"If they can't find it, they can't steal it."
That's the philosophy that led a former stockbroker named B. Perkins (he doesn't like his first name) to form Hidden Safes more than 27 years ago. The homes of two of his hunting buddies had been burglarized, so Perkins wanted to find a more secure location for his own gun collection.
"No matter how thick a safe is," he says, "anybody can crack it if they have the time and tools." So Perkins figured out a way to conceal his gun safe, tucked away behind -- well, we'd better not say just where. But the key to the company's success is that their products don't need a conventional key at all. Handheld magnets, hidden push buttons, sometimes even an old-fashioned hat pin will unlock compartments that are designed to protect guns, jewelry, money, cameras -- and sometimes people.
After Perkins designed his own safe, others learned about it and asked him to build secret chambers for them. Within a few days, he had 11 clients. "At $10,000 apiece, I figured this made the investment business look sick," he says.
He judged the market right. With his son, Dan Perkins, now as president, Hidden Safes has completed more than 7,000 installations in 32 states. Five are in Switzerland, two are in Australia, two are in Hong Kong, and two more are on privately owned islands located off the Florida coast.
Just having a secret safe doesn't make anyone's property 100 percent burglar-proof, and to date more than 350 of their clients' homes have been burglarized. Yet not a single thief has ever uncovered one of the hidden safes. Although the company maintains a rather low profile, that kind of success has earned them a feature on Prime Time Live and the Discovery Channel. Radio commentator Paul Harvey profiled the company several years ago, noting they had "a perfect record against burglars."
Both Perkins -- father and son -- acknowledge that the 2002 Jodie Foster movie Panic Room gave the general public its first view of a fully equipped safe room, complete with TV monitors and bulletproof doors. The character played by Foster shelters her daughter in the room when home invaders break in to search for millions of dollars in securities -- which just happen to be stored in the panic room.
"But in the movie, the bad guys were the same ones who installed the panic room, so they knew how to get into it, or at least tried to," complains Dan Perkins. "That would never happen in our business. If it's a new home under construction, we wait until all the other contractors leave, and the only person who knows what we've installed is the homeowner."
Perkins also emphasizes that safe rooms and hidden safes of all sizes can easily be constructed in existing houses.
"We meet with the homeowner, determine what they need, then walk through the house and figure out where it can fit." He doesn't want to disclose actual locations, but many of their products -- such as gun safes -- are designed so that even if children stumble upon them by accident, they still won't be able to open them.
Panic Room may have boosted awareness, but what really increased sales was Hurricane Katrina. "That showed people that they need to keep plenty of cash on hand in an emergency," says Perkins, "and also they need to conceal valuables if they are forced to leave their homes."
Most of their work in Memphis involves hidden safes for guns, jewelry, and other personal possessions. The company has also built several complete panic rooms in this area -- mainly small chambers equipped with telephones -- though for obvious reasons they won't say where. Their most elaborate installation to date was for a very cautious homeowner in San Francisco, who wanted two layers of bulletproofing, two layers of fireproofing, emergency oxygen tanks, a dual cellular phone system, and even video monitors pointed inside the room that could be monitored by a security company. The little gun safes can be had for a few hundred dollars, but that project cost more than $40,000.
The two are most proud of the user-friendliness of their gadgets. "Safes for guns are one thing, but I wanted to cater to women, and create a secure place where they could keep their jewelry," says B. Perkins. "Well, no woman wants to go to another room for her necklaces or earrings, and they certainly don't want to twirl a combination dial every time they get dressed." So Perkins designed a jewelry safe completely concealed within a piece of bedroom furniture. The advantage of safes hidden in furniture, he points out, is that the homeowners can take them along when they move.
The company's products change with the times. Some clients have requested safe rooms with special air filtration designed to protect against anthrax and sarin gas. Several months ago, when a flock of dead birds dropped out of the sky in Florida -- perhaps, as some speculated, felled by a type of poison gas -- that prompted a lot of calls to Hidden Safes from people fearing a terrorist attack.
"You wouldn't believe what people want protection from these days," says Dan Perkins. "We get calls from places I've never even heard of."