Online Extra: The Case of the Garrulous Yeggman

Roy Watters is a safecracker, but his business is strictly on the up-and-up. And his trade shows no signs of slowing down

A real life MacGyver, that's Roy Watters. The Pittsburgh safecracker, owner of Watters Safe & Lock, uses his wits, intuition, and some cool gadgets to open safes for clients including banks, jewelers, even the federal government.

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?


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?


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?


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?


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.


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?


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?


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 Rod Kurtz

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