Eric Garner on Climbing a Mountain Called Success
The schooling of Eric Garner on his family’s business — Ogden, Utah-based Mountain Alarm, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year — began as a pre-teen in the late 1990s. While on a summer road trip he recalls among his favorite memories as a youth, Eric accompanied his father, Rod, to Billings, Mont., where the elder Garner had set his sights on acquiring Kenco Security.
The father-son duo drove more than 500 miles to meet with Kenco’s owners, Ken and Karen Brown, stopping to fly fish along the way and sightsee in Yellowstone National Park. When the day arrived to meet with the Browns, Rod invited them for lunch at a Fuddruckers restaurant.
The meeting went well, but the Browns, who had grown Kenco into Montana’s largest independently owned alarm business with five offices, were not ready to sell. Not yet.
“On the drive home,” Eric recollects, “I said, ‘Dad, I can do your job. All you do is buy people hamburgers and say I want to purchase your business.”
Aside from ribbing his father, the vivid reminiscence Eric embraces from that summer trip centers on the value of friendship and relationship building. Despite their distance, the get-together in Billings evolved into a deep and lasting bond between the Garner and Brown families. And in 2014, some 16 years later, Mountain Alarm acquired Kenco.
“By this time in 2014, I’ve grown up; I’ve gone to college,” Eric says. “I’ve been an installer. I’ve been a sales guy. I’ve been a general manager of two different branches. I had gotten to tag along on that first meeting and now it had come full circle because of the relationships my dad built.”
Generational Management Style
Rod Garner, a beloved friend to legions of Mountain Alarm customers and security industry professionals, passed away unexpectedly in 2018. That intimate connection with clientele and industry brethren, pursued so passionately by his father throughout a decades-long career, remains central to Eric’s management style today. Aligning with those same principles also helped Eric consummate Mountain Alarm’s own high-profile deal to be acquired by Pye-Barker Fire & Safety in December 2021.
Based in Atlanta, Pye-Barker operates three divisions: fire extinguisher, fire sprinkler and alarms. Eric serves as CEO and president of the alarm business, while also maintaining responsibility for Mountain Alarm and its 14 locations across the Intermountain West.
Backed by deep-pocketed private equity firms Altas Partners and Leonard Green, Pye-Barker has been among the more acquisitive firms in recent years, snapping up companies in each of its three divisions across the nation. The corporate goal is to complete at least one acquisition in each division per month. Eric, especially, has made significant splashes spearheading multiple deals for prominent independent alarm companies such as Matson Alarm in Fresno, Calif., and B Safe Security in Wilmington, Del.
Pye-Barker’s acquisition strategy squares with Eric’s own strategic philosophy, which was burnished by tough lessons learned working alongside his father, who pursued growth relentlessly at Mountain Alarm.
“We lived through some high-stress times,” explains Eric. “Watching my dad manage through the intense moments in business and growth and growing pains taught me a lot about making the best decision and then trusting that it’s going to work out.”
There are Yin and Yang complementary forces that inherently inform Eric’s business approach. Where Rod Garner was overly aggressive, his grandfather who founded Mountain Alarm in 1952 was highly risk averse.
“They were both extremes. I would say that I straddle the middle,” Eric says. “The difference is I’m probably as risk-tolerant as my father, but I’ve learned from our history and so I am much more disciplined in our approach.”
That approach is straightforward: Pursue geographic density with owners who espouse company cultures similar to his own and Pye-Barker’s. Profitable growth is paramount, not growth at all costs. Execute a specific plan to integrate each acquisition. Improve the lives of the team members and improve the lives of customers.
“The culture we are looking for is very customer centric,” says Eric. “We are looking for companies that have one too many service techs — not one too few.”
Ask Eric if Pye-Barker’s ultimate plan is to build a national security and fire/life-safety business under one branded umbrella and the answer is pretty close to a “yes.”
“The goal isn’t necessarily to be a national provider; we just want to be the best provider in every market that we’re in. So, in five years if we’re only in 35 of the 50 states, but we’re the best company we can possibly be in those 35 states, that’s a win,” he says. “That’s what we’re going for.”
Beyond five years, the company does expect to be in all 50 states “and be the acquirer of choice for every seller in every single market,” he says. “But at the end of the day we want to be the best company we can be and take care of customers and take care of the employees. And we think if we do that then everything else financially adds up and it works.”
Many Thank-Yous to Spread
Eric is quick to credit his own success, along with his family’s success and that of Mountain Alarm, to the collaborative nature of the alarm industry. The comradeship — the spirit that drives fellow entrepreneurs, even competitors — to nurture each other and share best practices has been indispensable, he says.
It’s a big reason why he is so bullish on the future of the alarm industry. There’s never been a better time to be in the alarm business; there’s never been a better time to create value and capture that value if you are ready to exit, he explains.
“I didn’t do this, I built this on the shoulders of my dad who did it for 45 years, and he built it on the shoulders and my grandpa who did it for 20 years. We’re drinking from wells we didn’t dig and that goes across even more recent with vendors, lenders, investment bankers … the list is in the hundreds of people,” he expresses.
“I personally would like to thank the industry for helping us be a success. We being a success is really the industry being a success, and it will lead to more success across the board.”
In February, Eric Garner addressed the DMP Executive Roundtable in Tucson, Ariz., sharing best practices on building a stronger company, as well as his own experiences growing up in the family business.