The Family Safe

written by
Emily Landes

“Honesty and Quality” is more than
just a motto for family-run AEC Alarms.
It’s the foundation of the business and
the key to its success.

Yat-Cheong Au has held almost every job in the alarm industry: installer, technician, customer service operator and now president of his family’s company, AEC Alarms. But when he was growing up, he never thought a career in the security industry was in the cards, even though his father started the Bay Area institution in the garage back in 1972.

As a teenager, working at AEC was something Au did out of duty to help his hard-working parents, not because he was passionate about the work. But when he graduated from UC Berkeley and started looking for opportunities to use his skills to help people, a fortuitous job opening at AEC made him realize the career he was looking for had been under his nose all along. “I knew I wanted to be around people and help solve their problems,” he recalls. “At that time, the sales manager had just quit, and the opportunity presented itself. I was able to take all my prior work experiences and share that with new prospective customers.”

Au had already learned the right way to treat customers, prospective or otherwise, by watching his father, Sik-Kee. “My father built the business from the ground up with a truly grassroots mentality. Every customer was special, and we knew each customer by their first name. It wasn’t just about the sale but more about building relationships,” Au says, adding that many of those first customers have now become lifelong family friends.

Sik-Kee’s philosophy, both in business and in life, was always “honesty and quality,” Au says. It is still AEC’s motto today, even though Sik-Kee retired to Hong Kong and handed the company off to Au in the 1990s. For Au, that simple phrase can mean anything from vetting suppliers to customizing security systems to fit each client. Those are no small tasks given that AEC provides a full line of tech-savvy life-safety and security services for small property owners, huge corporations like Pinterest and Subway, and civic entities like the City of San Francisco.

When handling multifamily customers, Au always tells his staff to remember that this clientele has the difficult task of keeping up with a constant onslaught of new legislation. He feels their job is to be a resource, making sure that owners don’t miss a regulation that could be costly down the line.

An Approaching Deadline for Owners
Right now, that means emphasizing SF Fire Code 1103.7.6.1. These amendments were passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2017 as a response to the tragic “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland and apply to all multifamily buildings with three or more units.

In order to make apartments safer in the event of a fire during the night, the new criteria include a “pillow test.” To pass the test, an alarm must sound at a minimum of 15 decibels (dB) over the room’s ambient decibel level (with a 75 dB minimum requirement) at the resident’s pillow, regardless of where that may be in the room.

Even more important than the decibel level is the frequency at which it sounds. Studies have shown that 520 Hertz is the best frequency to rouse sleepers. So even most existing fire alarms that are loud enough will still need to update to include this lower frequency.

AEC has been working with owners on installing these low-frequency alarms in all sleeping spaces, including living rooms, since the legislation was passed. But the July 2021 compliance deadline is fast approaching and Au cautions owners that, due to staffing shortages and COVID-related delays at the Department of Building Inspection, there’s no time to waste.  “Most property owners don’t realize the backlog and time needed to secure a fire alarm permit. All work must be permitted and approved by the San Francisco Fire Department, and the process just takes time at the permit center,” he says.

There are ways to expedite the process, but that would lead to an additional cost. Au doesn’t want to see his clients add an unnecessary expense on top of new equipment costs, which are on the rise thanks to government-imposed tariffs on overseas electronics and components. “We are extremely focused on this very specific requirement,” Au said. “We’ve invested in preparing our team to meet this demand and to streamline our process to make meeting this deadline seamless for apartment owners.”

Team Spirit
Michelle Rogers is an important part of that team. As the Accounts Receivable Manager and Cross Functional Team Leader for the last three years, Rogers is responsible for everything from training and onboarding new employees to conceiving of and implementing team-building events to keep AEC’s work environment positive and proactive.

Rogers was drawn to AEC because it is a family-owned business, which reminds her of her own family’s business growing up and the winery she started with her husband back in 2007. “At AEC, there is sense of pride and ownership in everything, and I appreciate and respect that from Yat-Cheong,” she said. “He cares deeply about the business, his employees, and the success of his family’s legacy. I am honored to stand beside him as a friend and employee.”

Given COVID concerns, part of being a good employer, especially one that performs “essential work” like AEC, is making sure that your employees are protected when they are out in the field. AEC had to change the way it does business to meet both its high standards for service and each county’s health guidelines and safety protocols. “Despite the added cost to provide PPE and change the way we do things, we have not passed on any of these costs to our customers,” Au said, adding that security systems are in even greater demand during these unprecedented times when everyone wants to feel especially secure in their homes.

Not only does AEC provide personal protective equipment to employees, but it also began a wellness campaign to donate and deliver PPE care packages to residents and tenants in multifamily buildings. In addition, the company recently took on other health-related community service projects, particularly those that were important to its staff. To that end, AEC now matches employee contributions to the Colon Cancer Foundation and has continued its longstanding commitment to provide support to Self-Help for the Elderly, a senior housing facility.

“It boils down to doing what’s right and perhaps goes back a Confucius saying that I’m always reminded of: ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’,” Au says. It also helps that his father, while retired, is still his “advisor and confidante.”

Au emphasizes the importance of giving back to the community and keeping “honesty and quality” at the forefront of everything AEC does. Au believes this was a winning strategy when his father started the business, and it will continue to guide the company in the years ahead. “As long as we treat our customers right—by giving fair, honest pricing and providing quality products and services—we have a business that will be sustainable and lasting,” he said. “As we near our 50th anniversary, I can confidently say that these guiding principles form the foundation of our business.”

Emily Landes is a freelance writer and editor and the former editor of SF Apartment Magazine.