchise as a branch office in Jacksonville, an idea that was met with enthusiasm but a bit of trepidation from Sonny, who had done this himself once. As it turned out, the Sonitrol franchise location part of the move was a bit delayed, so Bryan Bates began with a Bates branch in Jacksonville, starting up a commcerial security business from scratch in a new city with none of the family name recognition enjoyed in Lexington.
“I have always been involved and around the business and Sonitrol as a franchise is a close-knit family,” Bryan Bates says. “I had heard stories of people striking out on their own and the challenges and rewards. We got to the point in Lexington where our success allowed me to look around the country and see what my options were.” He had family in Jacksonville, so when that became available he decided to go for it. Right away, two things pleasantly surprised him and reinforced how much of a family the Bates business had become. “One of our more experienced sales guys asked to go with me and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ Then a day later a tech walked in my office and said he had always wanted to live there and could he come too, and I was blown away by that,” Bryan Bates recalls.
Nevertheless, a city the size of Jacksonville would not be easy to approach. “In Lexington we are a big fish in a small pond; in Jacksonville it is like, ‘Who are you?’” Jeremy Bates says. One of their first steps was bringing Russ Ackerman, a well-known 33-year veteran of the security industry, on board. “What attracted me to Bates was the whole concept of ‘What’s next?’ instead of sitting back and waiting for what comes,” Ackerman says. “Both Jeremy and Bryan are very proactive and very mature about any changes they make [and chances they take].
“We probably have close to 100 licensed alarm companies in the Jacksonville area. It is a big pie and we are getting our fair share of it.” Ackerman credits that share in part to a clever series of radio ads. They created a bumbling character that is always doing his own installations of home security and smart home products — badly. In one ad, told from the perspective of his neighbors, he has installed his own security lights. But they are so bright the neighbors can’t look out of their windows.
“Burt is a made-up character that was created to resonate with radio listeners,” Newton says. “When we moved to Jacksonville we were essentially creating something out of nothing. There was already a very big local security presence there; but every one of those companies is ‘sell, sell, sell.’ We wanted to be ‘service, service, service.’ We wanted to brand as quickly as possible. So we made up a character and scenarios where he is doing all the wrong things when the easy answer is to call Bates Security.”
But at the heart of the success in Jacksonville is the Sonitrol and Bates promise that carries over from Lexington. “We have really ridden on the Bates reputation,” Ackerman says. “People can Google us and see what others are saying and our reputation is spreading.” It also helps with the name recognition that they are a Honeywell Authorized Dealer, he adds. They also participate in lead-generation groups and business networks. “Bryan and Jeremy did a nice job of really positioning the company for success.”
After the Jacksonville venture, another opportunity came along that took the company from two branches to three. At the end of 2017 Bates Security acquired ABCO Security — another family-owned business in a different part of the state — from its founder Robert Welch. This acquisition added more than 1,650 customers to the Bates customer base, along with several new employees, and constituted the most significant acquisition Bates had ever made by bringing in another office and 10 employees 2 ½ hours away.
“We had talked to the former owner off and on for many years about the possibility,” Jeremy Bates says. “Our two organizations had known and respected each other and he made the final decision last fall that he wanted out so we organized quickly to get it done.”
The ABCO acquisition came with its own set of challenges — namely a ready-made branch office. “That was the first time where out of the gate we had a brand new separate office, and new employees,” Jeremy Bates says. “That was a new experience for us. Luckily we had some good experience in understanding how the branch concept works having done Jacksonville. The ABCO team was looking for some good structure and programs and we were able to bring that to the table, especially with The Standard.”
That was something Tim Welch was particularly excited to see. “My dad founded ABCO and he was a great businessman, but he kind of always ran it like someone in his garage…. The standard made such a huge impact because it was what we at ABCO were lacking, that day-to-day playbook. It has had a profound effect on the way we do our jobs every day.”
Because ABCO already had a strong presence in its market, Bryan and Jeremy Bates decided to keep the ABCO branding, but give it a refresh. In fact, the ABCO design had gone through several redesigns and there were numerous versions around town, Newton says. “They had changed logos over the years and tried to dilute the old one by using more of the new ones. We considered just picking one, but in the end we decided it would make the most sense if we did something that brought the two brands closer together.” They stuck with ABCO red but pulled in Bates yellow and made the ABCO sign the same shape as the Bates logo.
Welch feels the rebrand has really helped with the overall success of the acquisition. “We were concerned when the community started hearing about the acquisition because if we didn’t make a change it would look like the new company bought it and were just going to milk it. The rebrand really showed how they were invested in the company and willing to put money into it. We got a lot of positive feedback…. It has all been positive. Before the acquisition all kinds of things were said and promises made. But the Bates family has truly done everything they said they would and stood by every promise they made to my dad and then some.”
The acquisition went so smoothly that just this past October Bates acquired another small family-owned company in a nearby city to ABCO that they had been considering acquiring. Bates purchased HITEC security from owner Tommy Kidd of Pikesville, in part on the recommendation of ABCO’s former owner. “He talked to Robert Welch and got a good idea of who we were. Once we established our presence with the ABCO purchase it made sense to do HITEC,” Jeremy Bates explains.
With two recent acquisitions and a startup under its belt, a standardized approach to making it all work and a family culture that has their back, Jeremy and Bryan Bates are bullish on what comes next. “We have focused on continuing the strong start Bryan has achieved in Jacksonville and with ABCO we think there is a lot of potential there as we further the integration into our company, Jeremy Bates says. “But as far as other acquisitions go, if the right one comes along at the right time we would be open to it.”
Bryan Bates agrees, adding, “What has happened in the last year is we have gotten a lot of traction here in Florida. It is my belief we will be able to do an acquisition here in 2019 and that is something I would like to get done. We are now officially launching TotalGuard and we are excited about the Sonitrol side and what they have brought to the table with their new TotalGuard solution.
“We have been blessed. My brother and I make these decisions together,” Jeremy Bates adds, “Mom and dad ran this business for many years and then Bryan and I took over. We have developed a very strong management team. It takes a family — a business family — to make it all happen.”