Article by Dale Grant – Journalist –
This may come as a shock to many, but 2003 was 20 years ago.
That means that it has been twenty years since we joined the search for a plucky orange fish named Nemo. It’s been twenty years since Johnny Depp donned eyeliner and turned an iconic theme park ride into an epic trilogy (and a fourth movie.) It has been 2 DECADES since a hairy-footed Elijah Wood and that kid from the Goonies passed through Mordor and finally dropped “One Ring to Rule Them All” into the fires of Mount Doom.
And like the aforementioned Hobbits, Oliver Sprinkler Company would realize its destiny, ultimately becoming Oliver Fire Protection & Security as it expanded into the Fire Alarm and Security Industry.
We were able to catch up with one of the founders of the department, Russ Walters and get some insight into the first few years.
Oliver FPS: What was the driving force for Oliver to expand into the Fire Alarm industry?
Russ: Dick Oliver was the President at the time and Dave Oliver had been there a couple of years and was still doing his rotations through the business. Dick had a mentor in Vistage, called TEC at the time, Michael Hagy. Michael challenged Dick to expand the business into either new vertical markets or geographically, or both. David was also instrumental in expanding into alarms. He had a desire to diversify Oliver’s offerings to customers. So, I was hired to produce a business plan to determine if Oliver’s expansion into alarms made sense. I created the plan and presented to the board (Dick, Bill, Bob, and Dave). After a unanimous vote, the alarm department was born on April 1, 2003.
Oliver FPS: What were the early challenges of the expansion?
Russ: Ha! This is a long list, and the reason I’ve got gray hairs!
Vendors, we had none. We needed to get relations set up with “open” vendors like ADI and Alarmax. Then we had to land a proprietary fire alarm panel. We met with several and by total providence and smooth talking, we landed Notifier. This was HUGE and not at all an easy land. We almost got booted the first couple of years because we had challenges meeting sales quota. Kudos to Mark Tomasello and thanks to Jim Burger (Notifier) for beginning this relationship.
Employees, where do we start? Hire a salesperson and have no one to do the work? Hire a tech and have nothing for him/her to do? I got it, I would be both! I sold our first “job” through Frank Connelly in the Inspection Department to the Flyer’s Skate Zone in NE Philly. It was an inspection of an EST-2 fire alarm system and I “hired” a subcontractor tech from Emergency Response Associates to help me. After that, I hired Joe Kendra as our first tech and Mark Tomasello as our first salesperson. Then it was off to the races.
Forms/Letterhead, we didn’t even know how to brand the new department. Some at Oliver (I won’t name names) were not ready to rebrand the whole business as its now called, so we created dba (doing business as) of Oliver Alarm Systems and went to market that way. Also, we didn’t even have the job cost breakdown form to put a job into accounting so when we landed our first job (Bryn Mawr Liquor Store) we had to scramble to make a form (and the structure in the accounting system called Forefront at that time, not Spectrum) that made sense for the different costs that alarm jobs would have versus sprinkler jobs.
Vans/tools, etc. We “bought” a totally beaten down inspection mini-van with over 150k miles on it from the Inspection department for $1 (thanks Bruce Frankum and Mike Slezak). We Made our designer, Keith Richard, program the fire alarm panel for our first job with a desktop because we didn’t have a laptop yet. Keith was not happy lugging a desktop and monitor into a liquor store.
Licenses, we had none. I had to pass the electrical test (which took 2 tries) and get our Philadelphia Electrical License. This allowed us to get other licenses like West Chester and Lower Merion, etc.
Payables. I would stay late Friday night and do them. Also, it was helpful in avoiding traffic on the turnpike. One night, Brian Plechner called me about a part he needed for a job Saturday AM and was surprised to learn I was still at the shop doing payables. He came in to pick up his part and dropped off a cold beer for me. Best beer ever and I’ll always appreciate that gesture of kindness.
Oliver FPS: Why was Oliver in a good position to make this move?
Russ: It mostly came down to the Inspection departments customer base. They had a huge database of customers who would need to have fire alarms inspected. The installation sales typically went through a different channel than sprinkler installations (except for International House – thanks Meg Moss). I hired a second salesperson, Tom Dagney, whose job it was to call the customers on the sprinkler inspection tickler cards.
Oliver FPS: What, in your mind, was the department’s first big success?
Russ: Landing Notifier as a premier, proprietary Fire Alarm system.
Oliver FPS: What was the biggest project you can recall being installed.
Russ: I left in 2017. The biggest job at that time was a building now called River Park House Condominium. We sold it direct to the customer and did the entire installation with our labor. Matt Dempsey did an amazing job as the foreman of that project.
Oliver FPS: Are there any stories you’d like to share from the early days of the department?
Russ: There were two sprinkler designers, Jim Yocum and Chuck Niedlen, whom I really liked but rode my backside hard in the beginning. You see, for the first year of operation, the alarm department lost money. Negative profit. They were both employees enrolled in the profit-sharing plan, so on hearing that this new little department was sucking money from their future profit-sharing payouts, they made it clear, in their not so gentle and very sarcastic way, that I needed to quit messing around and make things happen. In 2004, we about broke even. They didn’t really like that either because I didn’t contribute to profit sharing. Then in 2005, we made enough money to offset the early losses in 03-04 and generate profit on top of that. Their comment – “about time!” Very funny and cracked me up.
In speaking with current Oliver Fire Protection Security President, Dave Oliver and current Leader of the Alarms Department, Steve Oliver, we were able to discuss the direction for the future.
“I think it’s important to note that this expansion into the Fire Alarm industry was a sign of growth and building for the future,” Dave stressed, “an opportunity and a challenge that the team wanted to take on. It would provide the inertia and momentum for the business and eventually led to the opening of two new offices and many learning opportunities for us.”
When asked about the biggest difference about the early days of the department and how it operates today, Steve Oliver spoke to the strength of our current personnel.
“In the beginning, with so few employees, they had to do anything and everything to get the job done. With the employee count we have now, we are able to be more specialized.
The department has grown so much, in fact, that they are about to make a move to a brand new office at 3620 Horizon Drive, a 16,000 sq foot office space with the ability to outfit another available 4,000 to 6,000 sq feet with office space as needed. This will be the second time the department has outgrown the space that had been originally allocated. A poll was taken to choose names for the two new conference rooms at the new location. One will be named the “Blue Diamond Room” keeping with Oliver’s Blue Diamond theme of being the most exceptional leader in the industry. The other room, by overwhelming demand will be named after Russ Walters.
When asked about their vision for the future, Dave and Steve had this to say:
Dave: “I believe the Alarm and Security aspect of the business can be a $250 Million revenue business segment that dominates the Northeast Region market and beyond. This will be done by continuing to grow the best team in the business!
Steve: “My vision for the department is for it to continue to grow in terms of revenue, employee base, customer base, and also recurring revenue, to the point where it is the largest and most impactful department in the business.”
With such high expectations, the next logical question was of course “how do we make this vision a reality?”
Dave: “I think it is critical to highlight the people and team that have created the success of the alarm and security department. There are so many people that have contributed in numerous different ways that have ensured the success. This would also include customers, vendors, and friends of the business. To achieve our goals, we are going to need the continued great leadership, a tremendous team and the will to be exceptional.
Steve: “A team of dedicated individuals and a well thought out plan. We are well on our way and have momentum in terms of growth. When you are on a growth team, you are constantly thinking about where are we hiring next and where can we expand our reach? You concentrate on Sales growth, and when that comes to fruition, you have to backfill with operations growth to execute the work the sales team brings on. We’ve got a tremendous team in place that understands the goal and continues to follow the planned trajectory!”
In the twenty years since the department’s founding in 2003, one thing has been made abundantly clear. The future success of the department, like every department within Oliver Fire Protection & Security is fully dependent on the continued hard work and dedication of our outstanding teams.