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It’s a scary moment, and a big risk, for a company to branch out and diversify from its core business, particularly in a conservative field like electrical contracting.

But a lucky or insightful bet can pay off big time down the road, like corporate security is paying off for two area electrical businesses that invested in it decades ago.

For Larry Dashiell, the owner and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Summit Technology Group, the decision was based on necessity.

Dashiell was thrust into the hot seat at Summit in 1986, when he was just 22, after his father died in a plane crash. He had to learn quickly.

Until then, Summit had focused, like most traditional electrical contractors, on the high-voltage side of the business — wiring for power and lighting — leaving the less lucrative low-voltage side, mostly VDV, or “video, data and voice,” to subcontractors.

“The traditional electrical contractor has remained the traditional electrical contractor,” he said. “They put the conduits and raceways in for a low-voltage contractor to come in. Most electrical contractors have a partner or subcontractor they work with because they don’t have the in-house capability to do that.”

And that was how his dad’s business did things, too, at least until 1990, when Dashiell was fed up with it.

“We had to work with companies that did low-voltage work,” Dashiell said. “But it was hard to find reputable companies that would show up on time or were professional. A lot of the (audio-visual) companies back then were ex-band members or roadies.”

Though musicians and their ilk knew a lot about wiring power and sound, they were pretty ignorant of business basics, Dashiell said.

“The low-voltage side was kind of like the wild, wild West. There was no standard,” he said.

Not that starting a new business — Summit Electronic Systems — focused on low-voltage work, including security and surveillance, was easy.

“There weren’t a lot of people in that industry who understood business,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of training for electrical contractors on how to start that kind of business. Did you need to hire an engineer? A programmer? A network designer?”

The answer to all three questions, it turned out, was yes.

But how long, he wondered, would he have to wait for a payoff from this investment?

TILL THE COWS COME HOME

For Michael Nann, vice president of Novato’s WBE Security Systems, his interest in security technology literally started with cows.

As a young man, he studied a dairy farm in the Central Valley,

“They first tried an application where they wanted to figure out which cows had been milked and which hadn’t, so they could separate them into two chutes,” he said. “They had a chip hanging around their neck. That was the first time I’d ever seen any kind of logical control.”

From counting cows, Nann, trained as an electrician, went on to work for United Airlines, which was changing from physical keys to key cards. Access control and security intrigued him.

“I liked the concept of electronic security more than lights and plugs,” Nann said.

He learned a great deal on the job while working on an electrical project for Visa Inc. in Foster City. In 1999, he was looking for a new opportunity and was introduced to WBE. That company's CEO, Leslie Murphy, was placing her own bet of the growth of future security business.

“She was all about diversification, everything under the corporate umbrella,” Nann said.

Starting from zero, Nann built up WBE Security Control Systems to five account executives — four with him in Novato and one in Fairfield. The account executives don’t just make sales pitches, though, as is the habit at some other companies.

“They do it all — they sell, they estimate and they project manage,” Nann said.

Nann compares his business to a car dealership that has relationships with different brands of auto maker, except his deals cover things like security cameras, made by multiple manufacturers.

“My primary role is to set up those dealerships — it’s like selling a Ford or a Chevy,” he said. “You sell their product and in return you get special deals.”

WBE Security and other similar businesses will typically have agreements with two or three manufacturers of different security products, which gives them flexibility when pitching projects to buyers, but which requires him and his employees to learn how to correctly install multiple types of device.

Looking to the future, WBE’s Nann said an old technology — video, that first V of VDV, once the poor cousin of power and plugs — promises the most growth ahead.

“Right now the video market is changing exponentially,” he said.

VENI, VIDI, VDV

VDV isn’t the poor cousin of high-voltage work anymore, nor are the experts who make it happen just underemployed musicians and roadies trying to make a few bucks between gigs.

Part of the change is driven by what business customers want more of, particularly video surveillance.

“Businesses are putting in a lot more cameras for many reasons — harassment, worker’s comp, burglary,” said Dashiell.

Entry and exit control is particularly popular, he said. When someone arms or disarms and alarm system, a camera can photograph them and notify a manager or executive, showing them a picture of who did what when.

Protecting intellectual property is a big driver for Nann’s WBE business.

“The vast majority of customers are trying to protect intellectual property,” he said. “They don’t want their IP to get out, or they’re working with somebody else’s IP and they don’t want that to get out.”

This is a particular concern, Nann said, for small companies that work as subcontractors for other, bigger businesses like tech firms.

He recommends to most of his business clients that they pay for between three and five weeks of storage for video from surveillance systems. It’s possible to keep video longer, and some businesses have to, but it ain’t cheap.

“It’s all about storage and money,” Nann said. “More storage means more cost.”

Both Nann and Dashiell emphasized the way sophisticated modern video systems have changed the way businesses think about security.

Nann said camera systems can be set to look for particular people, or someone wearing a red or blue shirt, even for particular faces. This is important for schools, for example, which may want to be alerted if a stranger arrives, or just keep an eye on what’s happening on campus.

Even live video can be shared, Nann said. “If I see somebody beating somebody up on campus, I can send that video directly to your laptop or phone.”

“In my building, I have a camera I can focus on the front driveway,” Dashiell said. “I can draw a box on the driveway and tell the system, ‘Between the hours of six and two in the morning, if there’s any movement in the box, do this.’ Take a picture and email it to me, turn on a light.”

Such surveillance systems can even be used in more everyday situations, as Nann discovered when his wife complained about dog poop on their front lawn.

“My wife was furious. She said, ‘I want you to find out who that was!’ I went through the video and it was my neighbor two doors over,” Nann said.

Though there isn’t much of a payoff in catching impolite neighbors and their dogs on your lawn, modern video surveillance is quite attractive, and lucrative, when it comes to another type of “grass.”

POT OF GOLD?

“They’re all over the place. Santa Rosa has definitely opened its arms to cannabis,” said Dashiell.

Summit has identified the burgeoning legal pot industry as a profitable niche for all sorts of electrical work, but particularly security.

His own offices, with lots of plugs and electrical devices lying around, need some security, Dashiell said, but there aren’t too many people interested in stealing such stuff.

“I don’t have a pile of cash here,” he said. “But cannabis — there’s a lot of push to have very high level security there.”

Summit does security work for a couple of banks who are longstanding customers, Dashiell said, but banks have known all about security for ages, while many new marijuana businesses are run by people like those roadies and musicians he used to hire for low-voltage wiring. They may know plenty about pot, but comparatively little about running a business and keeping it secure.

“They’re in that process of learning what it is to be a legitimate company — paying property taxes, sales taxes and so on,” he said. “For security they run down to Costco and buy a couple of cameras. I see ads on social media for security systems for $99.99. They don’t understand how much security really costs.”

Although Summit has been doing mainly just regular wiring and electrical work for new cannabis companies, Dashiell is already thinking ahead and designing security systems for such businesses, figuring they will want them in the near future.

“There’s not a lot of business on that side yet,” he said. “There’s a come-to-Jesus moment where they will realize what they need.”

WBE’s Nann also said the marijuana industry is a booming, if brand new, area for security companies.

“We have seen an increase in security needs for cannabis retail outlets,” Nann said. “It is kind of a new and evolving thing.”

Cannabis businesses require complex layers of security, Dashiell said. Inside they need cameras and access control so that only authorized employees can get into restricted areas.

Because they often handle lots of cash, though, they need protection from robbery.

“A crook’s going to hide outside around the corner and rob you, or make you take them back inside,” he said, referring to the M.O. in some recent robberies. “A cannabis business needs sophisticated camera systems at exits and entrances,” he said. “A lot have security cameras, so people can’t hide.”

Some of the technology on offer from Summit seems like it came from a James Bond movie, including night-vision cameras and biometric access control that combines a retina scan with an entry code.

Small, unsophisticated pot businesses can learn from larger ones, Dashiell said.

“The larger facilities — cultivation, distribution, dispensaries — are more sophisticated,” he said. “There’s going to be more and more push towards that.”

Of course, good security isn’t cheap, but Dashiell doesn’t think of himself as trying to sell people something they don’t need.

“I haven’t had anybody say, ‘No, I don’t need security.’ But they don’t understand how much it costs,” he said. “My goal is to educate them.”