Transitioning Into Electronics

May 4, 2011

Haddon Locksmith ( owner Jim Sundstrond started working as a locksmith in 1988, back when the job mainly involved cutting keys and installing deadbolts. Today, he estimates that electronics accounts for at least 40 percent of his Oaklyn, N.J., shop’s business.

Locksmith Ledger recently interviewed Sundstrond to discuss making the transition from mechanical locksmithing to electronics. Following are Ledger’s questions and Sundstrond’s answers.

What was your background when we first met? Did you have much locksmith experience?

I started with Joe around 1988. Before he hired me, I had worked in a home town hardware store for 10 years .I saw no future in working for a hardware store because at that time Channels and Rickels were on the rise. I had general knowledge of keys. Joe was a customer of the hardware store and also had a part time locksmith business while being a full time police officer. I saw an opportunity and asked him for a job.

What was your knowledge of locks and keys like at that point?

I was just cutting keys the way you do in a hardware store, not a whole lot of lock knowledge. We did Schlage, Kwikset, and automotive. We did cut a lot of keys there.

Was coming from the world of hardware helpful to you when you started locksmithing?

Sure, it helped when it came to some locks, but I thought it would prepare me for locksmithing much more than it actually did. I didn’t realize how vast it was. Like most people you would talk to, when they hear you’re a locksmith, they think you open up cars and houses for a living. If that’s all I did, I’d probably weigh about 105 pounds!

What was is like for you to apprentice?

It was a tough way to apprentice because Joe was a part-time business owner. I had good mechanical skills and was handed the keys to a truck and sent on my way to go learn locksmithing. Some learning came from his mentoring but much of it was me going out and experiencing things as they came. I joined ALOA and got involved with associations and the classes they offered. I still remember my first class was for Norton door closers. I realized the best way to learn would be to get involved with other locksmiths in that kind of setting and ask questions as I ran into situations.

It sounds like you viewed other locksmiths less as competition and more as people you could learn from, true?

That’s the first thing that really opened me up to liking locksmithing. Ed Fitzgerald, now the owner of Arnold’s Locksmith, became a good friend of mine and from early on I could always ask him questions. When I got involved with associations, I found that other locksmiths would open up and share information; you could call them with a technical question or when you were stymied with something on a job. If I was quoting a job they would suggest hardware to use for a particular application. I was fascinated with the freedom of information and I understand that at one time that freedom didn’t exist. In the past if you opened a safe, you wouldn’t share how you did it so you would be the only with that knowledge.

So at the beginning you did a lot rekeys, opening cars, etc.?

Yes and a lot of deadbolt installations since lots of homes didn’t have them yet.

Do you remember your first deadbolt installation?

(Jim laughs) I could remember a lot of measuring, a lot of triple measuring. I remember taking a class from Jack Keefe on aluminum door servicing and he talked about how deadbolt installs should take no more than 15-20 minutes. It was taking me 30-45 minutes and I realized that was because I was unorganized. I organized my tool box and after that it took me 10-15 minutes.

Why did you decide to become the owner of Haddon Lock?

From the beginning I made it clear to Joe that I wanted to own my business, to be an entrepreneur and if there wasn’t a chance of that happening, then he shouldn’t hire me. He understood that. I told him that his customers were going to become my customers eventually. I told him when the phone rings, they’re going to ask for me because I’m going to make sure that happens! I made sure the customers knew who Jim Sundstrond was and eventually they would call and ask for me.

So it was like the business was yours from the beginning?

No, it wasn’t. I had a lot to learn. It was a small company and I wanted to make sure it would be on the rise. I wanted to be the one making my own decisions and not have someone make them for me.

What was your biggest challenge?

Knowledge. It takes lots of knowledge to know the locksmith trade and it doesn’t come quickly. It requires lots of persistence and mistakes. When I first came on board, foreign auto was a big challenge but it turned out to be easy because there were codes on the locks.

Were you doing electronic security from the start?

Not really, we were your mechanical-type locksmith shop, doing residential, commercial and auto work. Joe’s biggest account was a bank. He did the safe combos and safe deposit work and I did all the door work and the behind the teller area work. Eventually I learned safe work because of how much work we did there, but that was really Joe’s end of the business. As we grew and it was obvious I’d be more involved, Joe got into alarm work and started a company called Haddon Security, which was a step taken towards me buying Haddon Lock which is what eventually happened.

When you split up, were you thinking you’d only be doing mechanical lock work?

I always had an open mind when it came to taking on new things. Joe did instill in me that I wasn’t going to make a living only by opening cars and installing deadbolts. If I thought it was profitable, then I’d invest in tools and education. I would always network with other professionals that would guide me through the tough jobs. I’ve always known that to have a successful business, I’d have to be open to new avenues of revenue; that’s one of the reasons I believe my company stays busy.

Many locksmiths say that if you don’t move towards making electronic security an everyday part of your offering, you’ll be left behind with not much to do. What do you think of that?

I see us as the modern day blacksmith. Every town had a blacksmith. Then cars came along and we didn’t need as many horses or blacksmiths. There aren’t as many locksmiths as there used to be because of big box stores selling locks for less than wecan buy them for. There just isn’t the same need for the mechanical locksmith as there used to be.

Since you have such a good understanding of the entire door opening, it seems like the transition to electronic security would be made with minimal difficulty. Do you recall when you began doing electronic stuff?

I was doing electric strikes early on in conjunction with “buzzer” systems. I made sure I was able to do that early on even if it was self taught. It’s interesting you mention the entire opening because I’m training a new employee now and I tell him, “Wherever you go, there’s an opportunity; when you walk through a doorway you get to look at someone else’s work, see what a good installation looks like versus a bad one.”. I think you learn as much from a bad one as a good one. You have to be aware of your surroundings, just look around.

Sometimes I look at installations done by a companies in the burglar alarm/fire business and scratch my head wondering why they chose the hardware they did. The answer is that they don’t know hardware. I’m a locksmith who knows how to choose the proper hardware for each situation. Knowing whether to use a mag lock, electric strike or electrified exit device requires knowledge of codes and understanding of your customers’ needs and the total door opening.

How does the conversation about electronic security typically come up with a customer? Do you present the option or do they ask?

There’s an education process. I have to educate the consumer about what we do. Very often, you’ll hear them say “I didn’t know you did that.” When meeting with a customer, I look at it as an opportunity to sell. I’ll give them a little background about the company and what we can provide for their security needs. We’re not just a locksmith shop; we install doors, repair doors, continuous hinges, door closers, access control etc. We also sell and program remotes and transponder keys. People often think they have to go back to the dealer for those items.

Was it an easy decision to invest in machines and inventory to do all you do here?

I’m always looking at the opportunity to invest in my company but I’m always cautiously optimistic when I do it. I remember when VATS first came out and I thought $300 was a lot for a VATS interrogator. I wondered how we would ever make the money back on a $20 key. I didn’t think I did enough automotive work to justify buying it but when I turned down my first opportunity to make one because I didn’t have the proper equipment, I went out and bought one. I always wait for the market to reach me, it’s a timing thing. Same with transponders, I didn’t get it right away but when used car lots were calling me to do them, it was time to invest.

Doesn’t it all come down to how you market what you’re business has to offer?

When I first got into business, the thing I marketed most was myself. I called people I knew from my hardware days to let them know what I was doing. One previous customer I called happened to be working for FedEx and I didn’t even know it. FedEx became my account because of that phone call. I wasn’t afraid to tell people what I was doing and got clients because of it. It’s not always about marketing your products. Sometimes you’ve got to market yourself.

We live in a time when people actually talk about whether or not we’ll be using keys anymore in the near future, what about that idea?

What about the need for locksmiths, period? You go to the big box stores and they’re selling locks the consumer can rekey themselves.

What does the current day locksmith have to do to continue to thrive?

You have to keep up with the times and the technology. You’re going to see less and less rekeys just like you see less lockout work because the scammers got that part of the business cornered. You could spin your wheels fighting that losing battle or look for new and better opportunities. Treat your customers like gold and they’ll take care of you in the long run.

How do you tackle new business sectors?

First you have to be open to the idea of doing new things. I never automatically say no to a customer. I look it as an opportunity to take on new things. I tell my employees that not everyone out there is our customer. You have to look for quality customers the same way they look for a quality locksmith. You have to say no to the ones who are bottom feeders, especially with the Internet now. People are buying “Chip” Keys that wind up being the wrong one for their car. We are a service company. That’s why I got into Locksmithing; there are people out there who will pay for quality service and products. We stay busy because I have a customer base that understands what quality is all about.

For the longest time I was afraid to do continuous hinges. I finally took a class and came away with enough confidence to do them and then it was a matter of having the opportunity to install one. Now I look forward to the chance to do them because it pays well.

Do you see yourself as being in business to come up with solutions for your customers?

I’m in business to make money but I accomplish that by marrying a solution to a customer. If you just think of the money, you won’t have many happy customers. I see lots of locksmiths who take advantage of each opportunity and when times are tough, these guys are very slow because they don’t have the repeat business a company like mine has.

Is electronic security important to your bottom line?

Oh yes, it’s huge. Between transponder keys, remotes, access control, and other electronic security that we do out in the field, I would say it’s at least 40 percent of my business. Although my trucks say Haddon Locksmith, I think locksmiths need to think of themselves as security professionals. If you’re going to just do locksmithing, there will be less and less of it out there and you won’t make money. If you’re a security professional and you grow with the times you’ll stay busy and alive. I know plenty of locksmiths who have nothing to do with electronics and they happen to be the same ones who complain about how slow they are.

Why are so many locksmiths still not doing electronic security?

They’re either afraid to dive into it or they’re afraid to spend the money. In automotive programmers alone, I’ve invested at least $30,000 in the past couple of years and that’s not including the inventory. Ten years ago I would never have thought about spending that kind of money on equipment. I realized that if I didn’t do it, my company would die.

What would you tell someone starting out now as a security professional?

I would recommend joining a locksmith association. I belong to three: Greater Philadelphia Locksmith Association (GPLA), South Jersey Locksmith Association (SJLA) and Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA) and I am active in two of them. So much is talked about regarding what’s happening in our trade. Making investments in technology and tools without being sure you’ll make money isn’t very wise. So talk to other security professionals and learn about what products they are using and what works. There are too many gadgets out there to waste money on without really knowing what you want and what you’ll be using them for.

Does the locksmith have access to what he needs to succeed these days?

Even the associations are experiencing some rough times now. Enrollment is down and we need to somehow reinvent ourselves (associations). Ten years ago, conventions put on by MLANJ, GPLA and ALOA were strong and heavily attended. You couldn’t go to ALOA unless you’d be there all three days. Now you could do the ALOA convention in a day or so.

Today we can get a lot of information from the internet but our customers also have access to that information. Getting information to members is important and also challenging these days. I’ve been the Education Chairman in two of the associations, because I think education is important.