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Keeping an eye on business

Mia Geiger
SPECIAL TO THE BUSINESS JOURNAL

UPPER DARBY—When a new wave of inexpensive, mass-marketed residential alarm systems hit the market in the late 1980s, a warning signal went off at the offices of Universal Atlantic Systems Inc. The Delaware County company which had been providing residential alarm systems and services since 1972, knew it would need to shift more of its emphasis to the commercial market to ensure future growth.

The company began pursuing accounts for large office complexes throughout the Delaware Valley. It nabbed its first national account in the early 1990s, providing alarms and monitoring services for a fast food pizza restaurant in 12 states. Today, national accounts represent 75 percent of the company’s revenues. “Everybody wanted to get into the alarm business. We said we have a choice: we can either continue doing what we’re doing and compete with the (companies offering low-end systems) or we can change our focus.” said Scott Elkins, president of the family-owned business.

Universal Atlantic Systems sells, installs and services fire and burglar alarms. The company also operated its own 24-hour monitoring station: something many companies hire subcontractors to do. Other products include access-control systems, closed-circuit television systems and elevator emergency telephone systems. Elkins has high hopes for a newer product, called RAVEN. The product was originally designed as a security device that allows a central station to view and listen to events in progress. Elkins has begun marketing it as a way for business owners to monitor their stores from remote locations. The product features a remote video unit that is installed at each business location, along with a closed-circuit television system and a telephone line. The RAVEN software is installed on a home, office or laptop computer, enabling business own- Barry Appelbaum, owner-operator of the Port Richmond Exxon Tiger Mart, began using the RAVEN system in 1996 as a security tool. “I’m not of those paranoid bosses, but it’s available, so I use it,” Appelbaum said of the additional capabilities. “I usually dial up two or three times a week. I can see how busy it is, if the lot is clean, if employees are wearing their uniforms and name tags.”

Sales from the product represent about 2 percent of revenues at the present, but Elkins anticipates they will reach about 15 percent by the year’s end. Fast-food restaurants and convenience stores represent most of the company’s client base nationally. They include McDonald’s. Papa John’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Amoco, Exxon. Mobil Oil and Cumberland Farms. Other clients include Jennifer Convertibles, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and Pearle Vision Centers. The company services a varying number of stores for each client. Regional commercial accounts include SEPTA, Just For Feet, Golden Chrysler Plymouth, Rib-It restaurants and various office complexes.

The focus on national accounts has led the company to an average 20 percent to 30 percent growth for the last four years, according to Elkins, who joined the business in 1989 and became president in 1997 when his stepfather, Ron Schwartz, began easing into retirement. Three other family members work in the business. The company recently bought a 12,000 square-foot facility in Broomall, which it will move into in March. Currently, its headquarters are in Upper Darby, with a second office a few blocks away. The growth has brought with it several challenges. Early on, it was simply getting enough sleep. “Our national account department was two-people large,” Elkins said. “I would literally get paged 24 hours a day. There was such a commitment to make this program work. There wasn’t a night I wouldn’t get beeped in the middle of the night. But I wanted to ensure we would always provide better service than the traditional national players. My two-man team was competing against 100- and 200-people teams.”

The company steadily increased its staff, which now numbers 50. Along the way, the company developed a new human resources department and restructured the company. “Before, as a very small privately held company, everything fell under a tight umbrella. The larger you get, you have to create divisions. Those divisions have to be managed by good quality people,” the 31-year-old company president said. A key issue, he said, is maintaining the commitment to “exceptional, unyielding” customer service. To that end, the company provides seminars for its staff and reinforces the concept of satisfying clients.