Commercial Specialist: Ed Fitzgerald

Oct. 2, 2019
By focusing on commercial hardware, we could give the customer better quality products and can guarantee those products and our service

I’ve known Ed Fitzgerald since 1993 when he was an employee of Arnold’s Safe and Lock (https://www.arnoldslock.com/), a business originally owned by Marty Arnold in Pennsauken, N.J. I was under the impression that they did it all. When I reached out to Ed about discussing the vertical market concept, he let on that his business has evolved with time and they’re focusing more on certain things.  Here’s our conversation.

Is Arnold’s Safe and Lock still a locksmith business that does it all?

There are some things we’re moving away from. We haven’t been doing any car key origination on the road. We’ll do it at the shop if we have the right equipment. We’re not investing in new equipment for this because the cost of the equipment needed is getting more and more expensive and you must stay up to date with software, etc. to stay relevant. Then of course you must keep your people trained to do the work. Also, the customer always wants it now and we don’t always have an employee sitting around waiting for that to happen. It’s just not a commitment I want to make for a customer base I won’t be able to satisfy immediately. We’re only doing over the counter duplication; primarily Asian and American cars that require on board programming or a single programmer that we can use and update occasionally.

Let’s give a little bit of background for this business. How long has Arnold’s been around?

Arnold’s began 55 years ago. Originally it was Arnold’s Grinding & Lock. It was originally a sharpening business and evolved into locksmithing and eventually locksmithing only. They used to sharpen lawn equipment, scissors, blades, tools, etc.

Arnold’s Safe & Lock was always a shop that did everything; all phases of locksmithing, correct?

I started 43 years ago, and we did everything. We never shied away from anything. It was a matter of what our customer base wanted and what we were willing to take on. Time, investment, and how many people we were willing to have work here. How many techs and trucks would our customer base support? We’ve always been in the three- to four-truck range and didn’t want to go beyond that. We’re comfortable with that now.

You bought the business 15 years ago. Were there things you wanted to specialize in or was your intention to keep doing whatever you could handle?

I wanted to get more into commercial hardware and commercial door repair. We’ve shied away from Access Control. We’ll do small stand-alone jobs with a keypad and a couple of electric strikes and maybe an intercom system. But as far as a full-blown access system that’s tied into a host PC, etc, no. We’ve found that it’s very competitive and often a race to the bottom; who can do it the cheapest. I always felt by doing commercial hardware, we could give the customer better quality products and be able to guarantee those products and our service.

Before you moved here you were in a very residential area; did you do lots of that work?

When we moved here, I wanted to do more hardware sales since this new location gives us lots of exposure. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and we’re losing sales due to the internet, hardware sales in general. Residential has changed dramatically because people are buying on the internet and doing it themselves or they want us to install it. Given a choice, the commercial job will be given priority over a residential job, especially because of the potential for repeat business.

Are you saying that many of the commercial customers are shopping online as well?

Yes, like the high security hardware for example. Pretty much any commercial hardware can be purchased online. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even put part numbers in my quotes so they can’t shop it online. Let them do the research if that’s what they’re going to do. I’ll put Grade 2 lever lock for example and keep it as generic as possible.

What about safes? Arnold’s has been known for safe sales and service for as long as I’ve known about you.

When we first moved to this location, safe sales increased dramatically for the first four to five years. We went from selling 60-85 safes per year up to 150. In the last four to five years it’s gone back down to where it was. I’m sure it’s exclusively because of the internet. People come here to look and then buy it online. It’s difficult to compete against someone without a storefront. They’re just moving product and pushing paper; tough to compete with that.

How do you go about selling more than price? Do you focus on the service, etc to overcome the internet competition?

You must do that. If you buy that safe online and then get locked out of it next week, who are you going to call for service? I’m not coming out for free since I didn’t sell it to you. You’ll have to contact the manufacturer who will then contact someone local and maybe they’ll cover it, otherwise it’s on you. You’d be amazed how many calls we get from people who say “I purchased this 500 LB safe online and it was delivered but now I need it brought up to the 2nd floor.” I have no interest in doing that type of work.

I also spoke with Joe Reustle about this and he doesn’t sell or move safes, only combo changes and openings.

Yeah, we use Joe. If we’re tied up and our safe technician Chuck, who does the bulk of our safe work, is busy, and one of my customers needs safe work done, then I’ll have Joe take care of it. I do that often with car work. My own cousin called me recently and I sent him to Jim (Haddon Lock, nearby). People call me with Mercedes, BMW or a Jaguar I send them out to Mike Labar. (Mike was featured in the June issue). Other locksmiths do the same. We refer work to guys who specialize, and they send other work to us in turn. That’s one way for us to deal with the vertical market you speak about. We each specialize and send each other work.

It is terrific to witness how much cooperation goes on between locksmiths in this area, so everyone benefits instead of cutting each other’s throats.

I have customers with locations in Pennsylvania and I don’t want to go there. Unless I have someone sitting around with time to drive over an hour to get to a job, I could make more money locally.

How long did it take for you to narrow your focus and do more of what you wanted to do with your business and customer base?

It kind of evolved by itself. As the car work became more and more sophisticated, a customer would call and we wouldn’t be available right away or be equipped to do the job. We also noticed there were fewer and fewer calls for car work. We used to do lots of work for dealers and used car lots and that’s all dried up. We’re competing with car dealers as well as the guys who specialize enough to be working with the dealers.

So, your focus now is on commercial work including closers, locks, exits as well as power operators. When we first spoke, you mentioned your focus on commercial door repair. How did that happen?

That goes back to the mid 1990’s when we started doing continuous hinges. A guy I’d known for close to 40 years with an outfit up in the Trenton (New Jersey) area helped me get started. I used to do a lot of Master Keying for this company and he suggested I get into door repair. He thought our guys were talented enough and he saw the need. From there we ran with it. Mike came to work for us with 11-12 years of experience in the door and hardware installation business. Naturally he’s doing the bulk of our door work.

Is the door repair part of your business advertised? Do you focus on promoting it?

What happens is that we get calls about general problems and many times it’s door related but they don’t realize that. They just think it’s the hardware. The door may not be swinging right or could be rusted out. That’s when we suggest a door replacement or a continuous hinge. If necessary, we’ll replace the entire door and frame. This way we’ve added another service to offer our existing accounts.

Had you always worked on doors this way at Arnold’s? How’d you learn more about this end of the business?

No, we didn’t do it before. We sent guys to some classes and worked with the guy who suggested we do this to begin with. He showed us how to do continuous hinges.

Education is important. A lot of what you do depends on the techs level of experience and their mechanical ability. I think any shop owner will tell you; there’s always one or two who are the top mechanics. They’ll take on any job and could see outside the box when necessary. Then there are techs who are competent and they have a comfort zone and stay there.

Anyone driving by your business can see by the signage that you do many facets of locksmithing since you promote Decorative Hardware, Safes, etc. How do you go about promoting the door work?

We do it generally when we’re looking at a job. Let’s determine what the problem is. It begins with a service call because the opening isn’t operating properly. Years ago, we’d go out and sometimes suggest they consider a new door and frame. Well guess what; the guy who did the door and frame also got to sell them the hardware! Eventually we realized we’d get that hardware sale if we were doing the door and frame work as well.

How do you see our industry evolving in the future?

I see it becoming more specialized. We only do the standalone access control jobs so when a larger opportunity comes up, we have an alarm company we operate with. They do that portion and we do the hardware. That could include mag locks or electric strikes as well as a lever or whatever’s being used. We’ve both picked up new customers this way. When they go out to quote an access system, we go with them to quote the hardware.

How many employees and trucks do you have now?

We have four trucks of which three are running full time and the 4th one is used to fill in when needed. And then we have three guys in the shop. Chuck does the bulk of our safe work but it’s not the only thing he does. He also does the power door operators and the high security work and some of the door work. Mike does doors and commercial hardware and power door operators. He doesn’t do as much safe work as Chuck. When it comes to safe openings, that’s Chuck. Then we have Kelley who does residential hardware and commercial work.

What do you suggest regarding the quest to involve more young people in our industry? Is it the challenge others say it is?

There is some difficulty there. It seems that a lot of them don’t want to work with their hands and that’s hurting the industry. There’s a big push you hear about by government officials to encourage the trades. People have been told they need a college education and not everyone is cut out for college. Lots of young people are attracted to the electronic part of life,computer-oriented work.

It’s been put out there that since the labor pool will shrink then the law of supply and demand will result in us being able to charge more for our services? Your thoughts?

You’d think that would be the case but as a businessperson you can’t rely on just charging for labor. You must be able to sell material to survive and thrive. We can’t survive solely on trading time for money. There’s only so many hours in a day. You still have fixed costs like rent, salaries, benefits, etc. You need to provide these things to attract and keep good employees, so you need to do more than trade their labor for dollars. You can work out of your house or garage, but a strong commercial customer base typically requires them knowing where we are and being able to come to that location. That’s got to be paid for by selling hardware.

When you reflect on the evolution of the industry and your business over the years, what would you do differently if you could?

Not sure. What disappoints me the most is how many sales we’ve lost from online sales to people who have no skin in the game and are simply pushing paper. For the first few years sales at the new location were very good and the past 4-5 years those sales have been affected.

I also feel like the public views what we do with very little respect. They think anyone can install a door closer or lock. Sometimes you see what someone else tried to do and it’s obvious that a degree of training and experience is needed to do it right. When we do a job, they expect it to be perfect and it is but then they complain about the price. To do it right you need a competent mechanic. Explaining this to customers can get old. It amazes me to see how some hardware has been installed. People accept a bad install and then want us to fix it but complain about how much it’ll cost. It takes time to diagnose a problem; did they use the wrong power supply or wiring? It takes time and who’s going to pay to solve the problem. The guy who did the job won’t respond and they still don’t get it; can be very frustrating.