Integrator Roundtable: Assessing, Adapting & Adjusting During COVID
Three security integrator leaders tell how they’re holding up amid the pressures of a pandemic, lending insights on staffing, customer service, new technologies, cybersecurity and managed services.
The saying, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, was never more apropos for security integrators and their companies than it has turned out to be during pandemic-stricken 2020.
From a starker, all-too-real perspective encompassing all Americans, as of this writing death has actually happened to more than 175,000 people who were undoubtedly making other plans. Tragic and as yet unresolved as that may be, life in the broader sense and from the more specific standpoint of business must continue to look forward.
For security firms, this year’s ordeal further accentuates the ultimate mission to help protect people and property. Across the nation, the industry’s resolve has been highly evident. This despite office shutdowns, customer base challenges, and cancellation or virtualization of every security trade show and event since March.
That includes PSA TEC, where for more than 10 years Security Sales & Integration has held an exclusive integrator executive roundtable for publication. Although April’s conference was called off, SSI pressed on with the first virtual edition of the annual mindshare session.
▶ Mike Meridith is president of Security Equipment Inc. in Omaha, Neb., founded in 1969. SEi does residential alarms and commercial integration, and runs a central station. Branches: Lincoln, Neb.; Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa; Kansas City.
▶ Abe Schwab is vice president of Care Security Systems in New York. Founded in 1989, the firm’s 40 people specialize in integrated commercial security systems. Key verticals are critical infrastructure, utilities, healthcare, manufacturing.
▶ Kekin Shah is president of Shanix Technology in Cranston, R.I., established 1981. Its 37 employees serve the healthcare, government and education markets. The commercial integrator also has an A/V business unit.
Taking part were Mike Meridith, president of Security Equipment Inc. in Omaha, Neb.; Abe Schwab, vice president of Care Security Systems in New York; and Kekin Shah, president of Shanix Technology in Cranston, R.I. Not surprisingly, the conversation is dominated by the historic impact of COVID-19. Its effects are discussed in the context of what’s working for security integration businesses today and what’s anticipated down the line.
Let’s first talk about the pandemic, what are some of the most significant ways it has impacted your organization?
Abe Schwab: We feel here in New York we’re a little bit ahead of the curve as it relates to COVID-19. We were hit hard early on and we feel like we’re turning the corner. Early on, we were working 90%, 99% remotely. Being an essential business, of course, we never stopped. Servicing critical infrastructure, we’ve never had even a pause in our business, but our office, administrative, sales, accounting departments all worked remotely and that was pretty smooth.
Now that things are loosening up a little bit, we are starting to bring back some of our people and I would say we’re at 50% capacity now and it’s all voluntary. We, of course, are practicing social distancing in the office, sterilizing the office and making sure our people are taking precautions. Whoever can work from home, we’re still recommending that. Believe it or not, a lot of our staff is requesting to come in.
Mike Meridith: Overall, we’re pretty fortunate being in the Midwest. We’re a little bit different because we have a 24/7 UL-Listed monitoring center. We monitor all of our alarm accounts, about 17,000 customers. There was not a book for a pandemic. There was a book for about everything else but a pandemic. That got pretty scary, but we had to make some decisions real quick because we could not have the virus go through the monitoring center. We really had to remove most staff from the office and protect that at all cost. We’ve been working really remotely and I’ve been unbelievably surprised at how well our staff has adapted to that.
My peers, they always talked about having people work remotely and it was on our list too. It just never got in the top 10, and it moved all of a sudden from 10 to one real fast, and most of our staff has done a fantastic job. Our IT staff has done a great job of implementing that. Our markets have held firm. Our main impact has been our national accounts business. We have a pretty solid core there and a lot of that got put on hold because traveling around the country is not going to happen. People didn’t want us in their facilities servicing, too. So we dropped to about 80% of capacity overall and about 50% on the service side.
There’s so many people hurting right now so we’re pretty happy with that 80%. Payroll Protection Program money helped immensely; kudos to our government for acting quickly. That kept us from having to lay anyone off. We’ve been doing weekly YouTube and email updates, explaining everything to our offices and staff, where we’re at and where we’re going, and what we’re doing. We just improvised, adapted and tried to overcome.
Kekin Shah: Our base of Rhode Island has handled this ordeal very well as the governor took proactive action from the beginning. We have stayed open but we had everybody work remotely, as many as we could, other than technicians coming to get some parts and some products. We’d set it up on the loading dock so they could pick it up and go without having to come in. Initially, when we couldn’t go into many commercial buildings, we used that time to do some training. Now, at full-scale back, we are in a position — because we do a lot of work for K-12 schools and higher ed — it feels like we don’t have enough people to get things done in time.
I’m not so sure of longer-term demand, what the business future looks like after that. There is still a little bit reluctance in some of the buildings to open up to the outside, like us, to go install something. Even though we had orders, we couldn’t complete the installation. Overall, currently we are understaffed for technicians/installers and looking for outside people to help us with subcontracting. However, business was definitely rough from March through most of June.
What are the top challenges you’re facing right now relative to the COVID situation?
Shah: Procurement and getting products delivered in a timely manner is starting to become a challenge. Products are not as quickly available to ship and sometimes it’s the small things we can’t get in a timely manner. Another issue is that everything has slowed down, including receivables. Purchase orders that would normally take two to three days now take 10-12 days, which builds the crunch time. This has particularly impacted our servicing of the healthcare industry, implementing all the rules and regulations in the face now of a little extra burden. We have to make sure we keep lots of records in case they want to do an audit of who went where when.
Meridith: My biggest fear is watching the news tell us about COVID breaking out more and the second wave and those types of things. Our greatest worry is a second shutdown across the country, and all of sudden those things go back on hold. So we’re staying conservative. Like Kekin said, product is a concern too. We did some work with Honeywell, which is having some issues getting product out of its Mexico plant. And it’s always an issue just being able to let your customers know you’re going to come into their buildings and be safe. We’ve had to convince them that we can be safe. We’re going to come in with masks, with hand sanitizers, with shields, we’re going to be safe, stay away from your team and be as sanitary as we can. We’re fortunate they haven’t canceled the jobs. They’re still there, but at some point I need to install them.
Schwab: The No. 1 challenge has been for our new construction group. Our other groups like critical infrastructure, utilities, medical manufacturing, we haven’t seen a lot of challenges there. On the contrary, we’ve seen an increase in COVID-related awards as utilities are increasing the need for analytics and contact tracing. The new construction is where things really got shut down. We are seeing a little bit of that reopening, but it’s slow. As Mike said, we are concerned about another spike shutting things down again, with further delay of those new constructions. That all said, our year-over-year numbers are good, we’ve matched last year.
I think we would’ve beat it considerably if not for COVID. Another challenge is getting in front of clients to build our pipeline. Because we can’t get in front of them, we have to do meetings using Zoom, Teams and other methods of interaction for new opportunities. We hope we’re able to get in front of them soon. As far as budgets for projects that were cut, most of them look like they’re going to be reallocated for 2021. They’re just on hold, not canceled. Our outlook is good and we’re hopeful that if this thing leaves us and there are no more surprises, things will continue to improve.
Contending with COVID is taxing, but have you found any positive takeaways?
Meridith: We are finding some are just killing it working from home. They get up at 7:45 a.m. with their sweatpants and bowl of Cheerios, and they just pound it out. That’s fantastic. Some people won’t be coming back into the workplace. That’s going to be a trend for customers as well. Zoom is the new meeting medium. Only some of our meetings will go back to in-person, we’ll stay with Zoom for others. We’ll probably be able to cut our three conference rooms down to one, and may end up trying to lease out some space. We’ve also become more efficient. IT has stepped up too. I was worried to death about cybersecurity, hacks and all that. They stepped up with everybody logging in from outside. I’ve just been thrilled with how when the going got tough our team really got going, and have been flowing with it and moved on.
Schwab: We’ve had the same experience, with some rock stars. At 5:45 a.m., I’m seeing email starting to get cranked out. These guys are not wasting time on a commute or at the watercooler, they’re staying focused. But I’m concerned about a long-term effect on employee retention if you don’t have that camaraderie that builds loyalty, dedication and a feeling of belonging. I worry about everyone turning into working machines, getting a lot done, only seeing each other via Zoom, not able to slap each other on the back, have a good joke, have a beer together, or whatever.
Meridith: Yes, you hit some points. There’s been talk about maybe people work Monday, Wednesday, Friday from home. Maybe they come in Monday, Tuesday, and then other staff comes in Thursday, Fridays to try to keep that camaraderie going. Maybe they come in for a Friday cookout and work half a day here. I agree with you completely on that. We have also found that once you start to halve branch offices, keeping the company culture becomes more of a challenge.
One thing we did to help maintain and build that team atmosphere is a weekly YouTube video where we not only update everyone on what is going on but we have strived to have some fun with it and make it a little bit more amusing. We joked about haircuts and things like that and I wore a fake mullet one day. They screenshotted us and put me on a fishing boat, silly things like that went over well with our staff.
Shah: We also found remote work is efficient, doable, although it depends on the person. Some people are better in the office and a little more focused, but there are others who can really pull it off working from home. One thing that showed very quickly as people were working remotely is how critical it is for frequent and clear communication. We struggled a little bit making sure things were communicated properly and all details were laid out. We have streamlined our communication and things are going smoother. We’re also rotating employees, for example, project managers. Only one project manager at a time can be in the office.
Beyond that we’ve hired a delivery person, so our installers go directly to a jobsite and all the equipment is brought to them. If anything is missing at a jobsite, instead of installers coming back, we have a runner who does it. It has worked out pretty good. All our salespeople were a little bit remote before. Now everybody’s remote. Unless you have a reason to come into the office, you don’t come in. We try to keep less than 50% of the staff that used to be in the office on a daily basis so as to keep social distance. A rise in some business related to the pandemic was mentioned.
What are the potential opportunities for technologies like contact tracing and temperature monitoring?
Schwab: Definitely, in talking about reopening, there’s been a tremendous amount of traction in those conversations of temperature, thermal, contact tracing, people counting and whatnot. There’s been a lot of interest and we’ve actually implemented many of those systems already. It might be a trend or it could be a fad that goes away. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. One large sports franchise client of ours did a complete upgrade to Bluetooth readers and added the analytics on top of it. They have a touchless entry system across their international sites. You can use your own phone to unlock the door and then the analytic traces them as they walk through this facility.
That was an exciting project and definitely substantial. I think the most important thing is maintaining an open dialogue with our clients about possible solutions for whatever their needs or interests may be. We’re on weekly calls, planning their openings, talking about the security requirements, speaking about these types of needs. It’s become a tremendous opportunity for us to work closely with our clients to remain very relevant to them.
Meridith: If I have to tell you today whether it’s trend or fad, I’m going with fad. As soon as there’s a vaccine, it’s going to calm down. That being said, I think there is a market right now. We have sold a couple [of thermal scanning temperature monitoring systems] and are in the process of installing them. We have proposed several, but there’s been a little sticker shock. I’m cautious about them too. I just feel like, do these really work? We’ll see. I would not be emphasizing this in my business planning for the next 12 to 18 months.
Shah: I agree the minute they find the vaccine those opportunities are going to fade away. In my eyes, it’s a make-you-feel-good piece of equipment because the camera reads your temperature and you come in, but that is no way to know whether that person is positive or negative with this virus. That said, it’s helped us talk to customers about more intelligent systems, more features that will allow you to track somebody, where they’ve been in your facility. Manufacturers have come up with some very interesting products, especially more video intelligence. That could be utilized for more than just the virus spread, such as auditing something, if a bad incident happens, something gets stolen. Customers are paying more attention to that now, whereas prior when we pitched it they didn’t have as much interest. That part will help us as an industry.
Beyond that, a lot of touchless sensors, such as card access, opening those doors without anybody touching anything may make them more intelligent. That’s where I think we all will benefit. As for thermal cameras right now, we quoted three or four. One is in a test at a school system, which they wanted at every school. But there’s a whole bunch of reasons why they can’t. Because now you’re identifying a kid and pronouncing to everyone that this kid’s got a high temperature. How do you do that efficiently? If you do it behind closed doors, it could take you much longer, so it becomes impractical. As much as the equipment is there, logistics of how it gets deployed is challenging. I don’t know that we’ll set the world on fire with thermal cameras.
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