Youthful Attitude, Advanced Technology Drive Growth for H.L. Flake

What began as a bicycle shop in 1912 has evolved into one of the nation’s largest distributors of security products. When H.L. Flake soon marks its one hundredth year of operation, the company not only will celebrate its centennial in a new facility in Houston, but will do it with a coast-to-coast locksmith following in the thousands representing every corner of the Continental U.S.

Founded by Herbert L. Flake, over the years the company added not only locks and keys, but also lawn and garden equipment, material handling supplies, air rifles, wagons, roller skates and more. In the 1920s, Flake also handled Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

“We’re proud of this company’s heritage and the entrepreneurial, free-enterprise spirit that’s a part of it,” says Dan Floeck, CEO and Managing Partner who purchased the family-owned firm from Herbert Flake’s heirs in 1988. “But we’re even prouder of our progress over the past 23 years, focusing on locksmith needs with an unsurpassed inventory of competitively priced, quality products and timely delivery. And we’re excited about our next century of helping locksmiths build their own businesses profitably.”

Family owned, decades of experience

Floeck is keenly aware of what it takes to run a business. Prior to purchasing Flake, he spent more than 15 years in auto parts retail operations, advancing from assistant store manager to manager, then managing two stores and ultimately running 70 auto parts stores and their distribution, along with several bicycle shops.

His son Jeff Floeck joined the company full-time in 1999 after graduating from Texas A&M, and worked in accounts payable, purchasing, sales and other areas before taking on the role of President and Chief Operating Officer. Dan’s daughters, Leslie Moerer and Lindsey Floeck, have responsibilities in Purchasing and Customer Service.

“We know how important it is to get the items you need - even if it’s only one - when and where you need them and at a competitive price,” Jeff asserts. “Our combination of extensive on-hand inventory, user friendly Web and phone order processing and great shipping programs help us to maintain a very high level of overall customer satisfaction.”

“Not only that, we follow the Golden Rule - we treat our customers the way we want to be treated,” injects Dan. “This means not only quickly, efficiently and pleasantly handling routine orders, but also when an occasional mix-up occurs or when special needs arise.

“Unlike large corporations, we’re not concerned about making a number this quarter or this year; we’re focused on the long term. There’s no giving customers the run-around or hiding behind corporate ‘rules.’ If a locksmith runs into a situation involving, for example, a large sale where extended payment may be an issue, it’s easy for them to reach me or Jeff directly to work out a solution with an owner of the company.”

 

National reach -  Small-company responsiveness

“You won’t find a lot of red tape around here,” Jeff says. “We don’t have layers of management like some large firms do. Unlike managers of branch warehouses that are part of national chains, our hands aren’t tied by rules handed down from a distant corporate parent. We’re a family owned business. A locksmith can reach the decision makers when they need to, anytime; at worst, one of us will respond within 24 hours.”

Dan draws a boating metaphor. “We’re like a guy in a canoe who can turn on a dime. Large corporations or even branches owned by a major company are more like the Queen Mary. By the time they realize a special locksmith need exists, they’re a long way from shore and it then takes a lot more time and effort to turn around a solution. We respond quickly.”

H.L. Flake retains its small-company agility, flexibility and responsiveness even though it’s grown from seven employees when Jeff joined the firm, to nearly 50 now. Its monthly sales volume (even in these tight times) is more than 4-1/2 times higher than its annual sales when Dan bought the firm. All of this didn’t happen by accident.

 

Advanced ordering, expedited shipping

Dan’s acquisition of Flake marked a turning point for the firm. He sold the bicycle and material handling supplies businesses, then took a fresh look at ways to better serve locksmith needs throughout (at the time) a regional market area.

“We were like ‘the new kid’ in the eyes of many customers,” Dan recalls. “Most locksmiths regularly use two distributors and usually we were the third choice. They might decide to try us and call for a quote, particularly for a single item or small order. This put us at a disadvantage compared to discounts from their regular suppliers. Our sales representatives spent a lot of time giving quotes with very few orders to show for it. Obviously, we needed to come up with something better to offer locksmiths in order to get those orders and, in the process, earn their confidence and future business.”

He instituted new computer systems that not only expedited Flake’s order processing, invoicing and the like, but also used programs to help him analyze relative pricing for products along with shipping options and other relevant data.

The result was competitively priced low-volume orders, coupled with next-day delivery and (in most cases) free shipping. “We started gathering a lot of low-volume business,” Dan says. “Our margins were slim, but it gradually gave us volume that enabled us to offer better discounting, both within and beyond our initial sales-service area.”

Flake’s clerical and administrative staff includes two full-time IT programmers who exemplify the firm’s integration of technology and personnel focused on customer service.

“As we’ve grown, we continue to focus on IT and internet solutions,” Dan emphasizes. “We went to a single-server system, which also enabled us to devote programmer time to additional customer service issues. For example, if a locksmith wants things handled a certain way, our programmers input that info. This reminds our sales person anytime they deal with the customer, to make sure it’s done right from the start.”

Locksmith-specific service extends to the shipping area, too, along with additional automated advantages. “Our people can simply scan the bar code and shipping info pops up on-screen, which saves time while avoiding errors. We can also optimize shipping. When the freight comes up, it tells us the most cost-effective way to ship or if locksmith-specific info requires another method, we can easily send it that way.”

Finding the fastest and cheapest option is always a shipping priority, and when shipping charts change, Flake programmers are quick to input the latest info. This can make a huge difference, Dan asserts, comparing FedEx to UPS. “Not long ago, both took two days to ship to New Orleans from Houston. Then FedEx started shipping by ground in one day. Suddenly more locksmiths had a new way to get ‘next day’ delivery from us.”

Computer-assisted customer service gets even better with Flake’s move to 5235 Glenmont, a 46,000-square-foot facility close to the Southwest Freeway west of downtown near The Galleria.

”We’re buying new file servers that will give us more speed and better internal processing, as well as improved internet capability,” says Dan. “We invest in new equipment on a regular basis and constantly upgrade our computer system.”

The technology also frees up sales representatives to more fully and closely work with locksmith customers, answering questions or handling special requests beyond the scope of automated incoming-outgoing order handling.

“We’ve been working on making it easier for customers who call in to connect, too,” adds Jeff. “A completely new, upgraded phone system is designed with that in mind. Our sales staff is very important to us. Many of them are in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and while they are young they are experienced. A majority of them have been a part of our organization for over a decade.”

 

Building Awareness

While computerized ease, speed, efficiency and accuracy makes locksmiths happy, that can’t happen unless they’re customers in the first place. Word-of-mouth provided a launch pad. “Our low price plus next day plus free freight program convinced buyers who kept coming back, and they told their friends about us,” Dan notes.

It takes more than that, however, to grow business. H.L. Flake has enlisted various methods to methodically expand awareness of and interest in their offerings.

“We started advertising in the mid-1990s,” Dan reveals. “Our initial focus was to build business in the Southeast. Not long after, we began advertising beyond our normal area. We started going to more trade shows 10 or so years ago which generated a lot of requests and business with new accounts. We quickly learned that locksmiths in California and elsewhere around the country were interested in what we had to sell. We were fully national by 2005 and as sales expanded in each region and volume grew, we were able to reduce costs.”

 

Online Catalog

Continued growth nationwide is due in no small part to H.L. Flake’s internet presence. “Locksmith-friendly” would aptly describe the H.L. Flake Web site (www.hlflake.com), particularly its fully illustrated, comprehensive product catalog. “We were one of the first in the industry to put a full catalog shopping cart on-line, about 12 years ago. We update our catalog sometimes twice a day, so customers can find the latest product offerings,” Dan notes. “Our new Web site will be ready later this year. It will have a greatly improved search engine function and products will have more detailed information.”

“From a locksmith’s perspective, we make hard-to-find products easy to get,” asserts Jeff. “Few if any distributors come close to matching our inventory with over 25,000 items in stock. While the branch of a large organization may be able to find a product at another location, it nevertheless calls for extra time and effort and delays delivery. There may be added charges, too.”

As new security products are introduced and added to Flake inventories, even “obsolete” products remain in play. “It’s rare when we do not have an item in stock,” adds Jeff. “Our new facility has 44 percent more space allocated for locksmith supplies and service than what we previously had.”

 

New Product Training

“One of the greatest challenges for locksmiths today is keeping up with new locks and new systems,” says Jeff about new security products, noting that the level of knowledge required today is far higher than 10 years ago. “Automotive, for instance, didn’t involve the electronics, chip keys and transponders you see now. In commercial security, today’s access control electronics require much more product knowledge.”

Dan notes that for years, they’ve provided a classroom and related assistance for local area locksmith groups and those in more distant venues. They do the actual training, too. Dan is one of three instructors, helping in sessions at trade shows and elsewhere. The firm also supports association training via its presence at a dozen or so shows where training is conducted, from California to Massachusetts and points in between.

“There’s a show for automotive locksmiths - Just Cars – that’s held every spring.” notes Jeff. “This year it’s in Orlando on May 4-5, and we plan to have several people there.”

“The fact is, all of us benefit from this training,” Dan observes. “The better an association’s membership is trained, the more likely it is the products they buy from us will be the right ones and they’ll know how to make them work properly. Otherwise, as happens on occasion, we get a ‘defect’ sent back that isn’t actually ‘defective.’ So we really want to help locksmiths understand the products that are available to them.

“From a locksmith’s perspective, today’s security technology can be old hat tomorrow. If he isn’t up-to-speed on whatever’s replacing it, a big piece of his business could disappear in short order. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for new ways to more directly help locksmith associations across the country provide the training members need to gain and retain their security clients.”

This type of commitment keeps 100-year-old H.L. Flake ‘young’: fresh, dynamic, vibrant and a step ahead, as well as focused on providing consistently low prices, on-shelf product availability and rapid delivery. Or, as Dan puts it: “We’re here to help locksmiths make money easily.”

H.L. Flake is one of the largest distributors of security products in the USA, serving locksmith customers from coast to coast. Inventory covers a full range of locksmith products from all major manufacturers, with optimized, low-cost shipping anywhere in the continental U.S. For more information and a product catalog, visit www.hlflake.com.

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