The hallmark of ATRA has always been one of shared resources; the idea that we’re all stronger when we work together. And no one has embraced that concept more completely than Don Stone: Don and his wife, Lori, are the owners of AA Quality Transmissions in Stuart, Florida.
Don’s a regular on the ATRA tech forums. “I have my computer right next to my desk and I like to help out whenever I can,” he says
“Helping out” became a part of his regular routine long before he joined ATRA. He started out as a member of TRNi — later TRNw — responding to questions and trying to offer whatever technical support he could.
And Don doesn’t just share online: He also shares with the local auto dealers, and that’s helped him build a unique relationship with them. “There are some parts I buy right from the dealers; in some cases it’s actually cheaper to buy from them than the transmission parts stores. And they get to know me and actually send me work.
“I help them whenever I can and they return the favor; one hand washes the other.
“They’ll perform a transmission service at the local Dodge dealer and maybe something gets dislodged, so they pull the valve body and bring it over. I’ll clean it out and hand it back to them — I don’t charge them — I pat them on the tailpipe and send them down the road.
“Later, I’ll end up with a Dodge diesel in here and I have to flash the computer. I don’t have the equipment, so I take it over there, hook it up to their machine, flash the computer, and it doesn’t cost me a dime.”
And Don has created an interesting method for reprogramming for local shops: “I have a laptop set up and have the J2534 adapter for it.
“When one of the local shops needs a computer reprogrammed I tell them to take the laptop to their shop, connect it to the car, start it up and connect to their Wi-Fi. Then, through my TeamViewer program, I can log onto my laptop at their shop and program the computer for them from here. They don’t have to tow the car over.”
A FAMILIAR BEGINNING
Don’s introduction to the auto repair business is a familiar one: His father, Don Senior, was in the business; he owned Broadway Auto Service in West Carthage, NY. “He started teaching me the business when I was very young,” says Don.
“I probably started working on cars back when I was 16. I worked for my father for about 2ó years. After graduating high school, I moved to Florida to live with my mother. I went to work for an AAMCO center in Ft. Lauderdale as an R&R tech. That’s where I learned a lot about rebuilding.”
Then in the ’80s, Don went to work for a Lee Miles shop in New Jersey as a troubleshooter. “I worked there for about two or three years. It was my job to get the shop working efficiently and to make it profitable.”
Then he moved on to another shop, and then another. The shop owners were friends, and they each used Don to help get their businesses running right.
“Then, in 1989, I moved back to Florida. I worked a few shops over the next three years. Finally I told my wife ‘we’re staying here,’ and we opened our own shop.” They opened the doors to AA Transmissions in 1994.
“I did my research and I knew the money was here; we have a higher income per capita than any other county in the state. So I opened the shop and it was an instant success. I started out with a toolbox, $2500, and a dream.
“I leased 2000 square-feet, and within six months we had to expand to 4000 square-feet. I took on the FedEx trucks, the police department, the fire department, the Post Office… I did ’em all. I was told long ago, you open a business, you go after the wholesale work first. That’ll pay your bills.
WORKING THROUGH THE WEATHER
“Back when we had the hurricanes — ’05 I think it was — it blew our roof off. The next day I was out in front of the shop with a county vehicle and they told me, ‘We have to have this truck up and running… it has to go to the other side of the state, ’cause a second hurricane is on its way!’
“Of course there was no parts delivery; I had to send a guy up to West Palm Beach to pick up the flywheel we needed.
“I went out and bought generators so we could keep the lifts and compressors going. To this day, I have 12 generators still in stock, just in case we get hit with another hurricane. Because, if the county or the city needs it fixed, they need it fixed now!”
AA Transmissions is just that: They fix transmission; no general repair. And that works out well for Don and his crew: “I send the general repairs to the shops that keep sending me business. 95% of my business is referral.
“Generally we stick with custom rebuilds, but occasionally I’ll have to buy a reman. It just depends on what the customer wants.
“I help out with all the other transmission shops in the area, too. I’m a member of ATRA and all the other industry technical groups.”
A FAIR PRICE FOR A TERRIFIC JOB
One thing Don believes in is doing a good job for his customers. Sometimes that means higher prices. “I don’t lowball my jobs; I’m probably the highest priced shop in town and I’m glad to be there.”
And he stays busy with that business model. “Most of the time we have 10 or 12 cars in the lot.” And they’re a fairly small shop, with only three technicians, so they really don’t need a lot of work to keep busy and remain profitable.
What keeps people coming in their door? “The good work we do. And we stand behind our work 100%. We go the extra mile.
“People come in the door and say ‘Joe’s Auto sent me.’ I tell them, ‘He lied to you; he said I work cheap.’ And they say, ‘He didn’t say you were cheap; he said you did great work.’ I tell them, ‘We have a commitment: We’ll fix it if it takes every last cent you’ve got.’ They laugh… and then they leave their car.”
Sure, it’s a joke, but there’s an underlying message that’s hard to miss: “I’m truthful with people; I don’t take advantage of them.”
A NEW APPROACH
“I tried something new last year: minor repairs. I found out that I can make more profit doing a minor repair than I can with a full rebuild, and have less liability.
“And the customers are happy with that, because everyone’s struggling with the economy. They can’t afford a full rebuild. I tell them ‘we can try this,’ and they’re thrilled to get their cars back on the road and save a few bucks.
“We had a Dodge Dakota with a 42RLE come in; he’d already been to the dealer; they sold him a computer and a valve body and it still wasn’t working right. We pulled it down: It had a broken snap ring. We replaced the snap ring, put it back together, installed a new solenoid pack, installed a cooler because it was overheating, and sent him down the road.
“The dealer couldn’t fix it; we did. The customer spent $1700 and got a 90-day warranty. He was tickled pink.”
EXPO AND TRAINING
Like many successful shop owners, Don tries to make it to Expo every year. He’s been going since 1997. And he takes his employees there too.
And not just Expo: Don sends his employees to the ATRA seminar when it comes to town, along with other technical seminars. “My techs are mandated for 40 hours of continuing education every year if they’re going to stay in my shop; and I pay for it,” he says.
He’s not doing that out of altruism or a sense of responsibility: Don’s getting up in years and he’s hoping to retire someday. He’d like to be able to sell his business to his employees, so he wants to make sure they’ll be in a good position to run the business when he’s gone.
And even while he’s still at the helm, he knows just how important that training is for his continued business success. “They need it, I pay for it, so there’s no reason for them not to go,” he says.
They also take part in the ATRA webinar programs. “We were just watching one yesterday with Mike Sousa, and he was talking about a tool, so right after the seminar I went online and bought it. That way, the guys have what they need when the cars start rolling in.
According to Don, all that education for his technicians is paying off in the bays; they see very few comebacks. The work they do goes out and stays out, which means more billable hours and more satisfied customers.
One thing’s new for Don is that this year: He’s planning on attending the management seminars. “I usually go to the tech seminars; this year I’m leaving that to my technicians.”
HELPING PREPARE THE NEXT GENERATION
Don recognizes the need for fresh blood in our industry. No surprise there: It’s the focus of this year’s management seminar program at Expo.
To try to help make a difference, he’s taken an active role in the local high schools’ automotive programs. “I sit on the Martin County High School advisory panel to help get technicians into the automotive trade. And I occasionally do some work with the instructors for the Indian River Community College.”
But his influence with young people doesn’t end with the schools. “A kid will come in here wanting to make his tires chirp. I talk to him and find out he’s in the automotive class at the high school.
“So I talk to his parents and I explain what their kid wants to do. Then I tell them we’re going to let him come into the shop and learn to do it himself. He’s going to mop the floors and we’re going to show him how to fix his transmission. He’s going to work it off so they don’t have to pay for it.
“That’s how we get them in and get them interested. Then, after high school, they go on to the tech school and continue learning the business. I’ve had two guys do it so far.”
NOT READY TO RETIRE
Don’s getting older and he’s starting to think about retirement. “My wife has asked me to retire, and we can afford it.
“But I enjoy doing what I’m doing. For me, it’s not a job; it’s fun.”
Well here’s hoping you keep having lots of fun for many years to come, Don. And keep on sharing those tips: Your insights are appreciated throughout the Association.