Brent Foster is a master corporal retired from the Canadian military who was looking for a new career path when he discovered the Pop-A-Lock Security Professionals franchise, a mobile locksmithing company.
While it wasn’t the only factor he considered, he was pleased to learn that the franchise offered a 10 per cent military discount. “That was very appealing to me,” he says. He signed up in July 2016, and has been building his business in the Simcoe County territory (north of Toronto, including Barrie, Orillia, and Collingwood, Ontario) ever since.
While he had looked into other career options and other franchises, Foster settled on locksmithing because it meant he could continue to help people as he had in the military. “I figured it’d be a good fit for me because it transitions my skills, my ethics of helping others in need. Locksmithing is just that – I get to go around and help people out of sticky situations,” he says.
Meeting with the President/CEO of Pop-A-Lock’s Canadian operation, Pete Crouse, cemented his decision. “He came to my home, sat down with us, explained the franchise, and talked about our market area,” recalls Foster.
A whirlwind of training
Foster’s signup date allowed him to attend the franchise’s trade conference in Orlando, Florida. After that, he flew to franchise headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana for two weeks of franchisee training, and then took a week of basic locksmith training, and lastly, Pop-A-Lock’s automotive training. The whirlwind brought him up to speed quickly. “Everything worked out great for me because I got to see the trade conference, and I got to meet with other franchise owners,” he says.
Locksmith training focuses on both residential and commercial, with skills like learning different styles of locks, basic key cutting, and how to re-key locks. Franchisee training focuses on human resources planning, marketing techniques, and the franchise system. Foster adds that franchise support is also available through a 24/7 tech support line.
Following training, Foster launched his operation by approaching businesses in his community. “I started off by basically pounding the pavement. I wanted to focus on the automotive industry first, because I’m really passionate about auto. So, I started going around, marketing my company with car dealers.”
Early effort pays off
Today he’s seen that effort pay off. “A range of typical clients for me is in the automotive industry. Local car dealers, used car dealers, auto wreckers, and also those on the commercial side of things,” says Foster. He also expanded his focus to the residential and commercial housing market. “People looking to get their apartment building master-keyed, for accessibility control, we do all that now.”
On the residential side, Foster says he buys a lot of online advertising, since people are likely to search the internet if they’ve lost their keys. “Basically, all of my advertising is on Google AdWords. I think about 75 per cent of my business comes from a presence on local search.” He’s also supported by his wife Jenna, who handles the social media and advertising, and does some design work.
Looking back over his first year, Foster says that his hardest task was finding customers. “I already had a bunch of skills for locksmithing, but my biggest challenge was getting the phone to ring. That was the most stressful; trying to come up with strategies and following my business plans,” he says, adding that local competitors add to that challenge. “Trying to come up with a niche and seeing what I can offer that’s different and better to make my business grow.” Foster says he focuses on keeping prices competitive and offering great customer service.
He’s also worked on boosting his Google business account with reviews, which now stand at over 60, the highest in his area. “Some competitors in my area, they have about 50 reviews, but they’ve been in business for five or six years! My first year, I’ve beat them in just my reviews through customer satisfaction,” he says.
A few months into his business, Foster’s days are busy, generally starting at 8:00 am and involving a variety of activities, including servicing scheduled calls and networking. He generally does administration like accounting and AdWords campaigns in the evening, and is occasionally called out for late-night emergencies.
Focus and future plans
Foster has maintained his focus on his automotive niche, and is the only authorized CAA agent in his area. He also registered with the Association of Ontario Locksmiths, where he’s working on courses toward certification as a fully-licensed locksmith. Foster sees it as yet another way to compete. “It’s not a requirement in Ontario to be a licensed locksmith – yet. I want to stick out and be above the competition,” he says.
Future plans include growing the business, furthering his footprint in commercial locksmithing, and eventually hiring employees. He might even start up a bricks-and-mortar location someday, with a garage bay to service cars on site.
Advice for others
In terms of background, Foster says that franchisees don’t necessarily need to know locksmithing or to have been in business, but a technical interest helps, along with certain soft skills. “They have to be organized. They have to be motivated, because there are a lot of challenges,” he says, adding that passion and a willingness to upgrade skills are also essential.
Foster says he was a bit nervous to get into business, even though he’s grown up with entrepreneurs (his father owns a business). But he realized that his military training had already supplied some of the soft skills he needed, including leadership and teamwork. Foster finished his military career as master corporal with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, and was an infantry soldier in frontline combat arms for 14 years. He was deployed in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009, and then worked at the Canadian Fire and CBRN Academy at CFB Borden in Ontario.
He adds that military service is decent preparation for franchising, because it trains personnel to work as part of a larger organization. “Without the military, I don’t think I would have succeeded, because I’ve learned so many things that are helping me now. Organization for one, communication, following a strict set of rules, like a franchise,” he says.
In terms of advice for those joining the franchise today, Foster says that volunteering in the local community can be helpful, as it allows you to meet local businesses, like he did. If anything, he says he wishes he had joined more general business networking groups.
He adds that harnessing the power of the internet is a must. “Strong social presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Google My Business is good advice. Any business that’s starting out now, that’s the first thing that you’ve got to do. Get on Google My Business, get verified, and start beefing that up, which increases your search engine optimization for local search.”
Foster also warns that the training can be quite technical, but that even if owners are planning on hiring employees, it’s valuable to learn the technical aspects themselves. “These days, with computerized vehicles and push-to-start systems, there’s a lot to memorize,” he says.
But Foster has no regrets so far. “I like being my own boss. I like setting my own hours,” he says. He adds that he likes helping people, which is what got him into the business in the first place.
“There’s no greater feeling in the world than helping others in need. Having to go at 10 o’clock at night to a house where they’re locked out with their housecoat and their slippers on at minus 20, and you let them in – that’s a good feeling. That’s what drives me.”
By Suzanne Bowness