30 Under 30: Automotive Specialist Demetrius Heggs

May 1, 2008

For my second interview with a locksmith under 30 years old, I wanted to speak with Demetrius Heggs, owner of All City Locksmith in Philadelphia. He was 29 years old when I first approached him about the interview but I didn’t get to it until after his 30th birthday. We met at his shop and had a candid conversation about how he got started and how he sees the locksmith industry so far. Following are Locksmith Ledger’s questions and Demetrius Heggs’ answers.

How did you get started in the locksmith industry?
I was a Philadelphia police officer; I became one in 1997 when I was 19 years old. I transferred from another district to the one in this part of the city and there was a locksmith named Gary just three blocks away from the police station. I would drive by his shop all the time and I got curious. I then got to know another locksmith, Paul, who would talk to me about the trade and I became more interested. I kept going by Gary’s shop, getting on his nerves, driving up in a patrol car and watching him impressioning keys and eventually he took me under his wing.

It seems like there are several ex-policemen in our industry. What’s the connection?
I have no clue. I’ve never actually spoken to other ex-cops about what made them cross over. Police and locksmiths will run into each other at evictions, car lockouts, etc. Police are often called to open cars for people and when they couldn’t get it open, they’d still be there when the locksmith arrives. So I guess there are quite a few instances where the police and locksmith get to interact.

How do you feel about that interaction now that you’re the locksmith? Do people still call police to open their cars as much as they used to?
Absolutely. Even though cars are more difficult to open now, they still make an attempt. A lot of people just want to get it done for free. When I was a cop, we had that request come up so often on the radio it was insane; they’d call us for openers. It hasn’t changed; people still call 911.

Did you already enjoy working with your hands before locksmithing?
I didn’t do much work with my hands when I was a cop but everything I do now and learn has become second nature. To this day I pick up on stuff easily without previous experience.

How long has it been since you started?
I started at the end of 1999 and I went into it full time on Christmas day, 2005, when I left the police department. That was my Christmas present to myself. I started off helping Gary, the locksmith down the street, while I was getting things going for myself. There was another locksmith on this street a few doors down and I did some work for him also.

One can’t help but notice that just one block away is another locksmith. How does that work for you?
That’s Gary, the guy who I got started with. You would think that having another locksmith right here would result in competition, but it’s not the case. Our situation is more cooperative than competitive. When he’s tied up, he refers business to me and I do the same with him. When he needs help, I go help him and he does the same for me. The situation couldn’t be better.
He’s old school and I’m new school. He’ll be working on something newer for quite a while and I’ll walk in and have it done in a few minutes; it’s hilarious! There’s a lot of older stuff I call him for and he knows his stuff.

What do you enjoy the most about what you’re doing?
The freedom and use of my time. I come and go as I please. I do have regular store hours from 11 to 6. I’m in and out all day long and it’s hard to find good help. Even though there’s a big CLOSED sign on the door, people still call and ask if I’m open. When I’m real busy and someone needs a remote for their car, for example, I’ll go to them at no extra charge.

They aren’t going to get that too many other places. Why do you do that?
I’m busy and want to keep them as a customer. They appreciate it and when they hear there’s no charge, they wait for me instead of going somewhere else.

Are there times when you quote service charges?
Of course. I have a rule. I will not leave to go anywhere without giving them a price first with one exception. The exception is only for commercial work and if it’s something I would handle. I’ll make them aware of the service charge but I wouldn’t charge them twice (once for going out and then again when I come back to do the job).

If someone calls asking you to look at malfunctioning exit devices or lock hardware, will you do that or are you strictly an automotive locksmith?
Yes, if it’s within 5 or 10 minutes of here, I’ll go out and look at it. If it’s something I can handle I’ll give them a price and if it’s something I’d rather not handle then I’ll refer them to someone else. I have a lot of people I can refer these jobs to and in turn they refer the auto work back to me.

How have you benefited from your police training in relation to locksmithing?
Taking reports from people and dealing with the public in tense situations. You’re asking every question under the sun and it’s carried over into this business. It’s good and bad. There are a lot of people who don’t want to answer questions on the phone and I don’t understand it. I try to get as much information as possible and a lot of people just get mad and even curse and hang up. They wouldn’t like it if I had to hit them with a bigger bill than I told them on the phone. You’ll never hear from any of my customers that I told them something different before I came then when I’m there. I run an honest operation.

Speaking of being honest, what’s going on here with the scammers? Your name was mentioned at the recent GPLA meeting when the folks from the Yellow Book came to address the issue.
As you can see I keep this opened for customers to see. (There’s a phone book opened on the counter). In the White page section there are about 300 or so phone numbers, all for the same locksmith business showing bogus addresses.
How does this happen and how does it affect your business?
For these scammers to get 400 or 500 phone numbers in there is ridiculous. All of the numbers from the white pages wind up on the Internet and in directory assistance. 411 refers people to a locksmith depending on where they are. This scam is huge. We don’t know where these people are. They could have people in 411 and/or manipulating the Internet listings. I’ve heard all kinds of stories and possibilities.
If these were legitimate businesses, they wouldn’t spend so much money to do what they do. If you’re a real locksmith with legitimate locations, you don’t have to spend so much money on bogus ads or listings.
Usually when someone calls one of these numbers, it’s directed to a phone bank. I’ve done this; you can call one of the numbers and while you’re on with them, you call another listed number and hear the same background. I’ve called and had a three-way call where the two people I called were now talking to each other and realized it while sitting in the same room. It seems to be an elaborate set up. They generate lots of money by using a bait and switch. They quote a service charge for maybe $39-$55 plus labor and then the so-called technician has to see what the problem is. A real locksmith knows what it takes to open a car with the right information and will quote a specific dollar amount.

I’ve heard stories about people who have paid a so-called locksmith as much as $300 to come to their home and not repair the problem. In one instance he came 100 miles in a New York taxicab. One woman actually paid the fee. How could this happen and why would someone not call the police?
Day in and day out I see that common sense is very uncommon. Only about half the people who call here know what they’re asking for. Half the people don’t even know what they’re driving. They’ll call me while standing right by the car and they can’t tell me what kind of car it is.

Any other crazy situations you encounter regularly?
Many people are just lazy. Someone calls for lock service on a door at home and I always ask them what type of lock it is and if they could see a name on the face or the edge of the door. People will respond by saying “I don’t know” and I have to ask them to go look at it. There are people who have said no when I ask them to look. They want service as fast as possible but won’t take 30 seconds to look at it and give me the information I ask for.

Do you enjoy the basic, everyday interaction with customers compared with working as a policeman?
It’s a vacation compared to police work. It’s amazing how people appreciate the help you give them as a locksmith and how little appreciation you see from someone who was maybe being robbed when you arrested the guy who did it. I love this business and it was a no brainer when I decided to do this and quit the police force. I planned it for a year and a half before I finally made the switch.

Why has auto work and selling remote control units become your focus?
I like doing the automotive work. Residential and commercial work tends to be more time consuming. For me, automotive locksmithing has become my niche and it’s been profitable. I’m able to provide the same service as a dealer for a fraction of the price and customers love that. I’ve built up quite a business just from referrals. When a customer comes in for a quote, I’ll call the dealer and put them on speakerphone so they can compare my price to the dealer’s right there. I prepared a sheet that shows what each job will cost with me and with the dealer and I explain that they could sit and wait a long time there or they could get it done quickly and more reasonable here.

Automotive locksmithing has evolved to the point where you need to be very knowledgeable as well as make a substantial investment. What do you say to the locksmiths who are ignoring this end of the business in favor of the residential and commercial segments?
I see it as a double-edged sword. It could be a ton of money to do it right. I do very little commercial work and I didn’t put much time into learning what I need to know because I wasn’t interested in it. I refer lots of it out to others.

If your focus is so much on auto work, why have a retail location? Many locksmiths who lean toward auto work the way you do tend to work mobile.
I like having a place people can come to. As you can see, I have safes on display and there are many people who like to bring the car lock in to save the money it would cost for me to come out.

Much of the auto work now involves electronics. Are you interested in learning and doing some of the electronic access control jobs?
I was interested at one point and my biggest fear is running wires. I’d like to take a class that teaches me how to install an access control system from scratch. I haven’t seen anything yet that would maybe have a mock set up with a finished ceiling and a door where you’d run all the wires from scratch. If I’m not familiar enough, I’m not going to do something that might result in me damaging something and paying for it.

Where do you see the automotive segment of locksmithing going in the future?
All electronic; the mechanical key will be nothing more than a backup to get in your car and that’s it. It’s not just the high-end cars; a 2007 Nissan Maxima or Altima and Toyotas are already there. The key is slowly fading away. It’s going to take a very long time until the cars on the street today are all replaced with cars with newer technology.

One thing that won’t change is the locksmith having to deal with customers. It sounds like what you do is to educate your customers, true?
I try to but there are some people out there who won’t get it no matter what. I generated one customer a key to his Lexus in about 45 minutes. It’s a high security car with a transponder and you have to remove the computer from the car, reflash information back to it and then reinstall it and reprogram the keys. After taking the time to explain everything and why it costs what it costs, the conversation always came back to me justifying the cost. When I deal with something like a Lexus, I always ask the customer to call the dealer and get a price from them. Although this particular gentleman was quoted five times my price by the dealer, he still asked me why it was costing him so much!