Aaron Fish: A Life Well Lived

Oct. 9, 2020
The security industry icon leaves a legacy of technology advancements and community service.

Walt Disney once was quoted as saying that “the way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” That’s a sentiment that Aaron Fish certainly would have embraced.

Fish is one of the most prolific entrepreneurs in the security industry and a self-taught technology maven who revolutionized the concept of access control more than 50 years ago when he developed and launched the first functional mechanical push-button lock. But a life-long passion for security in general and the lock-and-key business in particular might never have happened if he had realized another early dream.

In 2016, Fish was addressing a large audience of faculty and students from Concordia University, a comprehensive research center in Montreal, where he had just been bestowed a degree of Doctor of Laws, honors causa. Speaking to the crowd, Fish revealed that his dream was to go to MIT for mechanical and electrical engineering, but his grades weren’t up to snuff. Although he knew he could raise them over the summer and still attempt to gain admission, his mother chided him that if he wanted to eat, he had better go to work. So ended one dream and thus began an incredible journey that spanned more than eight decades.

Fish, who retired almost 20 years ago as founder and CEO of ILCO-Unican, the largest manufacturer of keys and push-button locks in the world and one of Canada’s most successful companies, started and funded myriad enterprises in the two decades since his “retirement.” In 2009, a reporter from Toronto’s leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, asked Fish whether he ever planned to slow down and whether he had thought of an exit strategy. Without missing a beat, Fish quipped, “Paperman. Ever hear of them?” referring to a well-known Jewish funeral home in Montreal. “As long as you’re healthy, you keep busy,” he added.

Late last week (Oct. 1), Aaron Fish fulfilled his planned exit strategy with Paperman, as the 88-year-old industry icon died after a battle with cancer, another obstacle he handled on his own terms. Fish is survived by his wife, Wally, seven children and 20 grandchildren.

Setting the Stage for Success

“I first met Aaron in the spring of 1998 in his office at the Montreal headquarters of Unican, as part of the interview process for a VP sales and marketing position,” says Michael Kincaid, now senior vice president for Global Lodging Solutions with dormakaba. “I entered a very cluttered room that was part office, part machine shop through a door that had a brass sign on it saying ‘Janitor.’ I later found out that it was because, as he would say, ‘I clean up everyone’s mess.’”

Kincaid says the interview was more about his views of Canada in general and the current state of Quebec politics when the French-Canadian separatist movement was in full throat during the 1990s. The conversation eventually circled back to sales and marketing, and Kincaid was hired, beginning a 22-year-long relationship with Fish, who became as much a friend and mentor as a boss.

“I was always in awe at how he had created an organization that at the time of sale to Kaba had revenue of over $500 million Canadian, starting with almost nothing,” Kincaid says. “He once said to me when we were on different sides of a product development decision for a new electronic lock, ‘Look around you. I have made lots of decisions over the years — some bad but mostly good.’ Needless to say, we went in his direction on that issue.”

Fish’s entrepreneurial acumen was ignited when he was a child working in his father’s locksmith business, helping him to cut keys. By the time he was 17, Fish had taken his mother’s words to heart and started his own business selling keys and key blanks from the back of his bicycle along Saint Laurent Boulevard, the main commercial artery and heart of the Jewish community in Montreal. Ten years later, he was operating the largest key-supply company for locksmiths in the city.

Like most of those living along “The Main” at the turn of the century and through the late 1940s, residents were Eastern European immigrants. The Fish family was no exception. His parents were Polish immigrants, who installed the virtues brought from the “old country” of hard work, family loyalty and service to your community. These would be the ethos that would shape his life.

As Fish built his key and key-machine distributing business across the city, he also became skilled at lock design. In the summer of 1961, he began to put his advanced skills to work. As he tells it in his autobiography, “Under Lock & Key: The Unican Story,” Fish was approached by the coordinator of security and industry defense for Bell Canada. They were looking for someone to develop a unique access control system that would be keyless, digital and mechanical, with the ability for the combination to be changeable without having to remove the lock from the door. At the time, Bell Canada operated microwave towers and controlled communication links between key organizations across the defense department and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, so security was a top priority.

Bell Canada and other government agencies were concerned about potential vulnerabilities of their electronic-lock technologies in the event of labor strikes, fire or power surges, plus their locks tended to malfunction during Canada’s brutally cold winter months. Fish and his partner met with a couple of the top lock manufacturers in the country to see whether the locking system that Bell Canada required was even feasible to construct. In the early 1960s, the security industry was in its infancy and Fish was told that the lock they were looking to invent was “outlandish.” As Fish would admit later, “Telling me that it was impossible is what drove me.”

Eventually, Fish found that he could take a five push-button lock mechanism used on filing cabinets from a company called Simplex Security Systems and create the high-security locking device Bell Canada and the government wanted. The legend of the push-button lock was born when Fish sold 25 percent of his new venture, called Unican, to seven partners for $35,000. This provided the needed capital to set up a manufacturing enterprise, and when he took Unican public three years later, the stock exploded. Unican used the million dollars raised from the initial public offering to buy out its two suppliers.

As Fish said, “That put me on my feet. We now had a real manufacturing company. This was my first factory. Everything grew from there.”

The Mind of a Creator

“Aaron had a sixth sense about business and taking risks,” recalls Frank Belflower, a longtime senior executive with ILCO-Unican and former COO of KABA. “When he built the brass mill in Rocky Mount, I asked him why he wasn’t worried that everyone said it was unconventional and would not work. He told me he had a feeling it would work, and if it didn’t, we had just enough money to overcome the mistake. Of course, he was right. It did work.

“He could walk through a factory and see things that others always overlooked. I would always do a walk-through, whether it was Winston-Salem, Rocky Mount or Lexington, but every trip he always managed to see something I had missed — and I was pretty good.”

For more than 40 years, Cliff Murphy was ILCO-Unican’s vice president of Sales and Marketing, working alongside Fish and his executive team. Murphy marvels at how the company expanded through technology innovation and acquisition to become a world leader. But he also appreciates how Fish held counsel with his brain trust and respected constructive discussion — even if his word was usually the final one.

“Aaron provided an environment where I was able to work long and hard doing something meaningful while learning a vast amount of different skills, all the time knowing I was appreciated and supported,” Murphy says. “He provided the ingredients necessary for me and others to flourish and feel a sense of accomplishment as we participated in the growth of the company. A part of that was sitting in the background seeing his unique background and talents being recognized by a huge assortment of people, organizations and governments. It is a nice feeling to be a part of what he built, particularly knowing some of the backgrounds behind that success.”

What began as a business on a bicycle evolved over the next 40 years to a multimillion-dollar global security manufacturing and service enterprise. Fish admitted that when he started his new dream, he aspired for his tiny company to be able to crank out 125 locks per week. By the time he sold the company in 2001 to KABA, ILCO-Unican was churning out more than 2,000 chambers every day and selling another 4.5 million keys, with annual revenue of more than $475 million. The ubiquitous electronic push-button lock was in such high-profile venues as the Pentagon, the UN building in New York, the Industrial Bank of China and countless government agencies around the world.

“Aaron built an empire, and along the way, he made the locksmith business what it is today. Aaron recognized values in the people he hired. His vision brought new vitality to those people and to the companies they worked for. We can personally attest to that,” says Gale Johnson, who has been the editor of Locksmith Ledger International for more than 40 years. Locksmith Ledger and the security publishing company where it was housed was one of the outlier business ventures Fish embraced, buying the Park Ridge, Illinois, media group in the late 1980s. When ILCO-Unican was sold to KABA in 2001, the publishing division was sold to Cygnus Business Media, which is now Endeavor Business Media and includes Security Business and Security Technology Executive magazines and SecurityInfoWatch.com. “There will never be another visionary in our industry like Aaron Fish.”

Yet, for all the success and financial prosperity that typified the inventive, forward-thinking and nose-to-the-grindstone business philosophy of Aaron Fish, there were two basic tenants that drove his daily routine: taking care of his customers and taking care of his employees. In 1999, when Hurricane Floyd ripped through Rocky Mount, North Carolina, just weeks after Hurricane Dennis had wreaked havoc, widespread flooding left more than 50 employees homeless or with severe damage to their residence. Belflower worked with Fish to raise more than $40,000 to help the displaced employees. But Fish’s wife urged him to take the tragedy personally, and he did. He flew to North Carolina and wrote relief checks to each affected worker from his own bank account.

“Aaron could be very hard on people, but he also had a heart of gold,” Belflower says. “After Hurricane Floyd devasted Rocky Mount, he flew down, and I wrote out checks for over $100,000 from his personal money at my desk one night for around 50 employees who had big personal losses.”

Fond Farewell

When the news of the ILCO-Unican sale to KABA spread among the employees in Montreal and its Capitol Division that had more than 900 employees, instead of resentment, his staff and workers showed their love through handcrafted gifts that represented the products they produced. The Unican team crafted a handmade chess set that reflected Fish’s lifelong love of the game. A month earlier, he had received a chess set from his Orion division that featured pieces representing different keys.

Fish pondered how to show his Montreal-based company employees his heartfelt thanks for their years of dedication. Per his style, he hit upon a unique farewell. Although always understated, Fish went for the big finish here. He worked with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for a goodbye to remember. Maestro Rolf Bertsch of the MSO tutored Fish on the basics of conducting. On Sept. 15, 2002, Fish rented the Place des Arts concert hall and conducted the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the 1812 Overture. A fitting exit for a renaissance man.

Aaron Fish summed up his approach to business that night at Concordia University four years ago after accepting his honorary doctorate degree. It was simple.

“When I would meet with my shareholders, I would tell them that our customers are the most important component of our company,” he said. “The next-most important were the more than 600 factory workers in the City of Montreal. By the virtue of the two working together with our company, our shareholders were successful.”

After his company was sold in 2001, Fish went on to pursue philanthropy, founding the Aaron Fish Family Foundation. Beneficiaries include the Jewish Children’s Hospital, the Royal Victoria Hospital and several scholarship funds for students pursuing engineering. During his tenure as CEO of ILCO-Unican, Fish’s company also was the largest employer of handicapped and mentally challenged residents.

For his considerable business accomplishments, Fish earned a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievement award from the Associated Locksmiths of America and the Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Quebec government, the Bank of Montreal and several investment firms.

The perfect epitaph comes from Mark Berger, president and chief product officer of the Securitech Group. “Aaron was a mensch. He was a larger-than-life character who touched many. I quote him frequently as he was the perfect example of, ‘You have to know your business, but more importantly, know the business you are in. Always look outside and then back in.’”

Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security publishing industry and an award-winning journalist. He is Editorial Director for Locksmith Ledger International and can be reached at [email protected].