“My dad was a car salesman, so cars were in my blood,” says Jeff Walson, owner and operator of Champion Transmissions, Inc, in Thousand Oaks, California. “I used to go to work with him now and again, and obviously a car salesman doesn’t want a kid around. So I’d go hang out with the mechanics.
“There was this guy named Dennis who looked exactly like the Fonz… way before the Fonz was ever thought of. He took me under his wing; I’d go there and jack up jacks, go up and down on a jack… he even taught me how to change the engine oil. And from that time — I was about eight or nine at the time — I wanted to be a mechanic.”
After graduating high school, Jeff went to work for a gas station. “I was working next to a mechanic and his hands were tore up. At 18 years old, I was driving a better car than he had. And I decided this wasn’t a great choice.
“So I went to all of the garages in the area and asked them what kind of work they didn’t do. They said radiators, mufflers, and transmissions. I ended up running a 7-bay Midas shop when I was 18. I was bringing home about $200 a week and I thought, ‘this isn’t a good sign.’
So I took a job with Danco Transmission, mopping the floors — basically being a peon, starting from ground zero — kind of a hard thing to take after managing a shop. But I was getting paid the same as I was to manage the Midas. That’s where I began my career in transmissions. And I appreciate them to this day for hiring me.
“From mopping floors I got into servicing transmissions, then R&R, and finally I cut my teeth building. I just kept moving up and moving on. I was a trainee — Dan did this for people — and eventually it was time for me to move on.”
Jeff went on to a job at a nearby AAMCO center, starting with R&R and eventually becoming a full-fledged swingman. “I went through their management school; I’ve been through a lot of management courses, and I do things a little differently.”
Jeff doesn’t believe in selling transmissions. According to him, it’s more important to sell himself and his shop. From there, the transmission job will sell itself.
After AAMCO, Jeff went on to several other jobs, including opening his first transmission shop, Wholesale Transmissions. He sold that business after a few years, and went on to work at other shops in the area.
Jeff opened Champion Transmissions in 1992 in an existing building with a unique history: “The owners of the shop are both veterinarians, and they used the shop to house monkeys! Since it was vacant, they’d bring the monkeys here while they were being quarantined after coming to this country. They’d keep them here until the quarantine was over and then send them off to wherever they were going.”
Strictly Powertrain with Custom Rebuilds
These days, with transmissions lasting so much longer, many shops have found themselves expanding into general repairs. Not Champion: They’re exclusively a powertrain shop, handling mostly automatic transmissions and differentials.
According to Jeff, a big part of that is because they still receive a lot of Champion Transmissions, Inc. Crew L to R: Benjamin Castaneda, Jim Rose, Jose Arambula, Jeff Walson and Terry Walson. Jose Arambula, R&R Tech and Differential Specialist referrals and wholesale work from the general shops in town. “I don’t want to be their competition,” he explains. “I don’t want to cut off the hand that feeds me.”
About 30% of their work is either wholesale or referrals from other shops. That’s nowhere near what it was 30 years ago in this industry, but it’s still a substantial part of his business… enough that he doesn’t want to rock the boat.
In addition, Champion is a small shop, and Jeff likes it that way. “When 2008 hit it almost killed me. So I downsized back to my original size and I’m going to stay where I am. I’m 60 years old; I don’t need to venture out. I have more than enough business to take care of things.”
When it comes to rebuilds, Jeff does most of their work in house. Not that he has a problem with remans; he just likes doing their own rebuilds in their own way.
The one exception to that has been CVTs: They haven’t gotten into rebuilding them… yet. For one thing, they don’t see that many yet. For another, there’s the parts’ costs: “The problem has been the parts; they’ve been unbelievably outrageous. You could buy a new trans from Nissan for $2000 and the chain-and-pulley set was $1800! It just didn’t make dollar sense.”
When asked about his business philosophy, Jeff came back with a unique view: “I like to treat my customers the way I’d want to be treated.” Okay, maybe it isn’t unique, but it’s certainly one that makes for a strong business model.
But beyond the basics, Jeff believes in keeping his hand on the wheel, to make sure every car that goes out of their shop is running the way it’s supposed to.
“My shop is second to none; I’m sure other shops will say that, but we don’t compromise. Not with part costs or anything else that’d reduce the quality of our shop.
“I make them feel like they’re part of our family. I’ll ask, ‘What happened with your dog? Is it okay?’ or ‘Your son went off to college; how’s he doing?’
“I had one customer whose son was on the first line of the Marines going into Iraq. I did a few things on his car while he was gone (at no charge), and when he came back, his dad brought him over.
“That’s the kind of thing that makes my shop special.”
It’s hard to disagree with that.
When asked about community service, Jeff stammered for a bit before saying that he didn’t really get involved with his community. As he put it, that was because he doesn’t live all that close to the shop.
But here’s something we’ve discovered about certain shop owners: when a shop owner is really dedicated to serving the community, they often don’t think about the things they do to help their community; they don’t equate those services with their business. It’s just what you do; not something that relates to business.
But once we start to push, very often some of those community services begin to find their way back to the surface. Such was the case with Jeff and Champion Transmissions.
“I sponsored the Simi Valley High School track team,” says Jeff. “And I set up a booth at the National Diabetes Foundation Car Show. And I take part in the Roamin’ Relics Car Show, which donates everything they collect to charity. I had a booth there and I donated iPads for their raffle booth. They kept announcing my name during the event, but I didn’t ask them to.
“I sponsored the Thousand Oaks High School baseball team. They made it to the finals and needed money to travel to the out-of-state games, so I helped them out there.
“I also donate to the My Stuff Bags Foundation, and took part in their car show. This is a group fills backpacks with necessities for kids in need. They may get shoes, clothes, even games for kids who don’t have what they need to get by or even go to school.
“And I send meals over occasionally to the Samaritan Center in Simi Valley. It’s basically a shelter where people can go to take showers and get a hot meal when they need it. I usually have pizzas sent over from Pizza Hut… it’s just something that’s close to my heart.
“I went there. These aren’t bums; they’re people who are facing bad times and they’re embarrassed about it. I was glad to go there and let them know, ‘It’s okay; you just need some help. It’s all good.’”
Not bad for someone who doesn’t do anything for his community.
Thanks to Partner and Staff
Jeff maintains a firm leadership roll in his shop, dealing with customers, handling the diagnoses, and following up by performing a personal road test before delivery. But he’s quick to acknowledge the importance of his staff, including his wife and business partner, Terry.
As his wife, Terry is a partner in the business. But she doesn’t stop there: She also handles all of the shop’s bookkeeping and financial details. “A day doesn’t go by when she doesn’t call to let me know about something that I need to look at,” says Jeff.
“I’ll finish a car and submit the numbers, and she lets me know about a price change that I need to consider for the next car that comes in.” It’s a relationship that works well on a number of levels.
In addition, Jeff was quick to credit his technical staff for the shop’s success: rebuilder and technician Jim Rose, and R&R techs Jose Arambula and Benjamin Castaneda. Together, they form a powerful bond that keeps Champion Transmissions at the top of its game.
Drag Racing in His Spare Time
If running the shop didn’t keep him busy enough, in his spare time, Jeff likes to head over to the nearby track where he’s involved with drag racing.
“My dad was into racing and we used to go to the time trials at the Indy 500. That was the best time I ever spent with my father. And we used to go to the Route 66 dragway. I’m a drag racer; I have a race this weekend.
“I used to run a front-engine dragster back in the day; did pretty well with that. But that was 20 years ago.”
There’s no doubt about it: Jeff Walson runs a tight shop, and has a terrific attitude toward customer service. Not much wonder that his business remains strong. He and his team deserve it.