With sophisticated alarm systems and new biometric technology, you wouldn't think there'd be a lot of work around. But safes are as popular as ever, Watters says, and he opens as many as a dozen a week. Inside, he has found family heirlooms, stacks of cash, silver, gold -- and a lot of drugs.BusinessWeek SmallBiz contributor Jane Black recently spoke to Watters -- or Mr. Gadget, as he's known among friends. When asked the key to opening any safe in the world, Watters, with characteristic bravado, gave this combination: 74-52-24-5. The secret? Add a local area code and you get Watters' phone number. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:Q: How did you get interested in safecracking?A: I studied locks as a child. My father was a machine-shop teacher, and like my dad, I became a machinist by trade. That helped me understand how locks are built. I've also studied locks since 1978. I know the history of the locks. And I collect and study vault locks and use the manufacturers' tolerances to be able to defeat them. I just traveled all over England and Holland visiting safe men last September. I brought back 32 locks from Europe that are now in my collection.Q: Your collection? A: Yes, I have a huge collection. I bring them home and mount them on clear Plexiglas. Then I see a whole different picture.Q: Are your services in great demand?A: Absolutely. People pass on without leaving any numbers to the safe. Combinations are lost or forgotten. And there are a lot of malfunctions.
I also do preventive maintenance. Think of it sort of like having your car inspected. You want to catch the little things before the big things happen. I also sometimes do investigations for insurance companies. I give my professional opinion to help identify how the safe was compromised. This week, I've opened half a dozen safes.Q: What tools do you use?A: I use tools like a borescope, which is a tube that uses fiber optics to let me look inside a lock the same way a doctor looks inside your heart. Instead of doing open-heart surgery, I'm doing safe surgery. I have twenty-some scopes. Each gives a different view. Some of them you can look straight. Some, when you push it in, it automatically looks 30 or 90 degrees to the right or left. I even have one where it has a trigger device, and I can view up inside, across, and back behind me.
But I also use less technical tools. Sometimes I drill a hole in a safe and look into the lock, which helps me see how to maneuver it.Q: You must see some pretty interesting things.A: I see a lot of sad things. I did a safe six months ago where the man had died of a heart attack. His wife and kids wanted to open an old supermarket safe he kept. I had to drill through the side, knock the bolts back, and roll the door back. Inside was $250,000 in cash. And I'm thinking: "Why did he put all the money in the safe and sit on it? They could have lived."
On the other hand, I see a lot of happy things. After I open a safe with all that money, you see people's faces light up. They say: "Let's get out and spend it." All of sudden, someone's driving a new Cadillac.Q: Will technology change the safecracking business?A: There will always be safes. As long as there is stuff to lock up. Safes have secured man's treasures for years. You need one in a home today. You need something that gives physical security. People think an alarm is enough, but an alarm is just a signal. We need more safecrackers. We need young people to carry on the job.Q: In 2002 you placed second in the national safecracking contest in Reno, Nev. Are the challenges in a contest harder than in real life?A: The real stuff out there is pretty tough. That's why they call them safes -- because they're tough to get in. I've had a few endurance runs. I can remember sitting in a bank in front of the door one time, and I figured I'd get up for a 10 a.m. coffee break. I told this to the guard, and she just laughed and said: "It's 4 p.m." I had been there all day. EDITED BY Edited by Rod Kurtz