Huston Akins, Owner of Signal 88 Security of Nashville & Memphis, TN, discusses how the unmatched support provided by the Franchise Group made his dream of owning a successful security business a reality.
In Episode 3 of the Signal 88 Security Franchise Podcast, we sat down with Huston Akins, owner of Signal 88 of Memphis and Nashville, TN to hear his story of starting his own security business versus franchising with Signal 88.
Listen here or read the transcript below:
Welcome to the Signal 88 franchise podcast. My name is Laura Vodvarka and today I'll be your host. It's been quite a busy summer for everyone. I know we've had market sales interns in over 10 markets, helping franchise owners grow their businesses and telemarketers here in our office in Omaha, setting up appointments for them. Schools are just starting up again, so has budget season for many of our client segments. One franchise owner who has really tapped into his growth strategy is Huston Akins of Memphis and Nashville. We're excited to hear his story today as he's had quite the journey to get here. So with that, welcome Houston. Thanks so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
Well, let's just start off by telling us your story. Why did you get into security and business ownership way back in the beginning?
Okay, great question. It all started when I was 18 years old, I joined the United States air force as a law enforcement specialist. I realized early on that the world of law enforcement, investigations, and security was of interest to me. Upon completing my tour with the Air Force, I returned back home to study criminal justice and became a private investigator. I still have that company in business today and that led into private security in 1999. I formed my own private security company from a startup perspective and was able to keep it in business for a little over 10 years. And in February of 2010, I closed down that business and returned to my roots of private investigations on a full time basis until June of 15 when I got involved with Signal 88.
Awesome. So when was it that you realized you're an entrepreneur? What was that defining moment for you?
It wasn't planned. I was working for an investigative firm in Memphis, Tennessee and I went into work one day and was laid off without notice. At the time my wife was pregnant with our first child, we had just bought our first home, and I went in and lost my job. So I was kind of forced into the role of becoming a business owner at that point. I made a decision to do that then, that was 25 years ago, and we're still in business.
So you had to jump right in and kind of learn things as you went. I mean, did you have goals at that point? You know, once you were a couple months in the first time around owning your own business of what you wanted it to look like or were you kind of taking it day by day?
It was definitely a day by day adventure at the time. It's really about survival, you know, having children and trying to put food on the table. So there were really no goals in mind at that point, it was a total reaction to a situation and just a day by day survival basically.
I'm sure you learned some really good lessons through that, and I know talking to a lot of different franchise owners that we have, a lot of times, their spouse or their business partner is really that rock that they need to get through that. And your wife, was she involved in the business at that point, or at least kind of keeping you going and motivated?
Well, at the time she had a full time job of taking care of the children, but she did help out with some sales and marketing type stuff. She attended events with me and things of that nature, but in doing private investigations, there wasn't much for her to do in regards to operational stuff, but she was there fully supporting of what I was doing. The hours of course are, uh, very odd. As a private investigator, you work a lot of evenings, nights, weekends, things of that nature, and so there was a lot of challenges there. While I was away on travel, I could be gone for, you know, two to three weeks at a time in some occasions. So she definitely played a big role and the support and was there when I needed her.
I know at some point in talking to you before, you kind of pivoted from a private investigator and I know you still have that business, but you ended up starting the security business too. What prompted that?
Yeah, great question. We had worked an employee theft case, or how it was labeled in the beginning, for a major retail provider and it was out at their distribution center in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout that investigation I was in contact with the corporate folks of the company and really developed a relationship with them through this investigation that lasted three or four months. And upon conclusion of the investigation, it was determined in part that the security officers at that site were involved in the theft and actually obtained some firsthand documentation of the security officers assisting with the theft of the product and was able to capture it on video. It was a really successful investigation. and as I was debriefing my clients at the time, they basically looked at me and said, “we need to replace the security guards in our facility.” Immediately, of course, I had to look at them and say, “well, I'm not licensed to do security. I don't have a security company.” And they responded, “well, you should.” And so, long story short, fast forward, I ended up having over 27 of those stores. Over the entire Memphis area, work Mississippi, and Eastern Arkansas, we had a very, very successful company with that client. And that’s how it all started.
That's what it's about, right? You know, with small business, it's those relationships and trusting each other and clearly, you know, they could see your security expertise on the investigation side enough to say, “you should do this.” And then you took a big leap of faith and jumped in and did it, right?
Yes. That's exactly what happened.
Awesome. Well then fast forward a little bit, why did you start over with Signal 88?
Well as I mentioned, in February of 2010, I was forced to close down the security company that I had started up and over the next several years I continued to focus my full time efforts back onto the private investigative company. I was contacted by a representative of Signal 88, and the most intriguing thing to me at the time was how, with the franchise concept, all of the startup was done. After February in 2010 when I closed down my private company, I had several folks approach me from an investment standpoint and basically said, “Hey, if you ever want to get back into security, I'd like to get involved with you.” I can remember going around saying, I'll never do it again. The start-up is just too much do. You know, I did it in my late twenties, I can't do it again. And that was the one thing that repeated over and over again was just the difficulty in the start-up. As I started exploring with Signal 88, I realized all of the startup was done and that was one of the biggest factors that led me to continue to pursue that opportunity and got me to where I'm at today.
Paint us a picture from your launch with Signal 88. What did that process look like and how quickly did you get your first contract and decide to make your first hire?
Yes, so after we launched in June of 2015, one of the first properties that we visited became my first account. However, it didn't start until October 1st, so it was roughly four months before I got my first account. It was the eight hour dedicated vehicle per night and that's when I hired my first security officer to take that post.
If you could do that phase over again, what advice would you give to somebody else who's just starting up?
The startup phase, you know, really in the very beginning, it's about getting out there and trying to get your name out there and get some proposals going. Initially we started off with patrols. I had some of that going on, which I was doing on my own at the time because they really didn't warrant a full time position, but once I got that dedicated vehicle post, I knew I had to have someone that would be there for an eight hour shift each night.
Since you've been on both sides, you've talked about this a little bit on the business ownership, you know, starting your own versus buying the franchise. What are some of the pros and cons that you've experienced through both?
Well, definitely with the startup there was no support. I mean, I was literally on my own developing everything from policies to what the brand looks like. With Signal 88 coming in, and a lot of that stuff being taken care of, it enabled me to go to work immediately and focus on prospects and potential new clients instead of spending so much time on the tedious aspects of starting up a business such as this.
When it comes to the business model, do you see a difference with contract profitability between when you had your own business versus owning a franchise?
I do. There is a difference. You know, I've learned a lot through that process of where I was 20 years ago compared to now, but the one thing that Signal 88 really brought to the table for me was that just the confidence in knowing that I'm a part of something much bigger than just Houston Akins in Memphis, Tennessee. I'm a part of a national brand with lots of support that comes from the franchise group and corporation, and just the confidence of walking in and meeting people in instead of saying, you know, I'm Houston Akins with ABC security company, now I'm able to go in and introduce myself as a member of Signal 88 as a national brand.
You've done great there in Memphis. What are some of the key contributors for the outstanding growth that you've had and what revenue are you at now?
Some of the key contributors for me has been my involvement within local associations. I've joined the apartment association, the hotel and lodging association, BOMA, which is your commercial real estate property managers and retail center property managers. With our apartment complex, our multifamily communities, a lot of those patrols and assignments are at night, and the thing with commercial business is a lot of that is during the day. So that really changed the dynamics of my business because I was able to now take my trucks instead of them billing 8 or 12 hours a day, they started billing 24 hours a day and that’s a huge dynamic. I've also recently joined ARUM, which is industrial real estate, and that's a lot of your warehouses and supply of facilities.
Through those associations, I don't just join them, I am very involved with them through service over self, basically. I volunteer on the weekends for things that they do, I'm on committees, the golf committee, the welcome committee , with BOMA, I'm the chairman of programs so I get to schedule the luncheons every month and plan them and bring in the speakers. One of the reasons I chose that is because I get the microphone to introduce everyone. So the golf tournaments, the trade shows, and what I have found is by investing that money you're bringing in anywhere from a hundred to, recently in Nashville at the trade show, we developed over 350 leads from one trade show. And so you get a lot of folks in one place, but really getting involved and volunteering your time is where I saw the biggest change because I got to work alongside these folks with things, and not necessarily pushing my agenda at all times.
We're a little over four years into this now and we just have a request for proposals and new business that just is coming to us on a daily basis, and being at the luncheons and people learning about your family and you learning about their family and developing those relationships and trust is a real big game changer.
And then one of our core values that just always resonates with me is the service. I just love the way it's worded: we serve our communities without hesitation because serving is the active ingredient in service. I had one of our property managers mention this to me without her even knowing our core values, she says Houston, I mean you just really stand out with the way you volunteer and serve within your organizations and your associations. And you know, a lot of people talk about that.
That's great. I mean it is actually being involved in the community and not just trying to sell to people. You know, people can see right through the intentions good and bad, so if you have those good intentions and want to be providing service and be part of the community and care about the issues they're facing and the successes they have. You have to be honest with it and clearly that shows with everything you've been able to accomplish and how you're being a part of that community. So that's fantastic.
Absolutely, and try to personalize anything that you can as well. For quick example, BOMA Memphis, there was a trade show in Nashville and as Signal 88 we had a booth up there. So BOMA had rented a bus to drive everyone from Memphis to Nashville which is about a three hour drive, and this was all property managers, so I got a seat on the bus and I showed up that morning with two dozen homemade breakfast burritos, a gallon of mimosa and a gallon of bloody Mary. Literally, I spent the whole trip from Memphis to Nashville walking up and down the aisle serving these folks. Lauren and I woke up that morning and made them early, got there on time, and refilling their drinks and it was something they still talk about to this day and it goes a long way. You know, you talked about getting involved. Yes. Great. And you talked about serving. Yeah. But when you, when they're sitting there, “oh you made these?” I didn’t just go to Chick-Filet, I didn't get donuts, I just put that extra into it and it really goes a long way.
Yeah, I love that. I had heard that story from you before and it's one of my favorite ones that I repeat to new people who are trying to get their foot in the door. It's showing your own true individuality and it's a moment they won't forget, whereas if you just brought in bagels from Panera it doesn't hold that memory for them. So I absolutely love it.
So, what are some of the highlights that you remember about being a business owner, you know, whether it's in a business or things that business ownership was able to afford you with, you know, time with your family or whatever it might be? What are the highlights that you kind of hold dear when thinking about your past as a business owner?
Probably the biggest thing is just the sense of pride that comes from within from knowing that I've been a part of growing something that's been successful and while there's been some ups and downs, obviously, and some setbacks, to just know that I've been a part of that. Also just to know that (I think we have about 130 employees now or some somewhere close to that) you're providing an opportunity for someone to take care of themselves or their families and earn a paycheck. We've recently rolled out full health, dental, and full benefits package to include some PTO. Also, we give all of our employees a free $10,000 life insurance policy that the company pays for and 401k we recently got. Just being able to be a part of or being able to offer someone an opportunity to take care of their family is very rewarding for me as well.
Yeah, and as you grow your business, any of the small businesses could be able to do that once you get to get to scale a little bit and be able to give back and recruit better employees too. But it's again, I think going back to the theme, I keep hearing from you about service. Serving the people and caring about them and doing what makes sense and what's right for them. So, I mean, I think it truly shows because you've been successful because you're doing it the right way, and that’s awesome.
Well, before we wrap up here, I want to go to our last four questions that we ask everybody. So first off, what is your source of continued personal development?
Well, right now when I can find the time, I do get involved in the book club that Reed puts on. We’re just getting started on the new book, Traction, and we've got a quite a bit of work to get through with that. I've also been a part of TAB (The Alternative Board), which the franchise group got involved in and help facilitate that. So on the last Friday of every month, I'm in a room full of business owners that are a decade or two older than me and they have a little bit more experience and things of that nature. So I sit in there and get a lot of good growth development from them as well. And alittle bit of reading, I have to admit it's more audio because of I’m behind the windshield quite a bit, so the audio versions of books work really well for me. I'm involved with the church and I attend a men's group every Tuesday morning and there's a lot of growth involved there as well.
So then what do you do for fun or, or hobbies, you know, when you're not working?
I love to play golf. I love to fish with the weather is good. My sons and I camp. I love to cook. So, um, those are kind of my bigs. I enjoy watching college football on Saturday afternoon, deciding what's going on in the grill. I do like to travel some as well, whenever I can find the time.
Yeah. I can't believe a college football is here already again. It's starting to feel like fall.
I know! I was so excited and then my Tennessee Volunteers started 0-2. It’s like, see you next year.
Maybe they'll turn it around.
Haha, yeah, we’ll see.
So what in your perspective is the common quality that sets apart those who succeed with those who fail?
I think the biggest one is just effort. You know, just plain old effort. Get up every day, fight the good fight, you know, do what's right today. Obviously, you have to take time for yourself and your family, but just the pure effort of moving forward: progress. Someone once asked, what's your idea of a good day? And progress is really all you can ask for. What I've learned over the years, if you're getting up and you're fighting the good fight and you're doing what's right, you will find yourself in the right place at the right time and opportunity will knock on your door. And I think from the very beginning when I was laid off all the way through the private business and the closure of that business and then Signal 88 finding me through LinkedIn, through all of that I just continued to grind and work hard every day and was able to just be blessed to find myself in the right place at the right time.
Awesome. Yeah, I love that. I mean, you have to actually show up and do the work, like you said, and then that's when the great things happen and you can progress and learn and grow. So, last but not least, how can listeners get in touch with you to find out more if they would like to or ask you some more questions.
Sure. The best thing would be to start with my email and that is a H for Huston, A-K-I-N-S@signal88.com. I'd be glad to schedule any phone calls with someone that was interested in knowing more about Signal 88, in particular, the difference in the franchise versus the private startup.
All right, well thank you Huston. You know, I really admire your passion towards the business and how cunning you've been to keep growing and moving forward and not getting down about things and being able to just kind of pick back up and go. That shows how much success you've had because you've been able to do that. So we'll close today with a tip. The tip is to use your resources. We all have resources in our lives. I think sometimes, it may seem that we don't, but really they could be mentors, friends, colleagues, other entrepreneurs, podcasts, books. So use those and keep learning and moving yourself forward.
With that, this is Laura Vodvarka with Signal 88, signing off.