As a young man growing up in Warren, Ark., Willie Franklin never thought he’d be an entrepreneur.
He earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas and never had designs on making a business outside of the steady job he landed at General Motors right out of college in 1969. He was thrilled. It was good pay for a kid just starting out and a very steady place to work.
It was at college that Franklin met his wife, a native of Memphis, Tenn. A trip to visit her parents changed his plans and sparked an idea.
“When we went down south, I saw houses with wrought-iron doors on them. I asked my wife, why all these security doors?” he says. “She told me that people were concerned about break-ins. I thought if there was a problem in that city, there would definitely be a problem in Flint.”
The seed was planted for what eventually became Ornamental Security Doors, Franklin’s business of the past 35 years. Housed on the north side, the company manufactures security doors, window guards, commercial security, roll-down shutters, heating and cooling cages. Franklin maintains an 8,000-square-foot showroom where he manufactures everything at a building he owns.
It’s located 3042 Pasadena Ave. When he found the owner was going belly up a few years back, Franklin made a bid to buy the place and expand his operations.
Although he started on the path to running his own business in 1980, he continued to work at GM over the next 26 years.
“I wasn’t too sure if this was what I really wanted, especially with a background in chemical engineering and not in business,” he says. “I had moments of struggle, challenges with employees. You have manufacturing and sales streams that had to work together. At GM, I had worked in a lab and basically tested materials used to build cars and engines. I had no familiarity with what I had started to do.”
GM was also good to him. The company gave Franklin raises and sent him to seminars, even to other companies to represent GM. He was moving right up the ladder until upper management found out he had a business concern on the side.
“Even though I was doing nothing wrong, I tried to keep it quiet, but as things sometimes spread in a company, word got out,” he says.
Franklin says company higher-ups were wary of his commitment to his day job and they’d approached him several times to ask if there was not a conflict of interest.
“I explained that I wasn’t building cars nor (was I) a supplier,” he says. “They still said that having my own venture was against company policy.”
Franklin’s answers seemed to fall on deaf ears. He was subsequently “offered” a transfer from Flint to the company’s plant in Pontiac to work the second shift – from 2:00 a.m. until 8:00 a.m. – as plant security.
“At first I had a problem with it, but this meant I had my days free. They actually did me a favor,” he says, reflecting positively on the experience that was more or less a blessing in disguise. “The odds were stacked against me too. I’m a minority. I was one of only two blacks out of 32 guys in the whole metallurgic department.”
When it got to the point though that the drive to Pontiac became too much, he told his wife that he had to make a choice.
“Ornamental Security Doors was something I gave birth to,” he says. “I couldn’t let it go.”
He had three children to feed and his wife was supportive, but he was naturally wary to leave a steady job. Still, they took the leap, and Franklin’s business was a hit from the start.
“Even though there were some hard knocks, it paid off. It made me stronger,” he says. “I had to get there and put the pieces in place.”
Flint’s high crime rate, an unfortunate and steady fact, turned out to be good for Franklin’s business, most of which comes through word of mouth and client referrals. He does have another direct competitor in town but Franklin approached them to work in conjunction with one another.
“I suggested we control the market together,” he says with a laugh.
His next goal is to approach banks that hold foreclosed properties, particularly those right in the city that has been vandalized. Franklin already has a meeting with J.P. Morgan Chase to start on a trial basis.
“If a house is left unprotected and unattended, it could become a target,” he says. “When the owner goes to sell it he or she won’t be able to. A secure door and window guards will help prevent that.”
Franklin’s experience to date has taught him the only way to learn is by going through the tough times and the good, and that making mistakes is part of it.
“I didn’t go to business school, I had to go this route,” he says.
But he also knows everything he’s been through has brought him to where he is now.
“I heard the preacher at our church say one day, ‘Your challenges are what make you,’ says Franklin, a faithful member of the Greater Holy Temple Pentecostal Bishop Jones in Flint. “He’s right. If we didn’t have any challenges, we wouldn’t get stronger, and we wouldn’t be stronger for those who are still to come.”
For more information about Ornamental Security Doors, visit www.stopbreakin.com or call 810-733-6790.