Accent Security Alarms has been keeping residents and businesses safe for 40 years.
Steve Zschille started the business by himself in 1982. Over the years, he added employees until at one time he had 15 or 20 people working for him. Now, it’s just Zschille and his partner, Dwaine Nall.
“It’s just me and Dwaine here,” Zschille told The CBJ recently. “Dwaine is going to take it to the next level. He’s going to own it after I pass.
“Forty years in business, and you can’t tell all the things we’ve been through. It would take the whole paper,” Zschille said with a smile.
Zschille didn’t always want a career in security alarms. After graduating from Jackson High School, he went to Ranken Tech School in St. Louis, where he learned to become an auto technician specializing in low voltage systems — just like those used in alarm systems.
After graduating from Ranken, he started working as a mechanic in a St. Louis Ford dealership. However, only 90 days into his job, he received his draft notice. The year was 1972, and the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia.
He went through basic training and had orders to go to Vietnam. However, Pres. Richard Nixon then announced that no more draftees were going to be sent to Vietnam.
“So they sent me to Fort Lewis, WA. I was out there two years. I came back to Jackson, and got a job as a diesel mechanic in Sikeston. “I hated that job,” Zschille recalled. So he left that job and went to work as a mechanic at a Chrysler dealership. One day the owner asked Zschille to cut his long hair and put on a suit so hecould keep customers busy while the owner was out of town and the salesman was helping other customers.
“That was the last I ever turned a wrench in my life,” Zschille said. “I sold like six or seven trucks that week.”
The Chrysler dealership closed and Zschille went to Jim Bishop Chevrolet, where he worked as a salesman for 13 months. Zschille said “some guy” kept bugging him to sell alarms for him, but Zschille refused, asking the fellow, “Who needs an alarm system?”
Then one day, when Jim Bishop was “raising hell” in a sales meeting, Zschille raised his hand and just quit.
He went to work for the man who had been bugging him, and started selling alarm systems. However, that man had personal problems, and after a year and a half, Zschille realized he could not keep working for him. So he started his own alarm system company.
“Before I started this place, I never spent a year and a half in one place. I got bored,” Zschille admitted.
“People asked me, ‘Steve, why do you stay in the alarm business so long?’ I said, ‘Well, I got so far in debt, I had to work.’”
Zschille has always focused on customer service and giving that personal touch. He still has his very first client. “We still have our first client that I sold to,” he said. “In the alarm business, it’s the people that you like. It’s not really the alarm business; it’s the people you get to meet. When you go to set up an alarm for a house, people want to show you their collections. You become part of their family. You spend time with them. We just become personal friends as best we can with them.”
Sometimes things went wrong. “We did Mrs. [Joyce] Peerman’s house back in the early ’80s. On her house, on the back porch, we had to drill for a window, because it was all hard-wired at that time — it was a hard-wired system, not wireless.”
When they drilled a hole for the wires, they drilled through the water pipe to her outdoor faucet. “What’s the chance of hitting that and drilling straight through it?” Zschille asked. “We had to go through a crawl space to get it repaired. That is one screw-up. We didn’t screw up that much.” He keeps that section of water pipe in his office as a memento.
Another time, while installing a system at a doctor’s home, he drilled through a drain pipe from a master bedroom shower that was hidden inside of an outside wall over a window. “You couldn’t see it,” he said. He never expected a drain pipe to be there. “You don’t run a drain on an outside wall. I’m sorry, you just don’t,” he explained.
The next day, the homeowner called to say, “I’ve got water all down my basement.” Zschille had to replace a wall and carpeting.
Accent Security Alarms does both residential and commercial projects.
Residential systems tend to be an emotion buy. Residents buy a security system after they have been burglarized, a husband dies, or a daughter sneaks out of a basement window, Zschille said.
When serial killer Timothy Krajcir was killing women in the area, he was known for sneaking into bathroom windows. So a lot of women called Zschille to install security systems at that time, and everyone wanted their bathroom windows covered. They were not much concerned about the rest of their home, and it didn’t matter if their bathroom window was 90 feet in the air, they wanted it protected, Zschille said.
Victims of burglaries can suffer negative psychological effects. Zschille says he knows women who have washed their clothes 20 to 30 times — and some have even burned them — after being burglarized, because they couldn’t stand not knowing who had touched their clothes.
Some customers have put off buying a system that would have cost them under $1,000 because they wanted to buy a big-screen TV first. But within 90 days, they called Zschille back after being burglarized. Now ready to buy, they were worried about burglars coming through every crack in their home, and they ended up buying a $2,000-$3,000 system. “If they’d spent $900, they would have prevented that break-in,” Zschille said.
The first big commercial job Zschille did was the old country courthouse in Jackson. It was his first year in business — 1982 — and the job cost about $4,200. Today, it would cost about $35,000 to install that system.
Accent Security has done a few other big commercial jobs, including a number of boarding homes and some work for Southeast Missouri State University. He installed a system in the River Campus Museum. Now, they no longer attempt really big jobs. They may give advice on how and where to run cables for cameras and do the final hookup, but they don’t have the manpower to do all the work.
“We can’t do a lot of big jobs because we don’t have the manpower,” Zschille said. “We can’t get manpower any more. We can’t hire anybody. It’s impossible.”
While residential systems are often an emotional buy, commercial systems are purchased to give owners “internal control” of their business, Zschille said. It helps stop employee theft. “If you have a big business, you’ll lose 15 to 20 percent from within,” he said.
“Down in Portageville, we had a customer who was referred to us. He already had a camera system, and he had a security system. But it wasn’t custom-built for his business. I started talking to the guy. I spent four or five hours down there, and he was getting a little agitated,” Zschille said. The business owner told him, “All I want is security and cameras better than what I have.”
Zschille asked him a lot of questions in order to customize the system to fit his needs.
“About 90 days after I put this thing in, he’s calling me up. He says, ‘Steve, I’ve got three houses up here I want you to do the exact same system for my houses.’”
What changed his mind? His business had a cleaning crew that was supposed to be cleaning his big building for six or seven hours every day. The new security system revealed that the cleaners spent no more than 30 minutes before leaving. The owner asked, “Steve, how long has that been going on?” Zschille replied, “How long have you been in business?”
Then the owner added, “That’s not half the story, Steve.” He caught on camera an employee going out the gate with $48,000 worth of company equipment.
Security alarm equipment has changed greatly over the years.
Just communicating with customers was hard 40 years ago. “When I first started, all we had was a pager down on your side. No cell phones. Nothing. You get a page, you have to find a phone,” Zschille said.
When he first started his business, Zschille monitored the alarms himself. He used a device that recorded a voice giving information about the burglary, fire, etc., and that information was forwarded to police department or sheriff’s office.
The first digital receivers were very limited in the information they offered. “It gave us a 3-1 format; a three-digit account number and a one-digit event code. One was fire, two was panic, three was burglary,” Zschille said. This system had its limitations. If customers had 50 or 60 windows in their building, the digital receiver only gave a code “3.” That was it. There was no way to know which window had been broken or entered.
Today, security systems can be divided into zones, so Zschille knows exactly where the problem is.
When he started in the business, Zschille had a digital receiver by his bed at home. When he arrived at his office, he turned on a receiver there, and his wife unplugged the system at home. “That’s how I operated a lot of years,” he said.
When an alarm went off, it notified Zschille. Nowadays, when an alarm trips, a message is sent to the customer’s smart phone and to Accents’ central station in St. Louis.
Some of the old equipment had chips that had to be programmed. “It was a nightmare,” said Zschille. Now, everything is programmed through a keypad.
Years ago, security systems used ultrasonics to detect intruders. There was a transmitter and a receiver. If the ultrasonic signal was interrupted by an intruder, it tripped the alarm. The system had its drawbacks because everyday noises such as a telephone ringing could trip the alarm.
Today’s systems use passive infrared light that detects body heat. “We use all passives. We don’t even use ultrasonics anymore,” Zschille said.
When he first started in the business, Zschille used window “bugs” that were attached by wires to window glass. If a window was broken, the “bug” fell and tripped the alarm. “Now we use a sound sensor instead of that. It hears the frequency of the breaking glass,” Zschille said.
Customers used to want sirens as part of their home security systems. “Big sirens. They would want it loud,” Zschille recalled. “The customer would say, ‘I want my neighbors to hear.’”
But often after the system was installed, the customers would trip it accidentally so many times that neighbors eventually ignored the sirens.
Zschille used to sell motion lights which had to be wired into the house. “We would tell customers, ‘This is not part of your alarm system. Just because that light goes off, that doesn’t mean some-body’s out there. It could be leaves blowing.’
“We’d put them in. They would be in about a week, and we’d get a phone call: ‘We need that light to stay on another 22 seconds.’ Then we’d have to go out there and set the thing up. Or people would say, ‘That light went off three times last night. You need to check that.’ We’d be running constantly for service. So we quit selling them.”
Back when Zschille was installing motion lights, they cost $170 installed. Today, if you want one, you can buy one at a hardware store for $39 and install it yourself.
Installing security systems is easier today. “Years ago, when I first started, and say you have 20 windows in the house and four doors, it would take two men two weeks to do that. Now, we do that in three hours.”
Wireless systems made Zschille’s job easier, but they also let a lot of competition into the security alarm business. Installing wire and hiding it was an art best done by professionals. But anyone can just “stick and go” with a wireless system.
Accent will not install wireless cameras. Zschille says wireless cameras have not yet been perfected.
If you can buy a wireless system and install it yourself, why hire Accent Security Alarms?
“A lot of people just don’t know what it entails,” Zschille said. “It’s not just sticking up a sensor or a camera.” You have to know if that camera or security system is in the right position, he said.
To know what system is right for a business, you have to learn about the business. “You have to really pick their brains. Tell me how your business is run. We want to customize that system around those people, so the owner doesn’t have to jump though hoops to use it. You can put a complex system in, and if it isn’t easy to use, they aren’t going to use it.”
Running a security alarm business is not easy. Zschille didn’t want his children to follow in his footsteps. “My son works down at New Madrid Electric. My daughter is in St. Louis. I didn’t want my son in the alarm business, because I know how taxing it is. You’re [on duty] 24/7.”
Then one day Dwaine Nall, “an old Zalma boy” came into the picture.
“In 2013, I met Dwaine down at the post office one day. He said, ‘What are you up to, Steve?’ I said, “I’m just trying to find an exit out of this business.’ I didn’t want my son in it. He said, ‘Well, I might be interested.’ It took him two years to decide. And he came on board.
“We kicked up for two or three years, and we just couldn’t be stopped. Then I had two strokes. The first didn’t hurt me, but the last stroke took the zip out of me. I can’t do any manual labor but for about 15 minutes and I’m done for the rest of the day.”
When he’s not at the office, Zschille tries to farm. “I really get agitated because I can’t do anything anymore. I think about things I need to do and I know once I get started, all I can get is 15 minutes.”
As Zschille cut back on his duties at Accent Security, Nall pushed himself harder in both sales and service. “We have not missed a beat,” Zschille said.
Zschille still comes to the office at 5 a.m. every day. “I can’t get out of that habit. But I go home between 9 o’clock and noon every day.”
Zschille has worn out two easy chairs and a TV remote. “I got so bored, because I was used to running 95 miles an hour all the time, 24/7. There’s some nights I maybe slept two hours. It finally caught up to me.
“Everything’s worked out for the plus. I brought Dwaine on, and he’s old school, just like me. Customer service. You got a problem or a question, you can call us and we answer the phone. You don’t have to go through 40 million “press one and go to this, press two if you want this, press three if you want this.”
If customers need to reach them, Zschille and Nall have both given out their cell phone numbers.
Nall now handles sales, installs and service. He does it all. They tried hiring some additional help. “We tried three different people, but it didn’t work out,” Zschille said.
Some people may buy alarm systems from other companies without giving any thought to who will service them or how much a service call will be. One large company sells alarm systems here, but is based in St. Louis. If you call for service, you’re charged $250 for a service call.
Zschille asks, “Who do you want in your home? Somebody to come down from St. Louis and you don’t even know his name?”
On the other hand, Accent offers personal service.
“Say you’ve got a fire alarm problem at 2 o’clock in the morning. You’ll be talking to Dwaine personally. Now if Dwaine can’t talk to you over the phone on how to correct it, he will be at your house in less than one hour. Nobody does that any more. That’s the way the world is going — no personal service. But we refuse to go that way.”