Here’s an increasingly rare scenario: you lose your car keys and use a jimmy tool to reach past the driver’s side window and pop the lock. Nowadays, you are more likely to pop the airbag and screw up the electronic key system.
And if you think car and house key systems are getting complicated, ask locksmith Donald Guthrie to show you pictures of safes that burglars used cutting torches, sledge hammers and drills to try to open, without success. The safes may have been destroyed, but the contents remained secure.
Guthrie grew up in the locksmith business. In the 1940s, his uncle Jimmy had started a bicycle and key shop in McAllen. Guthrie’s father took it over, and by the age of 10, Donald was working for his dad, cutting keys. When old enough to drive, he went on service calls.
Around 1985, Guthrie took over the family business and halted bike sales to concentrate on locksmithing: Guthrie’s Locksmith Shop. The business has weathered radical changes since then as electronic locks became widespread. For the past 10 years, Texas locksmiths have been licensed by the state with new applicants required to have five years of experience with a locksmith before getting their own license.
Vehicle manufacturers only sell their key programs to licensed locksmiths. “Every year we have to pay each carmaker $800-$1,200 for program updates. Electronic keys have helped the industry, but you have to invest,” Guthrie said. “Some manufacturers limit the numbers of keys you can program in a year.” He held up a device smaller than a laptop which had $10,000 worth of vehicle keying software in it. It is locked in a safe at night, of course.
Add the cost of key hardware to the software, and you see why replacement keys run in the $200-500 range. Local car dealers are among the locksmith’s customers.
“We don’t go making vehicle keys for strangers,” Guthrie said. “We have to have proof of identity and ownership.”
Locks for houses, property entry and commercial operations have become more complex, too. High security keys and restricted keys, with some brands noted for being unpickable, prevent unauthorized duplication. “The keyways are individualized chips associated with a single locksmith. If another locksmith wants to open it, they will have to drill the lock,” Guthrie said. Owners of hunting leases and retail operations are now purchasing the pick-resistant, restricted keys and creating signature cards for those authorized to get a duplicate key made. “Some store managers come in to have extra keys made. We can’t do it unless they are authorized.” The business also does rekeying that can’t be copied.
Guthrie and his wife Abby, who handles the financial side of the company, today run a business that has gone beyond locks and vaults to other aspects of access control. The company stocks mechanical push-button locks, panic bars and panic room controls
“Our specialty is next day service for locks, if not same day. We have a lot in stock,” Guthrie said. Besides two in-store locksmiths, the company has seven other locksmiths making service calls handled by three dispatchers.
Guthrie himself oversees locksmith training from scratch. “It takes a year to get them basically proficient.” That apprenticeship also reveals the person’s trustworthiness.
Insurance companies usually specify the type of safes certain customers — such as jewelry stores, high ends shops and those handing lots of cash — must have. “In the last five years, safes have become very popular, ranging from $100 ones to $20,000 ones that weigh 5,000 pounds and have five inch thick walls,” he said.
Guthrie’s sells, installs and services safes and vaults, but the customer sets the combination. Some customers sheepishly request their combination a year or two later, although Guthrie’s purposefully knows none of the customers’ combinations. Guthrie said he will trouble shoot if a problem arises. But often the only recourse is to drill the safe open with special diamond and carbide bits, an expensive process that can take more than a day.
The album of burglar-damaged and fire-blasted safes is certainly an eye-opener, as well as a good sales tool. Even with the dials melted off or the hinges cut off, these safes did their jobs in keeping the contents secure.
Another generation of Guthrie locksmiths is picking up some tricks of the trade. The couple’s twin boys spend after-school hours surrounded by safes, electronic keypads and locksmiths setting tumblers in locks.
For more information, see guthrieslock.com.
This story by Eileen Mattei appears in the November 2015 edition of Valley Business Report. For more stories from the November edition, click on the “Current & Past Issues” tab.