Flat broke and out of work, in 1964 Wayne Gey answered a classified ad for an errand boy at a Tampa, Florida, company that installed fire sprinklers. Gey was ambitious but he never imagined he’d wind up owning a company that posts sales of $81 million a year installing automatic fire sprinkler and alarm systems in commercial and residential buildings.
Gey founded Wayne Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc., in 1978 in Ocoee, Florida, outside Orlando, and eked out sales of $40,000. He employed one helper. Now his company employs 525 people who work in sales, design, installation, repairs and maintenance. He operates offices in seven Florida cities and Charlotte, North Carolina, services 4,000 customers and installs 417,000 fire sprinkler heads a year.
Reared on a cotton farm in Alabama, Gey moved to Tampa to play college basketball but it didn’t work out. Although he started as an errand boy, Gey soon got involved in design, sales, installation, repair and service.
After 14 years of working for several sprinkler installers, he was managing a company in Orlando when he got the notion to strike out on his own. “I realized I should be running my own company, not someone else’s,” he said.
Gey quit his job in 1978, got occupational licenses and liability insurance and worked from a spare bedroom. He joined the local builders association and got to know general contractors, developers, and owners of office buildings, apartment complexes and condominiums—the people who buy fire sprinkler systems.
The association posts notices of upcoming building projects so subcontractors can bid on them. Using construction plans, installers figure out how much water is needed and where PVC or steel pipes and sprinkler heads should be placed. Their bids are based on costs of materials, labor and, of course, a profit.
Gey got the first job he bid on – Ridge Laundry in Orlando. “I sketched the design on the back of a laundry ticket,” he said. “The job paid $750. I used the deposit to buy parts and equipment.”
Like most start-up entrepreneurs, Gey put in long hours – sales in the mornings, installations in afternoons and designs and bid proposals at night.
After a few months, Gey bought a truck, hired a helper and rented mini-storage space. He paid cash for everything or didn’t buy it, which is still his policy. In 1979 Gey scraped together $30,000 and bought 3.2 acres of land in Ocoee, a suburb west of Orlando. He erected a 17,575-square-foot, one-story building, later expanded to 25,143 square feet.
Gey hired his first salesman in 1982 and began landing high visibility jobs, such as an Orlando Magic basketball team facility; Lotus Landing, a swank, 14-building apartment complex in Altamonte Springs; the plush $475 million Grand Palisades Resort near Disney World; and the remodeled Welatka Building, an 1887-built office complex in Sanford.
By 1988 sales reached $1 million a month. Gey was getting jobs outside Orlando and he decided it made sense to expand his operation. He opened offices in Jacksonville, Tampa, Port St. Lucie, Pompano, Fort Myers and Charlotte, NC. Each office is staffed by salespeople, designers and installers.
Always watching changes in the market, Gey realized that alarm systems were a natural fit with fire sprinklers. In the mid-90s, he created a division that installs and services alarms and now accounts for 30 percent of revenues.
Like most industries, fire sprinklers have become increasingly competitive. “Thousands of outfits have popped up around the U. S. – dozens in Orlando,” said Gey. “For example, in a recent job, eight or ten companies bid against us, but we still got the job.”
His company’s success, he said, is driven by his employees. “We’ve built a core of workers who are loyal, trained properly, and paid well for hard work,” he said. New employees undergo four years of in-house training and then are certified by the National Institute for Engineering Technologies.
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Gey shares financial information with employees
and compensates them on performance.
“I want workers to realize their performance impacts the bottom line,” he said. His managers are rewarded with a percentage of pre-tax profits. •
Wayne Gey, left, was broken when he launched his fire sprinkler company with no experience. Today he is semi-retired and plans to keep the company in the family. His son, Clark, is now running the show. Wayne started from home with zero funds!