About Brown Safe

Press Articles - San Diego Union Tribune

by Mike Freeman
Staff Writer

Heavy steel doors fetch hefty fees for Escondido business
ESCONDIDO – Fred Brown knows the secrets of safes, from the small wall variety to massive bank vaults. He knows how to crack them. He even keeps a list of bank branches on an office computer. Branches, that is, that have closed or are likely to do so in the near future.
Brown, 49, has unlocked a way to make money from the consolidation sweeping the bank industry. When branches close, he steps in to remove the giant vault doors.
At Brown Safe Manufacturing, his austere, eight-employee factory in Escondido, workers refurbish the 2-ton steel monoliths for resale – not to jewelry stores or armored car companies, but to homeowners. Brown’s spruced up gateways have been used for everything from front doors on large estate homes to opulent entries to wine cellars, art rooms and big-game trophy rooms. “A lot of people want them for decorative reasons and not so much for the protection,” said Brown, a soft-spoken mechanical engineer and Vietnam combat veteran.
Nationwide, an estimated 3,000 bank branches closed last year alone, The Wall Street Journal reported recently. In California, 84 branches have been shuttered in the past three years, according to the state Department of Financial Institutions.
Closed branches are a remodeling headache for banks. New tenants have no need for ultra-secure vaults and want them removed, but the job is a little like attacking granite with a pickax.
A typical vault door weighs a couple of tons, and the vault room is usually a concrete or steel cocoon designed to be impregnable. “They are tough,” said Roger Casper of Casper Concrete Cutting in Spring Valley. “The walls are 12 to 18 inches thick, and they have a ton of rebar in there. And the doors are so darn heavy.”
When Casper Concrete lands a bank branch remodeling job, the company approaches Brown Safe to remove the vault door. “Casper had us give a quote for one vault on the second story of a big high-rise downtown,” Brown said. Because the job is so difficult and expensive, it hasn’t been finalized. “Generally what happens is (vaults) sit for a long, long time until somebody leases the space,” he said. “Then they spend the money to take them out.”
Patiently, Brown has been nurturing a market for vault doors with homeowners. One of his polished-steel doors wound up in Rancho Santa Fe home as the entrance to a basement shooting and archery range. Another protects a homeowner’s collection of vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “Up in L. A., a guy wanted one for his front room,” Brown said. “So we installed it and asked, ‘Are you going to come in and have us build a (vault) room later? He said no. He just thought the door was neat looking.”
Banks aren’t the only places Brown finds vault doors. They also come from mints and treasuries, as well as existing homes. Recently, Brown Safe crews removed a vault door from Shawn Berryhill’s home in San Juan Capistrano as part of the conversion of his wine cellar into an arcade room. “It certainly had a nice ‘wow’ factor,” Berryhill said of the vault door. “It was cool. But we worried that our children or my dumb friends would get locked down there or something.”
A former mechanical engineer at Sony’s Rancho Bernardo television plant, Brown entered the secretive safe industry after buying A-Able Safe and Vault in 1977. The business specialized in safe-cracking for police agencies and individuals whose safes were damaged by thieves. Safe-cracking appealed to Brown’s engineering background, and he like owning his own business.
After a few years Brown began making safes, ranging from high-use restaurant systems to small custom boxes. Vault doors entered the picture about 10 years ago when he was asked to remove one from a defunct bank. Today Brown reaches customers through the company’s Web site. He installs about a half-dozen vault doors in homes each year at prices ranging from $6,000 to $12,000.
On his computer, Brown lists bank branches in and around San Diego that could be sources of doors. Because they’re so heavy, “you can’t be doing too much hauling-around of this stuff or you’re not going to make any money at it,” he said.
Brown is not worried that his supply will disappear, however. Consolidation in the banking industry is expected to continue. Besides, he has 100 yet-to-be-removed vault doors on his computer database. “I think this is going to be around for a while,” he said.