The Interview: Stuart Harmer, ARA Group
Stuart Harmer founded ISCS back in 1998 in partnership with the owners of Asco and the company enjoyed strong growth until acquired by ARA Group in 2009. Harmer experience with ISCS and position as managing director of ARA Group Products Division gives his insights considerable value. He speaks with SEN editor, John Adams.
JA: Stuart, you’re managing director of ARA Group Products division, which acquired your ISCS electronic security distribution business in 2009. Do you think the industry has a sense of just how large ARA Group is?
SH: When we sold ISCS to the ARA Group in 2009 we were very excited to be part of a large group. Back then the group had an annual turnover of $A200 million spread amongst the many divisions. In 2017 we turned over around $370 million and employ around 1800 staff. So yes, a lot of the people you talk to aren’t aware of the size and coverage of ARA Group.
JA: What parts of ARA are security industry facing – which distribution verticals do you cover and who are your clients? Where are your branches/offices?
SH: The ARA Products Division, which I’m responsible for as managing director, distributes electronic access control, security and CCTV via the ISCS business. We have 2 branches in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide. Our clients are integrators, installers and service companies maintaining Australia’s systems. Our systems can be anywhere from a couple of access card readers on a small medical suite to a few thousand readers on multiple mining sites all over Australia.
JA: Given you face multiple industries – electrical, fire, security, mechanical, manufacture and building, is it fair to say the security industry is the most close-knit, the most dependent on quality of relationships? Or are all technical industries similar?
SH Those ARA divisions along with the Products Division within the Group all face different and sometimes similar challenges. From my experience so far, they all depend upon working together in a tight-knit environment. Relationships are so very important. We have many senior and highly experienced staff with longstanding relationships in the varying industries – that’s one of our advantages.
JA: Given that ARA has multiple divisions with considerable synergy in an increasingly integrated and interoperable world (grain of salt included), do you think this gives ARA an advantage over single vertical distribution businesses?
SH: Yes. We have had many opportunities where an end-user saw the value in having one company available to provide a turnkey solution. The Products Division often gets the opportunity to supply electronic security via ISCS, architectural hardware via Woodpend, identity products via ID Supplies and even fire doors via our door manufacturing businesses. While these total projects come along from time to time to the group, each of our businesses within the Products Division stand alone as profitable and important parts of the Division.
JA: Tell us about ARA Products’ plans for the electronic security industry moving forward. Which aspects of technology are you focusing on? And where do you think installers and integrators should be heading their businesses?
SH: The Internet of Things (IOT) isn’t just the latest buzz word, it’s a real and important part of the security world. We are focusing on products that make good use of our connected world, offer our customers convenience and the highest levels of security. Our ISCS customers – the installers and integrators – need to be technically capable to bring their customers into the world of the IOT. It is vital to do so, otherwise they will become redundant.
One of the areas that we are focusing on is Real Time Location Services (RTLS), offering products and systems that can locate staff and assets in real time within the end-users’ environment. This not only has security applications but also provides safety and building efficiency applications. It is an exciting avenue for the industry and ISCS has what we believe to be the world’s most cost-effective yet sophisticated offerings in our new BluVision technology. BluVision uses small affordable, low-powered Bluetooth beacons in asset tags (and even access control cards), to provide real-time locations. Imagine knowing when to secure a building’s floor automatically based upon staff occupancy, or being able to activate heating and cooling only when required – that’s what BluVision offers.
JA: From your point of view as a distributor, what makes a good manufacturer? What sort of companies do you most love working with – big multi-nationals or highly focused tech houses?
SH: Honestly, we work with the big guys and the smaller tech houses. They can all be great manufacturers who we like working with. The key to us is having a manufacturer who is nimble and can move quickly to meet our rapidly changing market and needs. A great example of that is ICT, the New Zealand manufacturer of the Protege range of access control and security systems. ISCS is ICT’s exclusive distributor in Australia for the ProtegeGX enterprise-level range and we have had the opportunity to grow along with ICT in the region. ICT is a trusted manufacturer and they put faith in ISCS to grow Protege’s sales in Australia from literally nothing to what it is today – a product that stands alongside the industry’s most-trusted security products, with thousands of systems installed all over the country.
JA: Which part of the ARA Products Division is growing fastest taking into consideration access control, intrusion, CCTV, automation?
SH: Of course, CCTV is still a growing part of the industry and that is reflected in the ISCS business. Over the past 5 years, our team has worked very hard to develop an amazingly broad range of CCTV products available to our customers. All the way from our NX Witness video management system, to our Sony and AliusVision ranges of cameras, ISCS is a serious player in the CCTV market and customers are benefiting from our great range of products.
JA: How many of your customers are undertaking integration of multiple sub systems?
SH: Almost all of them require some level of integration of sub-systems today. Again, products like ProtegeGX and ProtegeWX offer integration to an ever-expanding range of sub-systems. We often see sites requiring those system integrated to elevators, CCTV and even standalone-door access systems like Salto, all controlled and managed from Protege. It is now very commonplace.
JA: Tell us how you started in the security industry. What was the entry point, how old were you and what had you been doing up to that point? You have an engineering background, don’t you?
SH: Great question. I started out in electrical engineering in the late 80s and from the very early age of 20 I was put in charge of designing and managing some significant projects. I studied and worked in that industry for a number of years before being introduced to an access control product. As an electrical consultant we had just started to specify access control on high-rise buildings and airports but knew nothing about this tech. It was a little mysterious. As time went on I learnt more and got to know the owner of a small start-up access business called Asco. A colleague and I took the plunge and left the engineering consulting world to start up the Brisbane branch of Asco. Asco went on to become one of biggest players in the Australian access control market and I learnt so much from that experience. We were market leaders.
JA: When did you decide you wanted to start your own distribution business? Could you outline a couple of the early challenges? When did you realise ISCS was going to be a success?
SH: I started ISCS back in 1998 with the owners of the Asco business (which had recently been sold). While Asco was a manufacturer and integrator, we wanted to focus on distributing some great products. It was very challenging in the early years, however, we were very grateful to be the first distributor of HID in Australia and we built ISCS in the early days on the HID products.
We were and still are the most trusted source of HID access control products in the region. We invested substantially in card production technology allowing us to program, personalise and distribute HID access cards to the market overnight or even same day, a service unheard of before. Getting the product mix right was and still can be a challenge…making sure your products not only do the job but offer value. This is vitally important.
JA: What key lessons did running ISCS teach you that translate directly to managing ARA Products Division?
SH: It’s imperative to be flexible and have a strong customer focus. I still today work right alongside the team at ISCS making sure our customers get the best experience possible, ensuring they are trained in our products and supported well when problems occur.
JA: How much harder is it to run a much larger business? What are the challenges – people, logistics, selecting the right product balance?
SH: The same challenges occur right across all the businesses within the ARA Products Division. I just have a lot more people to work with. I’m very fortunate to have exceptionally talented general managers in each business running day-to-day operations. These guys are industry champions and are great to work with – they do their jobs and do them well.
JA: Do you ever miss having your own business? There’s a feeling of parenthood, isn’t there? Or do you think ARA Group empowers the ISCS business to greater things?
SH: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the excitement of rapid growth and creating something from nothing, but honestly, I still run ISCS and the other businesses in the division just like I did with my business partners back when we owned ISCS. As I have always said, the only thing that really changed is where the money goes. Certainly, the ARA Group has allowed us to expand more rapidly than we may have been able to, and we have the benefit of some great financial guidance and support.
JA: You sit on the ARA Endowment board – what is that, what does it seek to achieve?
SH: ARA recognises that it has an important role to play in the communities in which we operate. We take seriously our corporate social responsibility. As a means to reach the greatest number of people with limited resources, ARA established the ARA Group Endowment Fund in 2009. The ARA Group Endowment fund allows our employees and customers to donate to the fund and, in turn, we require all earnings of the Fund be donated to registered Australian charities each financial year.
Since its inception, the Fund has contributed to more than 40 different Australian charities. ARA employees who donate to the Fund recommend charities in their community that they would like to see the Fund support. The Advisory Board to the Fund makes the final decision, taking into account the recommendation of the employees who donate to the Fund. More than 150 ARA employees make regular contributions to the Fund, which is a great result.
JA: Does ARA Products Divison have a message it would like to get out to electronic security installers and integrators?
SH: Absolutely. It’s important that ISCS not be overlooked because we are perceived as predominantly the go-to place for cards and readers – we are multi-faceted and have a broad range of the industry’s most-trusted products.