It’s fitting that the Shop Profile for July should be about a company named American Transmissions. After all, it is America’s 245th birthday! By the time this article reaches you, you will have already celebrated the 4th of July, and I trust that your celebration this year was far more traditional than that of 2020. I think you’ll agree that the events of 2020 demonstrated that indeed, It’s a Small World Afterall!
Keith Segars opened American Transmissions in Jacksonville, Florida, nearly 40 years ago. When most people in North America think about Florida, Jacksonville isn’t the first city that pops into their minds. Most of us think of Cape Canaveral/Kennedy, Miami Beach, The Daytona International Raceway, and of course, Disney World in Orlando. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of Disney World, the It’s a Small World ride comes to mind, and the all-to-familiar melody of the song pops into my head, persisting for the rest of the day.
For Keith Segars, at the age of 16, the draw to Florida wasn’t Disney World, but it was Daytona – both the raceway and the beaches. He wanted to explore beyond the small world he’d experienced to that point in his life.
Keith practically cut his teeth on a wrench. His dad, Ed, owned and operated Ed’s Transmission Service in Darlington, South Carolina. Keith worked in the shop from a young age – so young that it would have been illegal for him to work if he weren’t under his dad’s wing. By age 16, he was already a quality transmission rebuilder. Keith says, “My dad taught me work ethic and the right way to rebuild transmissions.”
Still, Keith was a teenager with a youthful desire to play. When he was 16 years old, he and some friends decided to head south for a vacation trip. Growing up in the shadows of the Darlington Raceway, Keith already had NASCAR coursing through his veins. So, naturally, they headed for Daytona.
Keith recalls, “It didn’t take long, and we were out of money. I figured I could make a few bucks doing what I knew best. So, I approached a nearby transmission shop to rebuild transmissions for them. As I look back, they must have thought I was a ‘BS’ artist. How could someone my age be a transmission rebuilder? Well, I offered to rebuild the first one for free just to get the job. The long and short of it was that I got the job.”
Keith and his friends were able to extend their vacation, and he continued to subsidize it by picking up transmission rebuilding gigs as they went. He fondly remembers one of those jobs was with a family operation in Jacksonville, where he stayed for about 3 years. He says, “That’s where I learned how to be on my own – without Mom and Dad.”
Keith also distinguished himself as Cottman Transmissions’ youngest rebuilder when he worked at their Jacksonville franchise in 1981 at the ripe old age of 20. It was later in that same year that Keith opened the doors on American Transmissions in Jacksonville.
Ironically, and further proof of how small our world is, Keith opened American shortly after Peter Fink started remanufacturing transmissions at Certified Transmission in Omaha, Nebraska. The two men became close friends, and Keith credits Peter with helping him grow and succeed as a formidable transmission reman company. Segars explained, “In racing terms, drafting is when you follow closely behind another racecar to keep up. If Peter and I were in a race, he’d definitely be the car I’d want to draft behind.” While the Certified Story is perhaps more known nationally, American Transmissions has no peers in the Southeast region of the United States.
Since its humble beginning of one location with one employee, American has grown to three locations – two in Jacksonville and one in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The company currently has a team of over 125 employees.
Plans are underway for an additional new remanufacturing plant just two blocks from the main location. This new facility will be nearly 55,000 square feet, more than doubling the existing 35,000 square foot facility. With this new state-of-the-art facility, the company will add more employees, increasing its capacity and improving turnaround times.
When it comes to getting things done, Keith is quick to give credit to his team and the team leaders. “I have a lot of employees, and it would be impossible to list them all in just one article. We do our best to make sure we have the right employees in the right slots. When each person is doing what they love and doing it well, no one is more important than another – we all just fit together to form a great team.”
Like all companies, finding good employees is a huge challenge. American has decided to bridge the shortage by hiring people with a desire to learn a trade. Everyone can learn through on-the-job training. For example, someone who wants to be a rebuilder will advance from cleaning parts to doing teardowns, to assembling some components, to eventually rebuilding. Keith stated, “We train our rebuilders to be experts on no more than two types of transmissions. That way, we don’t invest time and money into training rebuilders for other shops. We also pay our rebuilders well; so, it’s fair for them too.
“I do want to mention a couple of key players, though. Pat Ayers has been with me since day one. He’s gone from transmission rebuilder to master rebuilder, and now he’s the head of operations for all three locations. Pat also has a son in the business. By the way, I’m especially proud that Pat is a member of the ATRA Board of Directors.
“Helene Reynolds has been with us for over 30 years, starting out as a bookkeeper. Today, she’s my personal secretary and our company comptroller, heading up our accounting and front-office functions with a staff of three supporting her.”
Keith is proud to have some family members on board in key roles as well. His son, Keith, Jr., has grown up around the business, progressing from sales to the company’s General Manager. Son number 2, Shon, started as a wrecker driver and is now involved in the wholesale department operations. And Keith’s nephew, Mikie, began as a shipping and receiving clerk but currently manages his department.
When I asked Keith if he had any role models, he quickly said, “My father was definitely my biggest role model. He taught me everything I know, from R&R to rebuilding my very first unit. He even joined me at American after he retired, and he continued to be a positive influence in my life. Losing Dad was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in life.
“I’ve saved the best for last. My wife and life companion, Sherry, has taught me so many life lessons, and I’m profoundly grateful to have her at my side. She taught me how to go from a fire then aim mentality to being more conservative with a ready, aim, fire approach.”
Keith’s love of NASCAR and Muscle Cars never faded. He reminisced, “I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to be a driver on the ARCA NASCAR Circuit. My proudest racing accomplishment was winning the 2002 ARCA Talladega Food World event.”
- 69 Camaro Rally Z-28
- 66 Corvette Stingray – Sherry’s personal favorite
- 69 Trans Am
- 69 Ford Mustang Cobra
- 69 Chevelle Super Sport
- 70 Chevelle Super Sport
Keith says, “They all reside in my mancave, which is another of my many blessings.”
Keith adds, “I’ve led a blessed life. In addition to my car collection, I’ve been able to pursue a career I love, chased my racing passion, have 2 terrific sons, and, of course, the love of my life, my wife, Sherry. The only chapter left to unfold is when my sons transition into carrying on the saga of American Transmissions.”
Have you ever wondered how shops are chosen for this column? We know there are many deserving ATRA shops out there – you might be one of them. Sometimes, we hear about shops and their unique stories through the grapevine. However, most of the time, we end up being detectives. We ask our industry contacts for recommendations, and then we contact the shops they’ve suggested.
You’re invited to tell us about an ATRA shop that you think has an interesting story to tell – maybe your own shop. There’s no cost. It just takes about an hour for a telephone interview and a visit by our photographer. We’ll do all the heavy lifting. To get the ball rolling, send an email to Ruben at email@example.com.