CEO Interview with Byron Whetstone – CEO of American Direct

Ready-Aim-Fire: A Deliberate Approach to Accelerated Scalability

Byron Whetstone has been making headlines lately. His company was featured on the cover of the
Kansas City Business Journal February 4th of 2022 for “making noise where it counts”. Whetstone was
nominated and selected to be one of the top three KC Entrepreneurs of the Year candidates in 2022 by
Ernst and Young, one of the highest honors bestowed on growth-oriented visionaries. Why? He has
taken his business from being one of the top five commercial door distributors to being one of the top
ten commercial systems integrators in half a dozen years. With over 300 employees in ten locations,
they have more than doubled their business projecting a 25% increase in 2022 alone.

Byron, what was your vision?

We saw technology evolving and electronic locks changed how we were thinking. We believed we could
be on our industry’s cutting edge by broadening our scope to become a systems integration business.
Our goal was to grow organically and through acquisitions. We focused on buying technology that would
enable us to provide access control to our customer’s projects. To date, we have sold to owners and
general contractors and are pleased to be a part of the upcoming new Kansas City International Airport

We bought AccessNSite in 2016, Security Control System (TX) in 2020 and Avalon Commercial Services
(CO) in 2021. We have the capability to be a “total security solution” provider, allowing clients to control
the building’s behavior—how it is accessed, when and by whom; how and when building systems run
such as air conditioning, water, and electricity; and maintenance diagnostics that help improve security
and productivity. Artificial intelligence will be the next piece of the solution.

How did the vision get traction?

We faced multiple challenges we had to work through. We felt the resistance to change from several
stakeholders—internally, and throughout the industry. Change is always hard. You must change the way
they think about things and help them “see” the possibilities. There were a few early adopters and
companies began to understand what they might be able to accomplish with our solution. The Nebraska
Methodist Hospital in Omaha got the vision in 2017 when they combined the integrated software with
electronic locks and then extended that same system to a new acquisition of their own.

Now that products like Nest are commonplace and people understand more about digital security, it is a
bit easier to tell the story. It is not easy to switch from a product mentality to a systems approach and
we continued to evolve internally, changing the message and people’s roles to create more commitment
and market success. We wanted to fail fast and not repeat what was not working and tracked what was

Recently, we started getting market attention through industry and public communications. We are a
disrupter that can enable one button lockdowns for schools, legislatures, or other high-risk security
environments. Today 20% of our sales come from electrified products we did not have two years ago,
and we expect our integration business will account for at least 25% of total sales by next year.

Acquisitions do not have a great hit rate for adding value but clearly yours did. How did you navigate

One thing we learned is that culture trumps everything else in a successful acquisition and I cannot say
we were always good at evaluating that going in. After three years, in 2012, only two associates of the
original thirty-two with the company when we bought them were still there. Now, years later, the
culture has changed, the market has exploded, and it is our best performing acquisition, but we had to
be prepared to make the hard changes and stick with it. We have had modest success with each
acquisition individually but what they allow us to do collectively is the key to our vision.

Your customer list is heavy with government and big contract work. How has that been impacted the
last few years by the economy and supply chain fallout?

It has had a significant impact. Lead times have extended significantly. Clients do not want to hear about
delays, but we have had the ability to use those conversations to share with them what more we can do,
and it has helped change the focus of the discussion. We have had to start putting pricing escalations
into place, building them into our quotes given market uncertainty which in turn has helped accelerate
order placement as they want to get their order in before price hikes can occur.

The next normal is adapting to a slower supply chain which I am estimating may not be corrected even
by 2024. It changes the game on specifications from specified products to what is available. We have
started trying to put things in storage in anticipation of our pipeline.

How has selling solutions instead of products changed the selling process?

The sales force must really understand the difference. It also means we need to be selling to the right
people. We do not want to be the “door guys” that just respond to a bid request. We want to be the
software to systems integrator who is getting traction because it just makes sense to link the door with
security and software. We can be a single-source solution which gives owners control over their
buildings along with complete access control. Coca-Cola went from selling “Coke” to being a beverage
company and we are trying to make the same the move, telling our story better and better.

What are the rewards and risks of being an early adaptor in your own business?

To me, I see more advantage in being an early adapter than a fast follower. With scale you can take
advantage of being first. It is riskier to try to duplicate it and it costs more money. Our advantages
include a national footprint, an existing, strong reputation. One challenge is there are some big players
in the security industry who now have us on their radar. We have been asked to leave a security show
where we did not have a booth. To us, that is a positive sign we are seen as a threat. In turn, that notice
leads to getting the customers and media attention too.

How do you describe yourself as a leader?

I am a consensus builder. My job is casting the vision non-stop and if it is not working, making a change.

How do you define success?

In Acts 13:36 it says, “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep.”
I hope I will serve my purpose, and God will give me rest.

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