Big Idea of the Month: Encourage Employees to Immerse Themselves in Your Business

Reliable Fire and Security President Debra Horvath explains how to breed success by supporting both customers and employees.

Ernest Horvath founded Alsip, Ill.-based Reliable Fire and Security in 1955 … one of the few events that was before my time in the industry! The company grew from its bare beginnings with just one truck to its name, to the company it is today — one that has 50 vehicles and 85 employees.

And along the way, somewhere about 1998, Mr. Horvath passed the office of the president to his daughter, Debra, who is still president, and largely responsible for the company’s rapid growth.

Since she took over 20 years ago, Debra has shown herself to be a great executive and is an entrepreneur of the first order. She is also probably as knowledgeable about the fire side of the industry as anyone around.

The company operates through four divisions: fire protection products; systems division, which focuses on installation and service of both security and other fire services; the security division, which functions pretty much like any traditional alarm company; and the first aid division, which provides Reliable’s customers with ongoing first aid treatment classes, first-aid products and support programs.

When I first visited Debbie, I was amazed at the hustle and bustle of the operation. You can sense the dedication and purpose of the company through the friendliness and activities of its employees.

Debra, in addition to being one heck of an executive, has another group of qualities, which I will talk about in a minute. When I asked her about her great idea relative to the operation of her company, she responded immediately, “Believe in supporting the employees and their families that work for Reliable.”

She went on to say that, by extension, employees will be able to focus on customer relationships that extend beyond business and become very personal to the employee. She’s also leading the industry in providing after-sale customer service.

Customer relationship team members provide follow-up calls on customers after the installation, and provide continuing contact to further establish the relationship between the company and its customers. And of course, those are rules to live by if you want to run a good company.

Now you may notice that while I have referred to Debra by her first name, I didn’t identify anything she does by gender. And that’s deliberate. You see Debra has a ground rule that says forget a person’s gender and concentrate on what he or she does. And she lives by that rule and teaches it to all her employees. Even that isn’t what sets Reliable apart from her competition.

She both encourages and provides assistance for employees to immerse themselves in the business. Just a few days ago I read about a major seminar she’s holding at a major downtown hotel for customers wanting to learn more about fire systems, how they work, who needs them, etc. They serve breakfast and a plated lunch to their guests, and my guess is all the employees that have customer contact are involved in that meeting.

Further, Debra insists that associates of the company go to all of the conferences that have anything to do with the area of expertise that the associate specializes in … ISC shows, association meetings, ASIS conferences, local peer group meetings … almost anything that will provide more information about the work the company does and the products that they sell and install.

Finally, I asked her, “If you had just one bit of advice that you could provide to female executives like yourself, what would it be?” She paused and said words to the effect of, “I can’t do that, simply because I believe that women are not any less effective than their male counterparts. And I don’t differentiate between men and women as long as they can do the job. It’s worked for us, and, by extension, it has provided valuable lessons to the rest of our industry and our customers and friends.”

There is something about Debra and other leaders that I have seen in this industry. They are outgoing, make good friends and are the kind of people that you’d like to go out and have a beer or a cup of coffee with.

In fact, before I ended my interview of Debra, we agreed to get together in the very near future for cup of coffee and to talk about the industry. And I never thought about whether I was going to meet a woman or a man in the industry. Rather, I was going to meet a successful executive in the industry who has great ideas about the concept of success. And she lives it.

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About the Author

Ron Davis

Ron Davis is the founder and president of Davis Mergers & Acquisitions Group, Inc., a firm that specializes in acquisitions and mergers. He has more than 40 years of industry experience.

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