“Defining my core values, vision and processes, along with having the right people in each position in my organization, has been revolutionary.” – Ken Croston
When was the last time you checked into a hotel room and were given an actual key? For most travelers to be handed anything but an electronic card would give them pause and raise questions about how current and secure the hotel was.
From the most luxurious resorts to the convenient motels along the interstates, electronic locks are the expected norm. Which raises the question: who services and repairs these devices for an industry that in the United States alone numbers more than 5 million rooms? That demand is what has fueled the growth of Ken Croston’s Electronic Locksmith Inc., located in his hometown of Apopka.
Croston’s journey from lock installer to burgeoning business owner and chair of Apopka’s Chamber of Commerce is what makes entrepreneurialism such a dynamic tapestry. In many respects, at 19, Croston had a dream job. He traveled to almost every state in the continental United States after forming a company to install electronic locks on new hotels being built around the country. He was young, the work was interesting, the money was good, and he got to see America.
The Entrepreneurial Gene
“I’ve always been entrepreneurial,” Croston said. “Growing up on military bases, I would go door to door soliciting work. That was where I learned very quickly that specifying a price without specifying a scope of services really cuts into your bottom line.”
Croston was denied a military career because of his hearing and instead was drawn to the construction and HVAC industry. A friend of Croston’s roommate worked for his father installing electronic locks and eventually talked him into a job. His friend however, did one better; he told him if he and another friend started their own business, they would train them and provide work as a part of a three-year contract they landed. Thus began his first business in 1999 that eventually grew into World Class Installations in 2004.
The two crisscrossed the country, primarily replacing key locks with electronic locks until 9/11 when his world came to a halt. He returned to Apopka, bought a small house and rode out the economic storm, while his partner took up sky diving. Croston went back to work overseas, installing locks on military installations around the world.
He took over the company and began to reconsider whether he wanted to continue traveling, which is great when you are 19, but not if you are planning to marry and have a family. He continued his installation business working for major manufacturers and contracting firms, but a new opportunity began to emerge that would eventually overtake the installation business — repairing existing locks.
In 2008, when the market took a severe downturn, Croston was newly married, and the newlyweds were soon pregnant with their first child. All of his diversification was in construction and real estate, so he was scrambling to stay afloat. He began doing repair work in his garage, mainly to keep his technicians busy between installation jobs, and quickly realized the scalability and margins were far better.
Croston moved to a storage facility and began an expansion, adding one bay after another. Today, he has a 10,000-sq.-ft. office and fabrication facility, employing more than 25 staff. He also has an amazing record of being able to get the part or the lock a client needs out the next day at over 95 percent.
A major shift for his company’s development was when, as the cliché goes, Croston started working on his business instead of just in it. Participating in a CEO Nexus group and reading and employing the methodologies found in Geno Wickman’s book Traction, he was provided the tools he needed to scale. A succession of two remarkable integrators, one a university professor and the other a Walmart manager, who work as COOs, have brought a systemization and efficiency he wanted but was struggling to achieve.
“Defining my core values, vision and processes, along with having the right people in each position in my organization, has been revolutionary,” Croston explained. He quickly added that the most important person in his organization is his wife, Laura, who has been his most trusted business partner for years.
“We’ve grown to a good place and have the right people now, so I’m able to give back to the community, and the business doesn’t miss a beat. That’s a really good feeling,” he concluded. ◆