Front and Center: Jay Hunt, Allied Fire and Security
Sun., Oct. 19, 2014
Jay Hunt knows how to enhance security, and what can happen without it.
“Right out of college,” he recalled, “a buddy and I were living in California and came home to Spokane for Thanksgiving. When we returned, we’d been robbed.”
Thieves apparently entered the apartment through a skylight, piled everything – even steaks from the freezer – on a bedspread, bundled up the loot and walked out the door.
So naturally when Hunt and his wife built a home on the South Hill a decade ago, they had a security system installed.
“One night around 10 o’clock, a policeman knocked on our door. He said they’d received an alarm signal, and wanted to make sure everything was OK.
“I said, ‘Yeah, everything’s fine. The alarm didn’t go off here.’ ”
“You should probably call your alarm company and get it serviced,” the policeman replied.
“I was too embarrassed to tell him I was president of the company.”
Hunt’s grandfather bought Spokane Safe and Lock in the early 1930s.
The company incorporated as Allied Safe and Vault in 1948. After it quit manufacturing safes, the name was changed to Allied Fire and Security.
Still based in Spokane, Allied has branches in the Seattle area and Portland, and ranks among the top 25 U.S. companies that blend complex security and safety systems.
During a recent interview, Hunt discussed the company’s evolution, its potential, and how he overcame a rough start in management.
S-R: When did you first work for the family business?
Hunt: When I was 15. I had a summer job sweeping floors, doing the mail.
S-R: What were your interests back then?
Hunt: I planned to be a professional baseball player. I was recruited by Washington State to pitch, and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners my junior year. But I hurt my arm in summer league, and that was the end of my baseball career. After I graduated with a degree in economics, my dad offered me a job at a company he’d purchased in Huntington Beach, California. I traveled all over the country installing pneumatic-tube systems in banks.
S-R: Then what?
Hunt: My dad said he needed me to straighten things out in our Boise office. I had no management training. Soon after I arrived, an employee told me I needed to lose the sport coat and slacks and be like one of them, which meant jeans and a no-hurry, no-worry attitude. I thought, “That’s why they’re struggling.”
S-R: Did your years in team sports cultivate leadership skills?
Hunt: I don’t know that I got the team sense as much as I should have. Pitching is very much an individual thing.
S-R: What happened in Boise?
Hunt: It was one of the toughest times in my career, because without management training, my approach was along the lines of “Just do it.” At one point, everyone in the Boise office filled out an assessment survey, and it came back that I was hard-nosed, dogmatic and didn’t relate to people.
S-R: How did you respond?
Hunt: I read the assessments and concluded those people did not understand that we needed to change in order to be successful. Gradually, though, I turned that around and asked myself what my role was in the situation. As a leader, you have to understand what motivates employees and link that to your business goals. So I apologized to everyone and promised to become the type of leader they wanted to work for. That was definitely a turning point in my career.
S-R: How did you learn leadership skills?
Hunt: Through workshops, Dale Carnegie, Toastmasters – things that help you grow as a person and as a professional. But it took a good 10 years to really learn how to lead effectively.
S-R: How has the company evolved in the 30 years you’ve worked here?
Hunt: We used to go 10 or 15 years with very little change. But in the past seven years, changes have absolutely skyrocketed. Now we’re less security experts and more software experts.
S-R: You’re not part of what one thinks of as the computer generation. Was it difficult transitioning to an information-technology business?
Hunt: No, IT fascinates me, and I know that it’s going to help us be more effective and efficient.
S-R: How else has Allied evolved?
Hunt: About five years ago, our salespeople began complaining about losing business to online companies. So we set up our own e-commerce division, and that’s grown 35 percent a year.
S-R: What impact did the recession have?
Hunt: We were doing $30 million of business in 2007. We’re only doing $22 million now, but we’re more profitable.
S-R: How have residential security systems evolved?
Hunt: Back in the ’70s, they cost $2,000 to $3,000, so not many homeowners could afford them. Then along came companies that amortized the cost via monitoring contracts. We called them trunk-slammers – salesmen who worked out of the trunk of their car, just looking to sell a monitoring contract. You’d get a $99 system that included the front door, back door and motion sensors. It was better than nothing, but not nearly complete, and it created a false sense of security.
S-R: What should one expect to pay for one of your residential security systems today?
Hunt: Around $500 with a $28 monthly contract, and that system takes into account any kids, pets, maybe even some environmental things like carbon-monoxide detectors. We outsource the monitoring to a company in Lacey, Washington. If you choose to self-monitor, the system costs roughly $500 per camera.
S-R: How does that compare with the eight-camera security system Costco advertises for $400 and homeowners monitor themselves?
Hunt: Those are OK for do-it-yourselfers. The inexpensive cameras have severe limitations, and wires need to be run all over the place. They’re better than nothing at all, but we offer something beyond a basic system.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Hunt: Most of our revenue comes from large commercial projects which need a fire system, burglar system, video and card access. Those jobs tend to coincide with the construction cycle, so summer and fall are busiest.
S-R: Smart people are constantly trying to breach security systems. How do you stay ahead of them?
Hunt: Manufacturers spend millions on research and development, and then they teach us.
S-R: Does constantly thinking about security make you paranoid?
Hunt: I take more precautions than most people because I’m aware of the threats out there. But the best thing people can do is lock their doors and make sure their garage door is shut. Burglary is a crime of opportunity.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hunt: Collaborating with customers to solve problems.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hunt: I work 10 to 12 hours a day. At 54, I’d like to think there’s more to life than just business. I’d like to spend more time on the golf course.
S-R: Any changes ahead?
Hunt: Our retail side does $20 million a year, and I don’t see that growing to $30 million. Frankly I don’t want it to, because getting bigger would mean more offices, more responsibility and more risk.
E-commerce, on the other hand, is fun, because all it takes is a computer, a few people, and sales come in 24 hours a day seven days a week. I can see our e-commerce division alone growing to $20 million a year.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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