Monitoring Roundtable: Execs on Traversing the Pandemic, Positive Outlook
Managers from four central stations describe how they are successfully navigating through COVID-19. Among the valuable takeaways are how internal and external people skills, grit and adaptability have never been more critical.
What are the most important business or operational lessons learned during the pandemic that you’ll carry forward within the company?
Tuke: We’ve learned how much we truly rely on our people. When you treat them well and ensure they have technology and tools that work, along with the interaction to ensure their emotional well-being, that then gets reflected in how they look after your end-user and dealer customers — and ultimately how you keep your business running. We always knew our people were important, but I don’t think we understood the true cost of losing any one of them to our business.
Our employee wellness committee has become a huge program where they have all sorts of interactions among each. Being in the PERS market, especially in the early parts of the pandemic, was heartbreaking. Some of the conversations on these calls were with people who were by themselves and in medical distress. Really expanding that program, and the fact that it was peer-to-peer rather than management-driven, has been crucial.
Stone: We survey our employees once or twice a year and in 2020 our scores and team philosophy just got that much better. It really is attributed to our team pulling together and helping each other out, with so many examples of people filling in for others. It really helped us out long-term and we’ll benefit from that for many years to come. It was a great reminder for all.
Also when we first entered into the pandemic there was so much uncertainty and we didn’t know where the business was headed. We hunkered down and put a committee together to look at cost-cutting and becoming as efficient as possible. We made some tremendous changes that have had a long-term impact on our success. We acted on things we wouldn’t have otherwise acted on. Long-term, some things have been or will be restored and some things we’ve learned we just don’t really need. Good things can come from a situation like this.
Velasquez: Everybody has really come to rely on each other. That coming together as a great kind of community within our office is one thing I hope stays with us as part of our culture. It’s been rough. The COVID cases have been taking people out left and right. We’ve got a lot of part-time employees who work in healthcare as well, an industry that’s been strained to the max. So it’s taken a true collaboration to get through it and push forward.
Cohen: I hate to sound repetitive but the employees make or break you. One of the reasons why we chose to keep everyone onsite is to maintain a cohesive unit. I think it’s worked. Moving forward, we’ve recognized some challenges like training new operators. How do we change our buddy or shadow training, for example? How do you accommodate social distancing and trying to keep everyone safe? We haven’t found what we feel is the best answer to it, but employees are No. 1.
What opportunities and trends do you see emerging out of the pandemic, in terms of things like technology and M&A?
Cohen: As for M&A, there’s going to be more opportunities for companies looking to acquire independent dealers. There’s a lot of people who got into this industry in the 1980s that are finally looking to retire. I do think multiples are going to drop a little bit, or at least remain stabilized. I see it being a buyers’ market for the next couple of years. In terms of technology, the biggest change has been the increasing use of things that’ll help us automate. There is a slow move afoot toward more, I hate to say, self-service for the customer base. Getting their alarms or signals over text message and the automation being able to do what it needs to do.
I also believe video monitoring will continue to grow for central stations. That’s going to be transformational at some point.
Stone: We’re a pretty significant M&A player right now, and recently closed acquiring two companies. The pandemic has caused people to get to the point that they really have to think about their exit strategy. We’re seeing a significantly increased amount of activity from people interested in talking about selling their companies. There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for acquisitions going forward. We’ve not seen the multiples dip that much yet, but they might over time. What you have seen is a change in terms, in other words the guarantee in the holdback has changed. Companies want to hedge their bet against attrition that could potentially spike so the holdback is generally for a bit higher percentage and longer period of time.
As far as technology, more companies are interested in access control as they want to control their environment a little bit more. That certainly gets to video monitoring and some of the other technologies out there too. Who knows, temperature monitoring and recording could become a big thing.
Those products were pretty quick to hit the market, but we’ve not seen a huge increase in demand. There’s been a handful of systems here and there. I believe we’ll be wearing masks for the foreseeable future. With that, people want to control their buildings more, and that’ll lend itself to more sales, increased opportunities.
Tuke: We see more and more integration with companies like Alarm.com and those sorts of things, and the offerings they have available. We definitely see a lot more alarm integration with video verification. There’s also a lot of large cannabis businesses across Canada with complex integrations of the alarm, camera and access control systems that are leading us to better integrate automation inside our monitoring station to be able to support those types of customers. As these solutions do become more complex, we’re also seeing a lot of the smaller companies walking away from their businesses, allowing larger integrators to take over.
Do you see the Cloud playing an increasing role in some of those technology trends?
Yes, most definitely for both new technology and redundancy. How you get to the Cloud, how you interact with those technologies, has made monitoring stations be much more reliant on IT knowledge. We have as many IT professionals working at our station today as we do operators.
Velasquez: We just converted to a different alarm-processing software, Micro Key. That led us to looking at automating lower-priority SMS and MMS messages, getting that technology out there for our customers. We also do a lot with our AES radios. For example, if a customer’s front door opens, through the AES radio Micro Key will automatically send out that message and present it to the operator at the same time. This also helps our operators not be overloaded by lower priorities to better handle burglaries, fires and medicals.
We’re going through the process of purchasing one of those 1980s alarm companies, on the rural edge of our coverage area. We’re looking at going out there and taking over those kinds of systems. Anything we take over we want to be able to service ourselves. A lot of those are on cellular units. Unfortunately, they’re on a 3G right now. We’ve got to go out to those locations, upgrade their transmitters, make sure that everything’s working and comes through great. (For more on the 3G changeover, see this month’s Between Us Pros.)
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