SBDC is key to continued success of Longview locksmith business

Tabitha Beneke, owner of Keys Plus

Tabitha Beneke, owner of Keys Plus Locksmiths

Written by Hope Tinney

LONGVIEW, Wash.—When Tabitha Beneke inherited her father’s locksmith business, Keys Plus, she knew she wanted to keep the business going. The shop was her father’s legacy, but it also provided three people with full-time employment and was a much-needed service in this town of 30,000 people.

“There was so much that was depending on Keys Plus,” Beneke said.

The problem was, Beneke was living with her own family in Illinois and had no immediate plans to move back to southwest Washington. On top of that, Beneke had never owned a small business before.

Her immediate problem was convincing vendors, suppliers, and her dad’s mortgage lender to extend the same terms to her that they’d established with her dad. When the loan officer suggested she meet with Jerry Petrick, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), she jumped at the chance.

“I thought, ‘You mean there is free business advising out there? Yes, please!’” Beneke said.

Petrick helped Beneke put together the data and documents to work with vendors and her bank, and then moved on to provide assistance on multiple fronts, from reviewing the accounts receivable process to understanding the importance of inventory turns.

Beneke says her father, Russ Rak, was an excellent locksmith and a creative entrepreneur, but he didn’t have much patience for implementing business systems.

Rak started the business in the late 1970’s as a self-taught locksmith, she said, mostly cutting keys in a tiny, stand-alone building in a shopping center parking lot.

For the next 40 years, even as the business grew, he tended to focus on the day-to-day issues without giving much thought to a business plan or a succession plan.

On a visit with family in November 2011, her father showed her around the “business” side of the business, with the understanding that she would be the one to carry it forward.

When her father died less than three months later, Beneke didn’t know if she could keep the business going, but she was determined to try.

During her first meeting with Petrick, he suggested she read “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber, a primer on the realities of small business ownership. She read it from cover to cover on the flight back to Chicago.

“I loved it,” she said. “It was so eye opening.” Her father was a technician and a visionary, she said, but not a manager.

Fortunately, that was Beneke’s forte. She immediately set about reassuring employees that while there would be changes, they would be gradual and for the better. Although initially skeptical, they eventually came on board, Beneke said.

With Petrick’s help, she wrote a business plan and put business systems in place using Excel spreadsheets, tracking everything from sales, to debt to worth, to accounts payable. Petrick encouraged her to enhance Keys Plus’s website and develop a social media strategy as part of her overall marketing plan.

“Every month it just gets better and better,” she said. “The SBDC has been the ‘key’ to my business’s success these past 18 months.”