People - August 2006

He profits when his products get swiped
by Chris Richter

As president and CEO of the nation’s largest maker of hotel key cards, Mark Goldberg has heard the rumor: The magnetic stripe on the back is filled with personal information — your credit-card number, for example — that a tech-savvy person could steal.

“We can always tell when that e-mail starts circulating again,” says Goldberg, 45, of Asheville-based Plasticard Locktech International LLP. “We get a lot of inquiries.” That happened again last year when a travel agency’s information-technology manager told Computerworld magazine that he had found key cards that carried personal information. The magazine investigated but found no supporting evidence. So what’s in the stripe? Just random numbers that match the card with a specific lock, Goldberg says.

A Miami native, he began working in hotels at 17. He landed his first general-manager job at 23 and later worked as a contractor specializing in hotel renovations. While overseeing a project at a Miami Beach hotel in 1988, he teamed with Asheville subcontractor Bill Noonan to install locks. They thought they were overpaying for key cards, which gave Noonan an idea.

He found a Charlotte company to make the cards and began selling them to hotels. Goldberg visited Asheville in 1990 and decided to stay. After working in Noonan’s basement, they leased a 5,000-square-foot building and experimented with a small press. Though Noonan sold his share of the business, the company was off and running. It started turning out its own hole-punched key cards in 1994.

As the technology evolved, Goldberg turned to magnetic-stripe cards. The company moved to a 54,500-square-foot building in 2003 and has contracts with many U.S. hotel chains. Plasticard Locktech credits its growth to investment in new equipment and its willingness to devote 30 of its 120 employees to sales and marketing.

Early on, the operation was a glorified print shop with some fancy equipment, Goldberg says. Now, he says, it has doubled its sales over the past three years, though he won’t disclose revenue. Goldberg and some partners own the company.

The way you get into your room is still evolving. Some hotels now use fingerprint scanners to allay guests’ fears about the black stripes. Others are considering proximity cards that unlock a door when they are brought near it.

Goldberg isn’t worried. Magnetic-stripe cards, he says, are more economical, costing pennies apiece in large lots. New technologies will only raise more fears. “If people are concerned about leaving their credit-card information on a key card, it’s going to take a while for them to get used to the idea of leaving a thumbprint at a hotel.”