Q&A: Automotive Locksmith Mike Labar

May 2, 2019
Automotive technology is so advanced that making the actual key to many cars has become a secondary operation

Labar’s Lock Shop in Pemberton, N.J., is owned and operated by Mike and Diane Labar. When it was suggested that I interview someone who was doing primarily automotive locksmithing, I immediately thought of Mike. Although his business isn’t exclusively automotive, he’s known locally as the automotive key guy and go-to guy for help with anything car related. I sat down with Mike and had the following conversation.

Mike, you didn’t start off doing automotive locksmithing only, correct? How did this all begin?

I started working for dad shortly after high school just doing normal locksmithing and naturally the need for car keys came up often. I grew up working on and being around cars and it naturally fell into place -- removing locks and working on them, etc. It all came together and became a specialty of mine.

Was automotive locksmithing was much different when you began?

Absolutely, there was no manual to tell you how to do anything. Mike Hyde wasn’t yet writing his how to books. You had to figure it out yourself and make things work. I began in 1984.

When I began working as a locksmith the issues involving car work were things like “is it single or double sided, pin or wafer, could it be impressioned?” Do you remember the big changes back in the 80s? I remember when GM started using the hardened screw to hold ignition cylinders in.

Yes, my dad found that out the hard way. He went out to change an ignition; you’d be able to take your ignition puller and pop it out then clean out debris and that was it. He was there for literally hours and couldn’t get one out. A friend of his was the service manager at a Chevy dealer and told him after checking a service manual that there was a screw that had to come out. Then GM began using the VATS system. Back then everyone was convinced that was the end of automotive locksmithing.

Why was that not the end? Was it just a natural fear that typically comes with change?

I think it was the fear. GM had been using the sidebar lock since the 50s/60s. Now there was a new twist to it.

How long have you been in business at this location?

Being here for 30+ years has been a bonus. We still do a little bit of everything but primarily automotive.

Is that your decision? Do you promote yourself with that in mind?

Well we’ve gotten to the point where we no longer do any advertising. We still do the local community support type things like a sign at the ballfield, fundraisers, etc. Besides that, we don’t spend money like we used to with Yellow Pages, for example. For a long time, my wife Diane had a sheet on the front counter asking customers how they heard about us. 99 percent of the time, the answer had something to do with word of mouth from a friend or family member. I wouldn’t tell others to stop advertising but that’s how it’s worked for us.

When things changed substantially, did you ever wonder how and if you’d be able to continue with cars and the advanced technology?

One of the dealers we did some work for had a car up at the local car auction that nobody had keys for. I went to do it and visited with the general manager. I wanted him to know I’d be available to help him in the future. One winter night during a snow storm, he called me because they desperately needed keys made for a car. He tried his regular guy at the time and was told he wasn’t going anywhere in the snow. That was the last time he ever set foot on the auction property. I got that account just by saying yes.

Now we had a customer with many cars that would need to have keys made or locks changed. Figuring out how to do this was our approach; not can we do it. What tester or other equipment is needed? This was a sink or swim situation. There was no question about whether it was worth it to make whatever investment was needed.

What did you need to invest in to make this work?

Well that was pre-transponder; one big thing I remember was when the Lexus was first introduced with the four-track laser cut key. It was an overseas thing that arrived and not many had ever seen it before. Nobody had blanks. You had to special order them and then it was basically a do it by hand job. It was a variation of the Mercedes. Mike Hyde had been making the guide keys and that was all, no automated anything.

My first machine was the HPC Laserpoint, the old hand guided one. If I couldn’t get it done, then the auction would be going to the dealer. Nobody wants them to do that.

It seems like this auto auction served as a big playground for you to play and learn, true?

It was. We don’t do as much with them anymore due to corporate changes. It’s still a place to go with the guys from Advanced Diagnostics and others to test their equipment. It’s a good testing ground for this stuff.

Looking back, is there anything you would’ve done differently? Anything you came away from thinking you never want to do that again?

There are always those jobs you’d rather not get into but there’s nothing I’d say no to. I’ve made some mistakes since there was nobody around to learn from. So much of what we did had to be figured out as we did it.

Why do you think you’ve wound up becoming the auto specialist around here and are you willing to share information with the others?

We’ve always been willing to help. When Just Cars started up, we’d go there and teach classes and take part in the fellowship. My door is always open; there’s a terrific network here. If I need help with a safe, I know who to call, etc. Yesterday I had a car here that I’d never electronically programmed. A buddy of mine knows a lot about automotive electronics. I’m familiar with the lock part but it needed something immobilizer related. Help was a phone call away fortunately.

How would you go about teaching someone who wanted to learn today?

Today with all the electronics it’s totally different than when I started. Technology in general is so far advanced that the automotive locksmith is not really a locksmith but more of an automotive security technician. There’s the immobilization, the remotes, all the different systems in the car. Making the actual key to many cars now is a secondary operation. The lock’s function now is like a key override in case all else fails.

My approach to teaching someone is from beginning to end. Pull the lock out, take the steering column down. Break the lock down, decode it, etc. Now that you know how to do it the hard way, I’ll show you the easy way. You can impression; these days you can call for a key code. I’m always asked why we just did all that if it wasn’t necessary and my response is that some day you may not have the luxury. The key code may not be there or maybe the lock is damaged. Now you can still do the job.

I’ve noticed with the new generation of locksmith I see at the auto auction for example, it’s great they can buy a made in China programmer for $500 and log into a website and get a key code. The problem is what to do when that doesn’t work, they’re done.

Is automotive locksmithing worth getting into now if you want to make money?

We’ve done very well with it and have been extremely fortunate. We picked it up at the right time. We’ve been able to keep up with the rapid changes and move along.  I’d hate to be a 20-year-old starting out now with all the equipment needed.

For a new automotive locksmith, what equipment would you recommend investing in? Where does one start?

I’m still old school and like the machines I’ve had sitting here forever. There are nice new machines now that Keyline’s making, the Ninja and the 994. There’s cheaper Chinese stuff out there, but for good quality you’re looking at making a $8,000 investment and you’re getting something that does it all. You can do edge cut keys, laser cut keys and it’ll have all the key codes built in. That’s nice but it’s a big chunk at once.

I had a pick set and some files and the old Curtis Clipper. When a new keyway came out and we had to spend $100 on a new insert that was a big deal!

For someone like me who deals with lots of part numbers daily but doesn’t have the hands-on experience, what’s the difference between cloneable and non-cloneable? A PT versus a PT5 blank for example?

When they first came out, PT5 meant it was a valid transponder, but you could write a value to it so instead of having test equipment to go to the car to program the key you’d have the equipment read the original key and be able to originate one. If it’s a PT then it has its own value that was written to the chip and not changeable, so the only way to program is at the vehicle.

Have things progressed or is that it now? Do you have to be well versed in electronics to do this successfully?

Things have progressed. Now you have 100 different style of chips and different levels of encryption for example. In my opinion you must be more of a jack of all trades. You may have to take down a steering column and get the lock out, but you also may have to pull the computer from the car and reflash it. 

Are you still pulling steering wheels off?

Yeah, those cars aren’t gone yet. We still have all kinds of cars showing up. The basic rule for my son who’s working here is that he won’t work on a car that’s older than he is since he’s never seen it before. He’s been working here a while now, but I don’t think he’s ever seen a Dodge five-pin tumbler lock. Occasionally, someone will show up with a lock out of something they’re restoring, and he’ll look at it like it’s a foreign object.

How do you handle customers who are price shopping and make their decisions based on price only?

People will call about a duplicate car key and tell us what the dealer just told them. We explained that they called the parts department and got a price of let’s say $100 and I’m quoting you $125. Did you talk to the service department about programming the key, so it works your car? Now call the service department and find out the real cost for leaving there with a working key. In addition, when you set up a time with me, I’ll have you out of here in ten minutes. You won’t have to leave your car for hours.

How do you set your prices? Are you considering your investment in equipment or what the market seems to be in the area?

It’s a combination of both. Of course, you want to maximize your profit. We know the highest price typically is what the dealers are charging. You always have competitors that seem to be racing to the bottom and will charge $5 less than us. We try to be fair and don’t want to be viewed as ripping someone off. Occasionally we’ll call the dealerships to see what they’re quoting. Someone might tell us we’re charging almost as much as the dealer and then we explain that we’re coming to you instead of you having the car towed to the dealer. We’re giving you two keys for the price, etc. You must sell yourself and the superior service you’re providing.

Some locksmiths seem to be in a hurry to make back their investment on equipment when figuring out what to charge. Does that enter the equation for you?

You can’t be in a hurry and must view it over a period. We do enough of the work with the T-Code or the Smart Pro after buying the software for $500. Others who don’t own the software will consider that it cost them $15 each time in tokens.

I had a locksmith visit us once who I had to ask nicely to leave. He stopped in for a blank and our conversation turned to what we were charging to make a car key, just comparing notes. He said he charged $25 to do a Ford duplicate transponder key. I had just called the dealer and was told they charged between $125-$145 for the same key. Other locksmiths I knew were in the $65-$85 range. Why are you at $25?

He told me he bought the tester, the old NGS Star tester. There was a promotion where you got 40 free blanks with the tester. He did the math and figured out what it took to pay for the equipment. Now that the tester is paid for, I buy a blank for $10 and charge $25 and I’ve more than doubled the cost of the key, he told me.

I wouldn’t care if you went $5-$10 less than me but at least be reasonable so you don’t screw up the market for the rest of us!

If you were going to do a brief overview of automotive locksmithing like we spoke about for the association, what would you want to talk about?

The big thing now is all the Prox keys and Transponders. There’s very little happening locksmithing-wise as far as key generation. We’re getting a new vehicle here shortly and the only lock on it is a key cylinder on the driver’s side door -- no glove box or trunk or console lock and no ignition lock. The one key cylinder is just a key override in case of emergency.

What’s needed these days is knowledge of basic electronics and good computer skills. With newer cars now you can lend the key to your car via cell phone. A whole another mindset is needed now.

From the time I started locksmithing we’ve gone from pin tumbler and wafer locks to laser cut emergency keys only with all electronics in a span of 30 years. Back when my dad started, the big change was having to deal with the GM sidebar. Remember when the big concern was about the police department opening cars? Who cares now? You can make a call and have the car opened by someone at a call center in another country.

If every locksmith was doing automotive work would there be enough for everyone to do well?

(Diane Labar responded to this question.) Yes, because each one will have their own specialty. If we network, we don’t have competition. If we network and send each other customers, then we keep the customers and make them happy, so they don’t go back to the dealer.

(Mike Labar) The other day someone called who needed help with a FireKing file cabinet. We could’ve gone out but that’s not what we do. We referred someone who did the job and the next day the lady called to say thank you. She’ll still call me in the future but it’s a reflection on us.

Who is your competition?

As our interview came to an end, Mike asked if I had heard about what was discovered about a well-known manufacturer. Mike said: There was an automotive show, and somebody was there from the well-known manufacturer spending time in the Auto Zone booth. Someone was able to purchase a popular piece of equipment from the well-known folks for less than a distributor would buy it for normally, below distributor cost. Supposedly the pricing was in error, but the fact remains that now Auto Zone is going to have this equipment. Programming the key without cutting it won’t work so they’ll be selling Auto Zone the key cutting machine as well. More competition from non-locksmiths.

Just like a Home Depot having trouble duplicating keys that aren’t a perfect Schlage or Kwikset, what do you see happening with an Auto Zone diving into this market?

This conversation came up between my son and I since he’s thinking of taking over the business eventually. After hearing about this, he’s wondering about who his competition will be and if it’s worthwhile. Many of us have been doing this for years. We’ve researched and know what works based on much experience. You can see the bank of testers we have here. With aftermarket testers there’s nothing to warn you that maybe you shouldn’t plug into this car because you’re going to break a module in it. So, I don’t know how the minimum wage guy at an Auto Zone is going to handle it when he plugs into the wrong car and it results in a $2,000 repair because you burned up a computer. With the network we’re a part of there’s always info circulating that warns us not to do certain things.

(Diane Labar:) That Home Depot or Auto Zone guy doesn’t have a network of knowledge the way we do. Every week we have someone tell us the Home Depot sent them to us. We don’t know him but want to go thank him.

(Mike Labar:) It’s like the Geico commercials circulating now about things being done halfway or okay but not very good or even correctly. In the old days we’d say “do a good job and they’ll tell a friend but do a bad job and they’ll tell two or three folks.” Now with social media things instantly go viral and reach hundreds of people instantly.