Lately, it seems that our shop profiles have taken us down a different path than past traditional profiles. This month is even more different. First, it’s about two shops and two owners instead of one. Second, while both shops were exemplary thriving businesses, in 2020, they both decided to close their shops within a month of one another. Furthermore, they closed their businesses for the same reason – they were ready to retire. I hope this got your attention, but you’re going to have to read the article to get, as Paul Harvey famously said, “… the rest of the story.”
You might be asking, “Why two shops in the same profile?” The truth is that it’s not possible to tell either story without talking about both men – their friendship and their respective shops. Bernard “Butch” Novotney of B&B Automatic Transmission in Anchorage, Alaska, and Brad Benrud of Allen Automatic Transmission in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, have been best friends for over 55 years.
That friendship is at the core of their individual life journeys. Their friendship began in the 8th grade, when Butch’s family moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Brad recalled, “Butch was assigned a seat right behind me, and in no time, we became best friends.”
During their youth, they both worked and played hard. They each had paper routes and held down after-school jobs, but when it was time for fun, they knew how to do that too. I can only touch on a few of their stories in this article, but there are enough stories to fill a book. In fact, Brad is in the process of memorializing them into a book. Based on my interviews with the two of them, it’s going to be a good read!
Butch reminisced, “I was able to save enough money to buy my first car at age 14. My dad was an accomplished auto mechanic and insisted that I learn how to work on my own car. So, I rebuilt the engine and transmission before I was old enough to drive it. That was my start in the automotive field.”
On the other hand, Brad already had an interest in cars and didn’t need the same push to get into the field. He had his sights set on attending Western Wisconsin Technical College, and he enrolled shortly after graduating from high school.
While still in high school, both men met their soulmates, Pam and Cathi. The two girls were also high school friends and, coincidentally, they each began dating Brad and Butch. Butch and Cathi married in 1972. Brad and Pam followed suit the following year, taking their vows in the fall of 1973. The two couples were such close friends that they were in each other’s weddings.
However, before buckling down to the responsibilities of life and marriage, Butch and Brad embarked on what turned out to be a life-changing adventure. Brad recounted the trip, “Butch and I were joined by another buddy, Tom, as we headed off for a two-and-a-half-week journey. It was an eye-opening experience for three midwestern, small-town boys.” Brad continued, “I remember that one of our goals was to try Coors Beer, which at that time wasn’t available east of the Mississippi River. We liked it; we really liked it!”
The threesome also hit many other hotspots on their “places-togo- list.” Among them were Tijuana, Los Angeles, Venice Beach, and San Francisco, where they saw hippies for the first time in person.
Brad observed, “For me, our trip was a turning point. I realized that there was a lot of life to experience and more opportunities existed outside of my known world in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I think it affected all three of us in the same way.” The importance of that realization will become apparent as the story unfolds.
North to Alaska
In 1960, Johnny Horton released his hit song, North to Alaska, and a movie by the same name came out the same year. Butch recalled, “My dad, Robert, had always dreamed of moving to Alaska, and that song and movie only kindled the fire for him. My grandfather died when my dad was only 12 years old. It was during the depression era, and Dad took on the responsibility of head-of-the-family. I guess you could say that he earned the right to follow his dream.”
Robert “Bob” Novotney got into rebuilding automatic transmissions when he owned a gas station in the 1950s. Butch stated, “My dad used to tell me that back in those days if you could fix an automatic transmission, you’d have all the jobs you could handle, and he became very proficient at it.”
Bob and his wife, Betty, delayed their Alaska move until Butch graduated from high school. But they immediately left on their Alaska adventure in 1971. He went to work as a transmission rebuilder at a transmission shop in Anchorage, and on the side, he’d rebuild transmissions in a small trailer behind his house. His reputation for quality spread quickly, and he was ready to open his own shop by 1973.
Butch reflected on the chain of events, “At the time, I couldn’t seem to get a decent job in the LaCrosse area. When I asked Dad and Mom about opportunities is Alaska, he said, ‘If you’re willing to work hard, there’s opportunities here.’” Butch continued, “Little did I know at that time, he was considering opening his own shop in Anchorage. When we got there, he popped the idea on me to join him in the venture. The name B&B was my dad’s idea because it was important to be close to the front of the alphabet for yellow pages placement back then. Our whole family had names that started with B. I’ve always said that the first and second Bs stood for Bob and Betty – I was just the &.”
In the early days, Bob did all the rebuilding, and Butch did the R&R. “Talk about hard work,” Butch recalled, “I started doing R&R on a sheet of plywood behind the trailer until we opened our new location.” B&B grew and grew, and to gain greater control over quality and quicker availability, Bob started rebuilding torque converters in a small offsite shop.
Once they moved from the trailer to an actual building, Butch moved inside, and they had more jobs than they could get done. Butch saw this as an opportunity to get Brad and Pam to join the company. Brad had just graduated from WWTC and was ready to get started with his automotive career.
Ironically, Brad received two appealing job offers on the same day. He was offered a spot on a Daytona Pit Crew that his uncle had arranged, and Butch’s dad offered him a job at B&B. Brad said, “It was an easy choice. Pam and I decided to join Butch, Cathi, and the Novotney family for an Alaskan adventure.” That says a lot about the strength of Brad and Butch’s friendship as well as Pam and Cathi’s.
Life in Alaska
Bob wasn’t just an excellent transmission rebuilder, he was a good judge of character and talent, and he knew how to build a team. He quickly recognized Brad’s knack for transmissions and brought him along quickly. Within 3 years, Brad advanced to rebuilding.
Brad told me about one of the highlights of his early career. “It was in the late ‘70s, Bob took me down to Portland Transmission Warehouse in Portland, Oregon. Back then, the only tech training seminars available were in the lower 48.” Brad continued, “At that time, Bob Chernay was doing tech seminars for ATRA. I already knew about Bob from articles in trade magazines and had a great deal of respect for him. But what happened next was amazing. Bob Novotney arranged for us to have dinner with Bob Chernay that evening. What a weekend! Bob Chernay became my idol, and I fell in love with ATRA!”
Butch also benefited from his dad’s ability to recognize and develop talent. Bob realized that his skills were best suited for the bench, not for managing people. He could see that Butch was especially good at dealing with people; so, Bob had Butch enroll in a Dale Carnegie training program that he had taken in the late ‘50s. The course was named after Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Butch stated, “While the Dale Carnegie training provided the core of my managerial development, ATRA and its slate of great management trainers provided the industry-specific frosting on the cake.” He added, “We joined ATRA in the mid-1970s, and I attended my first convention in Houston in 1977. That’s when I met guys like ATRA luminaries Gene Lewis and John Maloney. Like Brad, I fell in love with ATRA.”
While they had more work than they could get done, Butch, Brad, and the Novotney family created many memories about life outside of work. Despite the shop’s busyness, they struck a “work-life balance.” (This was long before the concept became popularized by business experts.) Butch and Brad shared many stories with me about their Alaska adventures – exploring the vast beauty, camping, fishing, hunting, and whatever life in Alaska brought their way.
Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
With the arrival of Brad and Pam’s first child, Jason, the couple decided to head back to Wisconsin to be close to their family as they raised their new family. Brad explained, “Even though we felt like part of the Novotney family because they included us in all their family functions, the idea of being new parents changed our whole focus and direction in the life ahead. Pam and I just felt it was the right thing to do.”
So, in 1980, Brad and Pam headed back to LaCrosse and opened Allen Automatic Transmission. When I asked, “Why Allen?” Brad explained that Allen is his middle name, given to him by his father who passed away from brain cancer when Brad was 4 years old.
For the next 40 years, Brad led the family operation with Pam at his side. When Jason came of age, he joined the business and primarily handled the front end along with Pam and a couple of R&R techs while Brad held down the rebuilding role. During that time Jason continued his education, earning a degree in finance in 2007 and assuming the role of General Manager of the family business.
Allen Automatic Transmission flourished and enjoyed an excellent reputation. Brad’s career blossomed along with his love for ATRA. In 1987, at the Minneapolis ATRA Tech Seminar, Brad won a door prize for Red Girdley’s “MIT” transmission rebuilding school. According to Brad, “That’s when I met Red, and he became a mentor to me.”
Brad learned from his mentors that giving back is as important as receiving. In 1989, he became a member of the ATRA Midwest Chapter Board and served as its President from 2002 until his retirement. In 2006, he was also elected to the ATRA Board of Directors, serving as Secretary/Treasurer until he retired last year.
A bit of irony occurred when Brad closed the shop. Jason could have continued running the shop, but he told Brad that he was ready to do something new rather than continue the family business. Jason is now a semi-truck driver for a large regional convenience store chain, Kwik Trip, delivering to stores in several midwestern states. The irony is that Brad’s first job, which he held throughout high school and tech school, was working for the original owner at the first Kwik Trip. In the early ‘70s, that owner offered Brad a career in management, but Brad declined, opting for an automotive career.
In the meantime, B&B and Butch’s career also flourished. Butch remained at B&B, performing the “people” side of the business with plans of buying it from his dad when Bob chose to retire. That became a reality in 1990, leaving Butch with an ownership tenure of 30 more years in addition to his 17-year “apprenticeship.”
Also, like Brad’s son, but in this case, Butch’s daughter, Amy, joined the family business. Butch bragged, “Amy learned every aspect of the business as she stuck it out with dad for 27 years.” Though she was fully qualified to continue running the business, like Brad’s son, Jason, Amy was ready to do something else – seeking a new adventure of her own.
When I asked Butch what the secret sauce was for his success, he replied without hesitation. “My greatest gift was something my dad told me. It happened one day when he took me out to teach me how to drive a stick shift in our old Studebaker Pickup. I remember it like it was yesterday. He told me, ‘Success is in the people end of business. Be a good listener and be humble.’”
Butch is successful and probably one of the humblest people I know. As a result, he’s well-respected and puts the interests of others first. And yes, he’s a good listener. He’s always been an ATRA booster, hosting tech seminars in Alaska for techs who’d never get the opportunity to travel the distance to attend a live event. Butch regularly attends the Powertrain Expo and has faithfully promoted ATRA and its programs.
The Friendship Endures
Over the 40 years that Brad and Butch operated their separate businesses, they stayed in contact. They nurtured their lifelong friendship as best they could with 4,000 miles and the distractions of running their busy shops standing between them.
These two best friends and ATRA Good Guys started and ended their transmission careers within months of one another. They’ve generously given so much to our industry, it would be a shame to let them unceremoniously ride off into the sunset without honoring them for their service and dedication. That’s the reason for this article.
I’m sure you join with us at ATRA and GEARS in wishing Butch, Cathi, Brad, and Pam the best retirement possible.