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The odds of starting a business during the Great Depression were even worse. But Milton Pierce beat those odds. After his father’s tailor shop at Cass and Peterboro experienced a break-in, Milton designed and installed a burglar alarm. He used materials found at his local junk yard to make a noise to alert the neighbors and hopefully keep the intruders away. “The old brake drums from Ford trucks made the best sound. I would use discarded electrical boxes and drill holes in them for the sound to come out – it was good and loud. Then I made another one for our house. I can’t believe my mother let me drill holes everywhere to run the wires. I loved to tinker with it and just kept adding to the system, learning more and more about how it worked,” said Milton.
“For some reason the thing always fascinated me, I don’t know why. ‘What makes it work’? Fifteen years old. So I would sit and take the box apart quietly and look at it and play with it and never did figure out all of it, but I got enough of a smattering where I could make one myself work. And then one day my brother read an ad in the paper that someone wanted an ‘alarm man’. So I went over to the man, it was called Detroit Burglar Alarm Co., and he put me through tests that I can’t believe that I ever passed. So he hired me.” Milton worked after school for $2 a day, often for 12 hour shifts. When business lagged, however, a lay-off notice arrived. But the word got around about Milton’s skills; before long he had dozens of customers, each paying $3 a month for his services.
“I would put on, I think, a new alarm about once a month. And then it grew over the months, I’d say to about 40, 30, 50 alarms and I was as happy as a lark, I remember. I rode my motorcycle. In fact one of the customers I picked up was the Detroit Yacht Club. I got one room in there where they kept the beverages. So when they called for service, it was just great; I’d get on the motorcycle put the batteries in the saddlebag and ride over and spend the rest of the day snoozing on the island. I never really thought I worked very hard no matter what I did. I always enjoyed it.” The police would call him at home in the middle of the night if one of his alarms went off and he would go and check the building, usually on his motorcycle. The bells didn’t cut-off automatically back then, so he would disconnect the bell for the night by standing on the seat of his bike and go back the next day to fix the alarm. And then began an acquisition spree that would take Milton Pierce from three dozen customers to more than 80,000 over the next seven decades. He bought a company called Guardian Alarm, bartering his time for the sale price.
“You be my service man and instead of paying you, I’ll apply that to whatever cash you have and that will be the down payment. And that worked along fine. So I remember going to his lawyer’s office, I didn’t have a lawyer but he did, and he wrote quite a contract. And it wasn’t until about maybe a year or two later that I realized what I had signed. The conditions were that I had to make payments once a week. And if I missed a payment there was a reload penalty, which I didn’t realize. I also had to forfeit the 40 alarms I had. Now he only had 150 or 160 at the time himself. So that would have been a great increase for him, and that’s secretly I think what they hoped for, that I’d never make the payment. But I didn’t have any expenses; I lived at home. My mother answered the telephone, so whatever I took in I just gave to him, and it was fine. So I did succeed in getting it paid off and that worked just great. That was the first one.” “My friends used to kid me I ought to go on ‘What’s My Line’ because nobody would ever guess what you do. It was that rare of a thing. And there were practically no alarms in residences, only a very few. I don’t think they were wealthy, I think more or less they were kind of shady characters that had alarms at that time. As I remember walking into a couple of them where they walk back and forth with suitcases, and I knew that it was cash. But they were all commercial stores and most of them were in bad neighborhoods, considered bad.” A true pioneer in the early years of alarms in Michigan, Milton Pierce inspired all of us. His basic customer service skills that got him started 80 years ago are still practiced to this day by all Guardian employees. “Give the customer good service, take good care of them and they will take care of you.”
Today Guardian Alarm has more than 100,000 customers in four states and Canada. Over the years Milton and his sons steered the company into new areas: a guard service in 1970 and armored security 10 years later. Its newest venture is medical monitoring.
“So the guard and medical monitoring business is really an interesting thing and it really fills a need for people. When you figure the difference in cost of having a person constantly attending someone ill, as opposed to having electronic equipment that will monitor them, either with television or sound or a button that you can push for help, it’s a great saving primarily for the government, I think, because they pay for a lot of that themselves through hospitals. We have a fairly good size business in that too now.” When he wasn’t keeping tabs on the company, Milton Pierce rode motorcycles and flew planes. He got his pilot license at the age of 77. Each and every day, he would arrive to work at 9:00 AM sharp, saying “Hello” to everyone as he walked through the building. He always said, “Working keeps me young!”
Sadly, Milton passed away in 2010 at the age of 95. Everyone at Guardian misses him and the example he set all these years. Our tribute to his hard work is to do our part to continue to have Guardian Alarm known as the #1 security company in North America.
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