Can You Carry This?

© 2004 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Spring 2004
Author: Tom Wadsworth
Pages 50-56

Can You Carry This?
Gate Operators for Door Dealers

By Tom Wadsworth

Gate operators

You’ve seen their ads in industry magazines for years. According to our surveys, about a third of garage door dealers also sell gate operators.

But while some dealers just sell a few per year, others have found the product to be a valuable new profit center for their business.

Should you be selling gate operators? What are the benefits of adding this product to your business? What kind of learning curve is required? Do you need to invest in new equipment or personnel?

To find out the answers to these and other basic questions, we talked to four garage door dealers who have discovered the world of gate systems … and they’re loving it.

A Parallel Universe

It turns out that gate operators aren’t all that different from the products you’ve been selling all along. The gate and access systems world is virtually a parallel universe to the door and access systems world.“Door systems and gate systems are pretty much apples and apples,” says Dave Van’t Hof of Van’t Hof Door and Gate Systems of Grand Rapids, Mich. “But the gate equipment is getting a bit more sophisticated.” He refers to telephone access systems and vehicle detectors that are often connected to a gate system.

Most garage door dealers already understand commercial and residential door access systems, and that knowledge often extends to loop detectors, photo eyes, and timing devices.

“That whole scenario of a remote-controlled door system is very similar to a gate system,” adds Van’t Hof.

A Good Fit

The similarity of the two products seems to make gate systems “a good fit” for door systems dealers. In addition, both products are often needed by the same customer.

“You often find both products on the same job site,” says Don Van Buren of Consolidated Overhead Door & Gate of Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Guys who work on jackshaft operators can easily convert that knowledge over to gate operators,” he adds. As Van Buren’s gate business grew, his commercial door crews became gate crews.

In spite of the good fit, some door dealers hesitate to make the jump to gate systems. “I know a few door dealers who have dabbled in gates, but something stops them from getting further into it,” says Van’t Hof, noting that the electronics might be the culprit.

“If loops scare you, forget it,” he adds.

Gates, Too?

Selling gate operators doesn’t necessarily commit you to selling gates, too. It seems that gates are often sold by a fence company.

“But there’s a lot of opportunity to sell gates,” notes Mike Sweeney of Overhead Door Company of Wichita (Kan.).

“Selling gates is a good add-on because you control the whole installation,” he adds. “When you control the whole process, you can get the job done more quickly.”

Urban or Rural?

Door dealers in rural areas might think they are unlikely candidates to handle gate operators. However, our four gate systems specialists disagree.

“I think all regions are good for gate systems,” says Steve Rigli of Doors West, Denver, Colo. “Even in rural areas, we are doing more gate systems for residential developments and gated communities.”

Mike Sweeney of Overhead Door Company of Wichita (Kan.) has seen many country estates add a gate operator to help enclose their property. But he says the appeal of gate systems is found in a variety of markets: residential, commercial, military installations, and manufacturing.

“The inner city has become a bigger market because parking lots have a growing need to control their space,” says Van’t Hof of Grand Rapids, a city of 200,000.

Riding the Trends

“The concept of gated communities is moving from California into the middle of the country,” says Rigli of Denver. “I think this trend started several years ago, and it’s now growing here.”

Van’t Hof says the gated community trend started hitting the Grand Rapids area around 1990. “Since then, the gate business has been a growing part of the company. We slowly got our guys off of ladders and onto the ground.”

The increased concern for security after Sept. 11, 2001, is still present in some areas. That concern often translates into gate system sales.

Van’t Hof says he recently talked to a chemical company that indicated it was being urged, perhaps by government officials, to have greater security around its facility.

The Right Tools

Our gate systems specialists say that door dealers already have most of the tools they will need for installing and servicing gate systems. “Most door guys have welder generators on their trucks,” notes Dave Van’t Hof. “But they may not have a loop cutter” (a floor saw).

Installing gates may indeed require a few new items, such as a hammer drill, auger, cement mixer, skid steer with auger, and a trencher.

As in the door systems industry, major items can be rented at first. As the business grows, a dealer can eventually purchase them.

Is There an Electrician in the House?

All four of our interviewees admitted that a good electrician is a helpful addition for handling the installation and servicing requirements of gate operators. “You’ll need a good electrician on staff,” says Steve Rigli, “or you should develop a good relationship with an electrician as a partner.”

Dave Van’t Hof had two years of industrial electronics training in college. He confesses that this education gave him an interest and confidence in handling gate systems.

When telephone entry systems are connected to gate systems, an extra degree of sophistication is required. “A good electrician allows you to coordinate the phone lines and electrical issues,” says Sweeney.

The Learning Curve

“If you can install a commercial door opener, you can install a gate operator,” adds Sweeney. “The only drawback is, if the gate doesn’t open, you need to be ready to fix it quickly.”

Troubleshooting and servicing problems will require a learning curve for most dealers. However, all four gate systems experts praised the technical support offered by gate operator manufacturers. Sweeney says the products are getting more user friendly, and the manuals are well written.

“Most suppliers have good technical support lines,” says Rigli. With the assistance of a cell phone at the job site, a technician can quickly troubleshoot most problems.

Our experts also recommended taking advantage of continuing education opportunities at tradeshows and at seminars offered by manufacturers. Rigli sees education as a key to the success of his business.

“We like to be the first to know the latest information. In a competitive market, that technical knowledge gives you the edge.”

Since gate technicians usually require higher skill, they can often earn higher pay. “Our gate operator technicians are our highest paid technicians,” says Van Buren.

Part of the learning curve is knowing how to bid jobs accurately. “In your first year, there’s more risk of incorrectly bidding the job,” adds Van Buren. “But you’ll get better the second year.”

Attitude Adjustment

Rigli feels strongly that a typical door dealer needs to change his approach to business in general. “Selling gate systems takes someone who is not motivated to sell the cheapest thing he can sell. Gate guys are more technical, not necessarily smarter, and they generally place a greater emphasis on quality rather than price.”

Having started as a garage door installer in 1981, Rigli says he gradually noticed that many dealers weren’t improving themselves or their businesses.

He says he has seen a tendency in door dealers to “get in a rut and fight for low-margin jobs. They can do that, or they can strive to learn more and add more complex products that carry higher margins.”

Benefits: Better Margins

When asked about the benefits of selling gate operators and gate systems, all four of our gate guys cited “higher profit margins” as the number one benefit.

“The cost of a gate operator is higher than a commercial door opener,” explains Mike Sweeney. “Yet it takes about the same amount of time to install both. In this business, we sell time. If we can get a larger dollar for the same amount of time, it makes sense to sell the product.”

Don Van Buren agrees. “Over time, you can make as much money doing one gate job as in doing 6-8 residential door jobs. But we don’t do a gate job every day.”

The better profit margins have helped make Doors West a better business for all employees. “Everybody here makes good wages, and all profits are annually put back into the business,” says Rigli. “Our margins today are better than they have ever been.”

Benefits: Better Cash Flow

Van Buren says a second benefit of gate systems is that it’s “a good filler business for us. It keeps us busy. Plus, you get the service work, too. Service work on gates doesn’t slack off in a slow economy.”

In many climates, the garage door business is seasonal. “But gate systems provide a pretty steady stream of business, so you’re more consistent with your cash flow,” says Rigli.

Benefits: Better Packages

Door dealers have long seen the advantages of selling a complete package of a garage door opener with the garage door. The same package concept is true with door systems and gate systems.

“Gate operators are an additional product to offer to our existing customer base,” says Mike Sweeney. “It also allows us to offer a more complete package.”

“In gated communities,” adds Dave Van’t Hof, “customers want to use the same remote control to open the gate to his gated community and the garage door into his house.” These growing gated communities thus provide more opportunities for dealers to get the garage door work and the gate work.

“It’s a good sales angle for us to offer a complete package of gates and garage doors,” he says.

Benefits: A Better Business

Rigli offers a fourth benefit: differentiation. “Offering gate systems definitely sets you apart from the competition because there’s less competition in that area,” he says.

“If you’re a door dealer who is trying to compete in the builder market, the competition is huge. But when you migrate into the gate business, you’ll likely find less competition.”

Some of that differentiation is due to the technical sophistication that goes with selling gate operators.

“The more technical you become, the less competition there is,” says Rigli. “I know that’s been the key to our success.”

Featured Dealers:

Don Van Buren
Consolidated Overhead Door & Gate
Santa Barbara, Calif.
Years in Doors: 45
Years in Gates: 11
Product Mix: 65% door systems, 35% gate systems
Business Size: 14 employees, 8 vehicles

Steve Rigli
Doors West
Denver, Colo.
Years in Doors: 23
Years in Gates: 21
Product Mix: 50% door systems, 50% gate systems
Business Size: 13 employees, 7 vehicles

Mike Sweeney
Overhead Door Company of Wichita
Wichita, Kan.
Years in Doors: 15
Years in Gates: 15
Product Mix: 94% door systems, 6% gate systems
Business Size: 35 employees, 20 vehicles

Dave Van’t Hof
Van’t Hof Door and Gate Systems
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Years in Doors: 39
Years in Gates: 26
Product Mix: More than half is gate systems
Business Size: 8 employees, 4 vehicles