30 Under 30: Fred Kuhar

Aug. 3, 2011

Fred Kuhar, 20 years old, works for Fox Chase Lock & Key, Inc. in Philadelphia which is owned by Ron Marcinkowski. Ron has been a customer and friend for many years and was enthusiastic about his young employee sitting down with me for this interview.

I began by explaining to Fred that we were interested in what the young locksmith had to say since they are the future of our industry. Following are Locksmith Ledger's questions and Kuhar's answers.

So Fred, how did it begin? When did you start working here?

I’ve been working here about 1 ½ years. I didn’t know what to do out of high school and was attending college taking basic liberal arts classes like English and Math on a part-time basis. During college I was working at a deli and got laid off midway through my first semester.

How did you know Ron? (Owner of Fox Chase Lock & Key, Inc.)

My mom went to high school with Ron’s wife and I would baby sit his kids occasionally. One day he had to cancel baby sitting and asked if I wanted to come help out in the shop cleaning up, etc. and that’s how it began.

What did you think about it the first day you spent working in a shop?

The first day, I cut a few keys and swept a lot. It was hard identifying keys at first; just finding them was a big challenge. The first couple of weeks I’d be there with Ron; I’d listen to how he answered the phone, what kind of questions he asked. When someone came in for a key, I’d try to figure it out myself and ask Ron if I needed help.

Did you feel comfortable working there at the beginning?

There’s a lot to learn so I wouldn’t say I was comfortable. There’s a lot you have to just know and the only way to know is by doing it. Lots of random tidbits of information.

What happened when you started answering the phones?

We have DeskTop Dispatching. I would go through all the fields, getting the info it asked for like name, phone number and what they needed. Now I could write down quickly what I need to know but that helped at the beginning. We have a price list next to the phone so I had that handy. But lots of things aren’t on that list so I’d ask Ron and he would make it up on the spot.

What are some of the typical requests you get from customers here in the shop?

We do a lot of rekeys. Let’s say it’s an eviction. We’ll tell them the trip charge and we’ll go over every possibility; if they have a key or they don’t, if they want new locks, etc. I just write down what I told them.

Could you see yourself locksmithing in the next ten years?

Yes I can. I’m not 100 percent sure I want to do it for the rest of my life but it is something I can see make a living at. I want to move out of my parent’s house, have my own truck, etc.

Tell me more about the scope of work you do here. You do rekeys, lock installs and replacements, and what else?

We actually do a lot of commercial work. Service providers call us to go to different stores, I’d say 60-70 percent commercial and the rest residential.

Which do you prefer more, commercial or residential?

I guess it’s a toss up, depending on the individual customer. My favorite is the kind that will give you a break! The other day I accidentally put my elbow through a customer’s window and they were very nice about it and I learned not to do that anymore. I’m sure some of the other customers I’ve had would have been screaming and hollering.

Have there been jobs you left wishing you hadn’t been there?

Definitely, especially when they don’t believe what I’m telling them. They see I’m a younger person. I could tell them I’m absolutely sure about something and it won’t matter! One customer’s file cabinet had been burglarized and the door was completely separated at the hinge and it wasn’t repairable and needed to be replaced. I tried to explain but instead they insisted that Ron come look even though he explained that he would charge them to come out again.

Your generation seems to be much more versed in the world of electronic gadgets. Aare you involved yet with that part of the industry?

We do some access control systems, a few a month. Right now it’s more of a Ron thing although I’ve helped with it. I’m sure I’ll do it eventually but I’d like to master some other things first.

What have you done so far that you look forward to being more proficient at?

I’m trying to work on my picking skills. I took a class on it and I’ve really seen improvement but it’s still pretty difficult. In the class he taught what to feel for; you go for the hardest pin first (most spring tension) and then go from there. That made a big improvement.

I can’t think of many things that feel better than a cylinder being picked, especially when you’re first learning. Do you agree?

Ron got upset with me recently. I went out to open a customer’s garage door and replace the cylinder because he lost his keys. It was 95 degrees and the door was in the direct sunlight so I drilled it off and swapped out the cylinders in 30 seconds. When I told Ron, he responded that I should’ve tried to pick it first because it would be a confidence booster. He was upset that I didn’t try and not that I wound up drilling it.

How about impressioning?

That was also covered in the same class along with a little time on bumping. I did learn how to impression but I don’t get very many opportunities to try it because so many things these days are just replaced. Once in a while we get something in the shop we have to fit the existing key to and then I can impression.

I remember being left alone in a shop pretty early on in my locksmithing career. Are you in here alone now?

Yeah, pretty much I’m always alone now. Technically I’m part time until we get a truck for me to use full time. I’m here three days during the week since we’re closed on Saturdays although I can schedule jobs for Saturdays if I have the opportunity. Sometimes Ron will send me to do the easier jobs like rekeys and he’ll stay in the shop.

What do your friends think about you working as a locksmith? Do you remember what you thought about locksmithing before you learned what it was really like?

My friends think it’s pretty cool. I’ve gotten a few calls to come help them out. I like to tell my friends I’m going to smith some locks.

Before I began working here, while I was still babysitting his kids, Ron called to ask if I would come help him move a safe. He got a kick out of me being so surprised that this was part of locksmithing. I didn’t realize safes were a part of it. I also didn’t see access control as being part of what we would do but Ron explained that locksmiths do many things these days.

In your short time in this industry, have you seen how people are moving away from using mechanical stuff and why you’ll need to keep up to do well?

I’ve seen that other locksmiths are moving away from automotive stuff while we’ve been keeping up with it. There are few locksmiths who can do all new car keys. We’re able to do the 2011 Fords and the high security keys (Fred points to the Tri-Code machine). The funny thing is that I’m actually better at using it than Ron. When we first got it, Ron was on the road a lot so I got the majority of the chances to use it plus younger people have been exposed more to things technological.

Have you worked with exit devices and door closers as well?

Yes, I actually have a lot of trouble with exit devices, I don’t know why. I’d like to think I can handle most things but I’m still having trouble. I haven’t had to install one yet but just rekeying one or making an adjustment has given me fits.

One of our customers has a Dor-O-Matic one with the gear in it. I had to just replace the gear portion and I must have been there close to three hours. I was back there a couple of weeks ago because the gear jumped a couple of teeth and the key couldn’t be removed in the unlocked position, and this time I did the whole thing in about 15 minutes. I’ve adjusted a few door closers and helped Ron install them but haven’t done it by myself yet.

Are you at the point of being able to recommend products and upsell to customers now?

I recommend some things but nothing I don’t know about. I can tell someone the difference between a Medeco and a Kwikset and why they’re better protected by the Medeco lock. Many break-ins are the result of an open window or an unlocked door so it wouldn’t matter in those cases.

How do you see the future of locksmithing? What do we have to do to be successful in the future?

Automotive is moving towards us using just remotes. I think as people keep having problems with their remotes, they’re going to want to come back to having a key again. I think that will happen even if it’s a different type of key than we’re used to. Let’s say your car starts accelerating on its own and you need to turn the car off, for example.

Would you recommend locksmithing to other young people?

I enjoy it. When I was in high school I did a shadow day in my mom’s office. She’s an ER nurse working in a local hospital and working in an office for a day was extremely boring. I like this because it’s good mix between manual labor and stuff you have to actually think about, lot’s of thinking involved.

What do friends of yours talk about doing for a living these days?

Most of them seem to be trying to get into the medical fields like EMT, nursing, Pharmacy. Others are doing things like roofing because their dad does it. Many seem to be avoiding traditional college and are going for other things like computers.

Do you think locksmiths will still be called locksmiths in 20 years?

It seems like technology is moving away from keys in general, towards a lot of pass codes, number systems, keypads, etc. Like my mom said, “People may not always need keys but they will always need security.” Maybe instead of being called locksmiths, we’ll be called security specialists. The choices we make now will affect us down the line. Do we try to hang on to the old ways or do we embrace the new technologies and stay ahead of the curve?