Advisor helps absentee-owned business, employees thrive

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDCPicture - owner head shot

LONGVIEW, Wash. – When Tabitha Beneke’s father died in 2012 and she inherited his locksmith business, the three long-time employees of Keys Plus faced several possible scenarios, none of them pretty.

Beneke, who lived 2,000 miles away and had no experience with locks or with running a small business, could simply close the business. She could look for a buyer, leaving the workers in limbo for months, and, not finding a buyer, close the business.

She could find a buyer who, looking to cut expenses, would fire one or all of the employees. Or she could keep the business, become an absentee owner, and make her workers’ lives miserable.

Remarkably, she kept the business and none of that happened. Three years later, she has added two new employees and the three employees she inherited are still present and thriving.

Employee confidence
Picture - staff shot

Keys Plus Locksmiths employees. Back row, left to right: Tim Brown, Corey Strand, Ramie Perrelet. From row, left to right: Emily Anglin, Jeri Humbyrd.

“She makes us feel valued,” said Jeri Humbyrd, office manager for 10 years. Rather than micromanage their work from afar, Humbyrd said, Beneke has encouraged them to be more independent and take initiative. Having that “freedom to flourish” has resulted in a more dynamic – and profitable – business, Humbyrd said.

Humbyrd and Tim Brown, a master locksmith and employee at Keys Plus Locksmiths ( for 16 years, are so confident of their continued employment that they recently decided to start a family and buy a home together.
“This shop supports that family,” Beneke said recently. “That is huge to me. I love that I can help somebody’s life like that.”

Advising benefits passed down

She said Jerry Petrick, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center, has been key in not only keeping her father’s business afloat, but moving it forward. And the ripple effects of his expert small business advising are felt by her and her staff.
The Washington SBDC ( provides expert advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. It receives support from the U.S. Small Business Administration and Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.

WSU has been the statewide host for the SBDC for more than 35 years. SBDC advising is provided at no cost to the client and is completely confidential.

“We are having a really great year,” Beneke said this fall. “We just keep doing better and better, but this year it’s been significant.”

Finding her own way

Humbyrd said getting updated business systems in place has freed up more time to focus on anticipating and meeting the needs of customers, including stocking a diverse inventory of classic and emerging technology.

Moving from struggling to sustainable is indeed significant, and it hasn’t been easy.

Beneke had never worked in her father’s business and knew next to nothing about how it operated when her father passed. The economy was still bad and seasoned business owners were struggling.

“At the time I got that shop, businesses were closing one after the other,” she said. She briefly considered closing Keys Plus or trying to sell, but then she began meeting with Petrick, who gave her hope that she could figure it out and make it work on her terms.

“I’m not much like my dad and I don’t do things his way,” she said, but with Petrick’s help she was able to implement changes over time that improved efficiency, improved the bottom line and improved employee morale. “I’m still surprised that my way is working,” she said.

Growing partnership

Beneke, who has a background in human resources, enjoys that aspect of the job, but she also has taken on responsibility for implementing business systems and controls, handling social media and marketing and overseeing budget controls, all of which she can do from her home in Bloomington, Ill.

She also talks regularly with Petrick. As a first-time small business owner without a partner, she said, having access to a confidential business advisor is huge.

“He keeps me on my toes,” she said. “It’s almost like he holds me accountable for doing my job.” In the first year or two they talked regularly, Beneke said, but now their meetings are less frequent, maybe three times a year. “I send him quarterly reports and he always comes back with some great, challenging questions about where we are going,” she said.

Family inspiration

“It’s harder than I ever thought it would be,” she said, but seeing the business grow and her employees thrive is immensely satisfying – so satisfying that her 14-year-old daughter, Madison, has noticed and caught the small business entrepreneur bug.
When she and her classmates were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, Madison answered proudly, “I am going to own a business one day.”

When she does, the SBDC will be there to help her along the way.

Tabitha Beneke, Keys Plus Locksmiths, 360-423-4443,
Jerry Petrick, Washington SBDC, 360-578-5449,