Twenty-four-year-old Idaho locksmith PJ Slauson has been working at the family business, Country Lock and Key, for 18 years and started taking service calls at age 15. These days, he splits his time between the original locksmithing company and two other related family businesses, locksmith tool and...
Twenty-four-year-old Idaho locksmith PJ Slauson has been working at the family business, Country Lock and Key, for 18 years and started taking service calls at age 15. These days, he splits his time between the original locksmithing company and two other related family businesses, locksmith tool and supply distributor CLK Supplies and tryout key manufacturer Aero Lock.
Locksmith Ledger recently interviewed PJ, asking questions about running a family business, the state of the locksmithing industry in general, and future trends. Following are our questions and PJ's (and sometimes his father Peter's) answers.
I know yours is a family-owned business. Tell me how you got started in the business.
Well, I pretty much started when I was 6 years old. During summer vacations and Christmas breaks and stuff, I'd come in and start stamping keys and I'd rekey Kwikset locks and do basic Kwikset keys. I'd ride around with my dad some.
Growing up, there's be a padlock in the shop that a customer needed rekeyed, and we couldn't get it done during the day, we'd take it home and my dad and I would be sitting on the couch, trying to pick the lock.
When I turned 15 in Idaho, you can start driving so when I was 15, I started doing on-call work and jobs on the weekends.
Most kids growing up, they have Christmas break or spring break and they get to go and hang out with their friends I was pretty much required to work.
(Peter:) The deal was $5 or $10 plus free lunch when he was a kid to hang out with me all day.
What did customers think when a 15-year-old pulled up to do their job?
Fortunately I always looked older and they probably thought I was 18.
Did it ever cross your mind that you would do something different for a living?
Yeah, right after I graduated high school, I actually did a year internship to possibly become a youth minister. When was in high school, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to be a part of the family business.
(Peter:) It's a good thing that PJ and I get along well
Are you both in the same location?
We added about 5,000 square feet onto our Post Falls store at the beginning of last year for our wholesale company. At that point I moved over here to Post Falls. Until then, we all worked out of our Hayden store. Pretty much since I grew up working here, all of us have a real good relationship. We would have our American Chopper moments when everyone was yelling and screaming at each other, but 10 minutes later we were all fine.
Is the long-term goal, years down the road, for you and your future children to take over the business?
Yeah, most likely. I have a 17-month-old daughter. If my children wanted to work in the family business, that would be great, but if not, that's fine too. I enjoy coming to work every day because it is kind of like a hobby for me as well.
Have you had the opportunity to take any formal training or attend classes at trade shows and distributor expos?
Yes, throughout the year, we consistently go to trade shows and we take a lot of classes on new products like electronic locks. We are going to ALOA for the first time this year.
Is there locksmith licensing in Idaho?
No, you just need a business license. There are no locksmithing licenses at all.
Tell me a little about your typical workday.
I pretty much work 8 to 5:30. A little over half of my day is doing the wholesale CLK Supplies. And then a quarter of it each is locksmithing and then running and setting up keys for Aero Lock.
I'm mainly in the shop. I haven't done a job out in the field for two or three years. Probably the only time I'm out in the field now is sometimes well get a bid for a 100 to 200-door masterkey system in a complex, and I've gone out and sat in the van and pinned locks all day. For the most part, I oversee the operations and the day to day stuff here at our Post Falls store
Explain to me a little bit about your various companies and how they came about and how they are related.
My father started Country Lock & Key in 1980. After I graduated high school, CLK Wholesale, which my dad started in 1988, started piquing my interest and I made a web site and started doing that.
With Aero Lock, we heard in 2007 that they might be closing their doors so we made a phone call to see if we could purchase it from them. Aero Lock has been around for quite a few years as a tryout key company. We make tryout keys for vehicles and motorcycles and RVs and also space and depth keys. We also set up quite a few master key systems for locksmiths. We purchased all the assets, business name, all that stuff. We just started officially in January 2008.
Is it difficult jumping around between three different companies?
Probably the hardest thing is when the phone rings. We have six lines and each one is labeled Country 1, Country 2, CLK 1, CLK 2, Aero 1, Aero 2. We also have a silk screening business where we silkscreen t-shirts. We actually just did 200 t-shirts for Advanced Diagnostics that they are going to give away at ALOA.
How many physical locations do you have?
Right now we just have two. They are about 13 miles apart. At one point my dad had four.
(Peter:): We couldn't find employees to run four locations properly, so we closed one and sold another. There was enough work, just not enough good people.
Roughly how many employees do you guys have?
Eleven right now, for all three companies
Are there more family members?
My mother is the secretary/treasurer of Country Lock & Key and has her own business. She makes rubber deposit stamps for banks and rubber address stamps. My sister is 22 and not really interested in locksmithing.
Are people asking for more electronics? Where are you seeing growth?
A lot more people are asking for electronics stuff, especially pushbutton stuff. Probably the two biggest areas of growth that we've been seeing are number one, automotive new technologies and number two, on the commercial side of things.
For me one of the most exciting things about the industry in general is that it is constantly changing and evolving. Part of the fun is to keep up with the new technology with all the prox and biometric stuff coming out. We as locksmiths and security professionals need to embrace the new technology. Those are new avenues of profit for us.
Do you do transponder programming?
Yes, we are full service from drilling safes to all automotive, high security, residential, commercial. We go out and make keys for boats. We do Medeco and Mul-T-Lock high security.
How much transponder programming equipment have you invested in?
We probably have close to $15,000 worth. We have a couple T-Codes, an MVP, we have NGS, a Dart and a GCL It takes a big investment but we find that it's very profitable.
When you do transponder programming, are you competing against the dealerships in your area?
(Peter:) A lot of dealerships call us for mobile work. We go out to the cars. We really work hand in hand. They help us out quite a bit and we help them out where we can.
(PJ:) If a customer comes into our shop and wants an extra Ford key made, we compete with the dealers there. But as far as key origination because the customer lost their keys, we don't really compete with the dealers at all.
How do you charge for automotive lockout calls? I'm guessing you cover a pretty big geographic area Do you charge based on distance or is it a flat fee?
For our local areas within a radius of 20 or so miles from either location, we have a flat fee, and then it gradually goes up as the distance increases. Where we are located is right out of Spokane, Wash., and Idaho and we go all the way north to the Canadian border. We also go into Montana a little bit.
Tell me about your typical commercial jobs and accounts.
Our typical commercial job involves rekeying buildings, installing a deadbolt or two, putting prox cards on doors. Customers include different cities, fire departments and government buildings.
What do you do to market your business and attract customers?
When we do a job, one of our locksmiths will give them a little survey card that asks ‘how did they find us?' Was it repeat, referral, yellow pages? It asks how they feel our pricing was, if the service technician was polite, and if he explained the invoice.
Do you advertise in the Yellow Pages?
Yes we have a large ad in all of the local Yellow Pages..
(Peter:) We do parades; we throw out t-shirts and candy and free house key coupons. We are always looking for ways for people to know about us. We sponsor local events, we sponsor t-ball, baseball and basketball – anything to get our name out there.
Do you have a lot of competition?
Yes, we actually have quite a bit. Just in north Idaho here, there are about 10 other locksmiths. Then in Spokane, there are a lot more.
What about all these ‘scammers' or phone bank locksmiths in the Yellow Pages? Are they in your area, impacting your business?
For the most part, we don't really have any of that. I'd imagine the bigger cities have more of that.
Are you active in local locksmith associations?
We are part of the Columbia Basin locksmith association, which is middle to eastern Washington and north Idaho. This will be the first time my dad and I have ever been to an ALOA conference.
Where do you guys buy your stuff? How many locksmith distributors do you use?
Of course, anything that our wholesale company sells, we just buy it from ourselves. We mainly work with Intermountain and a little bit with Clark. There is no one local.
Where do you see the economy going in the next year or two? Obviously you see some positive signs or you wouldn't be out there with three different companies and acquiring Aero a year ago. Are you seeing business pick up?
(Peter:) Unfortunately in our type of business, the locksmith industry, when things are good, it's great and when things are bad, people are losing their homes, the banks call you to rekey. Being in our type of business is really a pretty safe business to be in.
(PJ:)On the wholesale side, probably one of the biggest phonecalls I get is from guys who have been in the locksmithing business for about 40 years and about 10-15 years ago they got out of the automotive because it started going to VATS/transponders. They call up and they haven't really touched an automobile in 10 years except for an occasional lockout and want to know how to get started again.