Couple Learns What's Key To Running Family Locksmith Business

A few years ago Andy Hetterly and Nikki Hunter were living and working in Portland -- he at a tire shop and she in an insurance office.

They enjoyed the big city, saying it was a great place for a couple in their early 20s to find themselves. And what they found about themselves was they wanted to return to  Walla Walla Valley, Washington, and run their own business.

But how to unlock that dream? Why, become locksmiths, of course. That is what they did when an opportunity fell in their laps in 2010.

Nikki's parents, Mark and Dorene Hunter, were customers of Bennett's Locksmith of Walla Walla when former owner Tracy Bennett became ill several years ago. They suggested buying the business, and became silent partners.

But it wasn't as easy as that. Bennett was to teach Andy and Nikki on the intricacies of picking and fixing locks and how to run the business, but he died a week into completing the paperwork for the transaction.

That, however, wasn't going to keep the young couple from breaking into the trade.

"I guess we just dug our feet in and kept at it," said Nikki, 27. "We bought instructional DVDs, we researched and practiced after we got home from work. We were picking locks and learning.

"After awhile," she added, "I was breaking in and out of our apartment in under two minutes."

"Impressive," Andy, 26, remarked.

Also impressive is what else the two decided to do that year besides start up their own business. They got married and also remodeled their home.

"We both understand the harder we work right now, the more we can do later," Nikki said.

"The first year was very stressful. I didn't know safes and automotive," Andy said, adding he received a lot of help from other locksmiths in town.

Nowadays he handles most service calls and Nikki runs the shop at 715 W. Alder St. They've kept the name Bennett's' Locksmith to honor the founder, and also expanded the business to Oregon after getting a license to operate in that state.

Sheer ambition and hard work have carried them far in two years, not to mention a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness that's critical to staying in business. After all, they're making keys for other people's homes, cars, safes or businesses, changing their locks and being entrusted with their security. Hence, the strict regulations and licensing requirements, which don't always apply elsewhere.

"I was watching Dateline recently and they said in New York, many locksmiths were convicts," Andy said. "You're paying a convict $250 to break into your house? That's comforting."

It's hard work and long hours, but they like the freedom and the variety of social interactions with their customers.

"Any day, it's never the same. That's nice," Nikki said.

"You interact with people here more. Treat them right," he said, comparing small-town Walla Walla with life in Portland.

"I can't go to the grocery store in sweats," Nikki said. "I'm going to see people I know."

They're enjoying successes, but they've also had some setbacks. In their second year they had someone try to scam them using a stolen credit card.

"It was the biggest learning experience," Nikki said. "You just can't assume that everyone is telling you the truth."

Some other things they've learned:

When a renter has gotten locked out, "I always ask to speak with the owner," Andy said.

"And we don't get in the middle of domestic disputes," Nikki added.

They've had interesting calls, too.

"We had two sisters fighting over their mother's house -- they said it had been abandoned," he said. "We opened it up ... the mother was incapacitated and the sister that was living there was a stage 5 class hoarder. Honestly, there were little pathways through everything."

But mostly they enjoy interactions with a growing number of clients.

"We're in it for the long haul," Nikki said, adding she and Andy take late lunches so the people with conventional noon breaks can get keys made.

There are things they think are important when deciding to work for yourself, and buying a well established business and building it from there is on the list.

Nikki, a University of Idaho grad with a bachelor's in psychology and a minor in business, said it helps to have people handling experience.

"That's the biggest thing. (Customers) have lost their keys, they've made a mistake and they have to spend money," she said. Around the holidays the stress is amplified because money has been budgeted for gifts, not mistakes.

Andy went to Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., where he realized he was more interested in "taking things apart and learning how to put things together." So the locksmith business was ideal for him.

Nikki said their initial research and training was essential to making a go of their business together.

"You definitely need to know what you're getting into," Andy said.

"When we bought the padlocks and learned to pick the lock, the first one took me an hour. What I know now is that if it takes me longer than 10 minutes, then I can't pick it. We have to go another route," he said.

Determination pulls them through, no matter what.

"If we can't figure it out, we will figure it out," Andy said.

Copyright 2012 - Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.

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