Reliable Fire & Security Still Reliable After All These Years

Reliable Fire & Security President Debbie Horvath and Manager of Systems Service Vicki Caniecki talk differentiation amid the firm’s 60th anniversary celebration.

The May issue of Security Sales & Integration includes my in-depth profile of Chicago-based Reliable Fire & Security and interview of the 60-year-old company’s executives.

Reliable President Debbie Horvath told me the firm is having a huge bash for its 60th anniversary this month. In 1983, armed with a degree in tax accounting and having reluctantly joined the company her father started in 1955, Horvath learned the business by answering the phones, doing invoicing, payables and receivables, job costing, and financial statements. “My official title when I started was the assistant controller. I actually grew to love the industry,” she told me.

That passion shined through during our interview and my subsequent meeting with her at the recent PSA-TEC event. In this blog, I submit bonus content from our conversation that also includes Manager of Systems Service Vicki Caniecki, a 29-year Reliable veteran. Here, they discuss taking on larger competitors, contending with municipal monitoring, and giving back to the community and industry.

If you’re going head-to-head on a potential project or customer, against a larger company such as Simplex or Siemens, what’s the secret sauce for Reliable to win out?

Debbie Horvath: I think that Simplex and Siemens have over the years experienced many of their customers no longer wanting them to provide service. Our fire alarm service contracts have grown with products like the Simplex and Siemens because they like working with a family-owned business. And they like the flexibility we offer, and even the pricing that we offer on the parts we can get for them. If our customers ever become dissatisfied with us, there are other Notifier distributors in the market. So it gives them the flexibility if they feel the need to move. It doesn’t happen but it’s an education process. The bigger customers don’t like a lot of change when they find a good service provider.

Since you’re in that part of the country especially, I wanted to ask about municipal fire alarm monitoring, which has created a bit of a hubbub out there. Is that something that impacts Reliable? What is your take on it?

Horvath: My initial reaction is I hate it. The concept sounds great but there are many erroneous expectations being set. I don’t feel that the customers are the winners in this type of program. I look at it as an additional tax passed on to those businesses in those communities. In our case, we track and follow up on our deficiencies. We want to make sure our customers’ life-safety products are working to protect property and save lives. I think those AHJs, the municipalities, feel that there are a lot of companies out there that don’t have this type of follow-up and they’re looking for this as an extended arm of their role and the fire inspector’s role, to make sure that all their customers are up to code. I just hate it.

Caniecki: Being a service manager, I go down the path of security and fire alarm monitoring, and the fact that there’s this trend where municipalities decided it was another thing they could determine for everyone and kind of take away the choice. OK, for XYZ municipality we’re going to say, “You have to use SP Company,” which for a long time was different for us in the monitoring market. You had services for other customers, you’re trying to pick up more services, and they were already being told that this is what they had to be, this is what they had to do. That for us, in a lot of areas, when we were trying to pick up especially fire alarm business, if they’re going to have to deal with one company on that small sliver of the monitoring, they figured we might as well give them our fire alarm service and inspection contracts. Then it was easier for them. That’s how I view that question because that’s what first comes to my mind. That has changed a little bit, which is good for us. They’re kind of opening that back up to letting companies make their own choices.

Horvath: My response was with regard to third-party compliance organizations. It’s a hot topic.

I think one of them is the Compliance Engine. It’s a company whose contracts with the municipalities state that all fire equipment distributors that are doing test and inspect for demand service in those communities must submit the inspection reports to the Compliance Engine. Then the Compliance Engine would gather all reports on behalf of the AHJ, and the AHJ would have access to this bank of data. They would become aware of any businesses in their community that had deficiencies, so that they would go to that business and say, for example, “Your fire alarm system needs a new battery.” Then they would expect the customer to get it fixed.

The problem is the AHJs are not following up on these deficiencies. It sounds like a great idea, and it would be a great idea if there was cooperation among the fire extinguisher company and the AHJ and the customer to get those deficiencies done. From my perspective, if it worked we would get 100% of our deficiency revenue. It could mean an additional $400,000 of revenue for us, and new service revenue. I like the idea. It’s just not being run the right way.

Could you speak to Reliable’s mindset insofar as participating in the community it serves, and also participating in the fire/life-safety industry?

Horvath: Locally, we participate in chamber programs for many charitable events. We participate in the authorities having jurisdiction programs like the Illinois Fire Inspectors that collect money for Burn Camp victims. The Illinois Fire Inspectors support burn victims or disadvantaged kids for fire safety and training. We have our Reliable green trucks, and our technicians will take them to any of our local chambers or villages so that the kids can touch and feel a fire extinguisher and not be afraid of it, so they know how to use it. We hand out pamphlets on life safety and fire training.

In terms of the industry, I am active in a lot of associations. There’s a give and take in learning what’s going on in the industry and being aware of the latest technologies and trends, as well as giving back to the industry. By volunteering my time, it helps other companies in the industry. I’m not scared to share some of our best practices, and just elevate life safety for everybody.

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About the Author


Scott Goldfine is the marketing director for Elite Interactive Solutions. He is the former editor-in-chief and associate publisher of Security Sales & Integration. He can be reached at [email protected].

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