Q&A: Locksmith Vicki McCabe

Nov. 1, 2008
Tips on starting up and running a locksmith business

I’ve known locksmith Vicki McCabe for several years and I enjoy helping with her locksmith needs. Recently she asked if I’d like to interview her because she had some things to say about being a woman and working in a field so dominated by men. Here’s our conversation.

How did you get started in locksmithing?
People always ask me that. My grandfather was a locksmith back in the 50s. I was always curious; I grew up working on cars with my father and I liked working with my hands. One night I was on the front porch talking to him and wondering out loud what I was going to do with my life at the age of 36. I noticed there was a correspondence course for locksmithing and he thought it was a good idea. At the same time there was an ad in the paper for a locksmith trainee. I interviewed and eventually was hired at Haddon Locksmith working for Jim Sundstrond. That was back in October of 1997.

Did your father dabble in locksmithing or did it skip a generation?
Yes, he dabbled. Actually my Uncle was a locksmith too so I’m third generation.

So even though you came from two generations of locksmiths, you were hired as an apprentice?
Yes, because I did not grow up around the locksmith trade. I grew up in South Jersey and my grandfather’s business was in Pennsylvania. My uncle’s business was in California.

Years ago I attended the NY School of Locksmithing and realized later that I could’ve learned in a few weeks in the field what it took six months to learn there. What was that contrast like for you; working in a shop and taking the course at the same time?

The course is all book work and without working in Jim’s shop I would’ve had a hard time without the actual hands on, real life situations. It worked out well and Jim always helped me with questions I had.

So working inside you learned what it was like to deal with customers?
Yes, that’s how I met you, Steve. Do you remember? You walked into the shop and I never saw you before and you asked about duplicating a key. You handed me a key blank and asked for two copies. I took it from you, looked at it and handed it back saying, 'I can’t do this, there are no cuts on the key.'  You looked at me straight faced said ‘I know but I still need it duplicated.’ I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’

Unfortunately for the locksmith community, I do this kind of thing sometimes to initiate new people. How did you respond to this customer?
I ignored you. I went back to working on a lock and thought you were crazy, which come to find out isn’t too far from the truth. You introduced yourself, apologized and I’ve regretted it ever since.

How’d you like working with customers while learning the mechanical part of the business?
I enjoyed it because it allowed me to solve their problem while teaching me something in the process.

Do some people respond to you differently because you are a woman?
Yes, one of the things I get a lot of is that because I’m a woman it tends to shake their confidence that I can’t perform the work.

Do you think a man working in the field gets more credibility?
I hate to think so, but probably.

Were there segments of our trade that you enjoyed or were drawn to in the first couple of years?
I always enjoyed working on cars. I found it fascinating that you could originate keys for a car and most of the time didn’t have to take anything apart.

Do you enjoy being in the position to help someone?
I enjoy it very much and I enjoy the typical interaction with customers; I don’t just do the work and leave. I explain to them why the lock broke or why this isn’t working and they get a little education and appreciate it. When someone requests a new lock and all they really need is a rekey, that’s what I do. I’m not into selling people what they don’t need. I have good ethics and morals. I show up when I say I will and if I’m going to be late, I call them. You wouldn’t believe how often people tell me they appreciate me actually showing up. It’s a good feeling when my repeat customers call me and remind me of that fact.

How else has being a woman in a male dominated field affected the way you approach things?
My approach is to show up confident, as a professional in the field. It doesn’t matter that I am a woman. I am there to do a job that was requested of me although I don’t always get the same reaction when a call comes in.

It sounds like you feel the need to let them know that a woman will be showing up, true?
Not necessarily, I tell them my name and I will be the one showing up.

Did you feel that way before you started locksmithing; that you had to prove yourself?
Yes, because I’ve typically worked in male dominated fields. I’ve done landscaping and also worked for a delivery company as a driver. Back then it wasn’t as common to see a female driver as it is now. I’ve always liked doing physical work.

Are there times when being a woman does limit what you’re able to do?
Yes, like when I have to deliver or move a safe. Sometimes I won’t be strong enough to do something but it has nothing to do with skill. It’s just a matter of strength. (I am small, you know.)

What changes in locksmithing have had the biggest impact on you and your business?
Transponders, without question.

If you could work all the time on anything you wanted to, what would it be?
I’d be doing car work if that was the case.

Since you’ve been on your own, have you ever had as much business as you’d like?
No, not yet. I still drive a school bus to supplement my income. I’m a one-woman mobile service and I’ve only been in business for myself a little more than two years.

How do your customers learn about you? Where does most of your business come from?
The Yellow pages, word of mouth. There are a couple of car dealerships I do work for. This town has a Community Day and I spent the day cutting keys for people so they’d get to know me and I gave out brochures. I wanted to get my name out in the community; I’ve had articles written about me too and my reputation is slowly growing.

Did these articles feature you because you’re a woman?
No, they were written because I contacted them. One of them was about ways to work from home and the other was about staying safe in your home.

Does being female ever work to your advantage in business?
Yes, there are times they call me because I’m a woman.

Are you going to do anything different from here on with regards to your business?
I’m going to get more involved with my community, get my website up and running and continue to build by clientele.

What would you like your fellow locksmiths to know about what it’s like to be the only woman around most of the time? Are there insulting things said around you?

They really can’t know what that is like. I only ask to be treated as the professional I am. Not so much insulting, the jokes go on around me and if I feel it’s out of line (for any reason, not just because I’m a woman), I’ll say something. Most of the guys I meet do treat me with respect and are there to answer questions I have and help me out if I need it.