According to its web site, Bob’s 151 Transmission Center is located one half mile west of US Highway 41 on Highway 23 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. It’s a full-service repair shop, owned and operated by Kirk Griswold. Which begs an awful lot of questions, particularly when it comes to the shop’s name.
As it turns out, the answers aren’t all that mysterious, although the path is a bit of a winding one:
“The original owner was Bob Wolfe, and his shop was originally on Route 151,” explains Kirk. “It was an established business since 1972. And they did transmissions; they didn’t do any other type of work. It was one of those places where you live in one building and your shop was on the same yard.
“Bob ended up selling the business and the property, and he moved out to Las Vegas. This was around 1990. The new owner had another person running the business for him. They did that for about a year, and then the guy who was running the shop bought the business.
“He owned the shop for only a couple months and he had a heart attack and died. He was a young guy; just in his 30s. But there was no one else to run the shop, so his widow contacted ATRA to try to find someone to help out.
“At the time, I was working for another shop called Van Lynn’s Transmission. They’re an ATRA Member, too. So ATRA contacted us to see if we could help get the cars that were in the shop put back together.
“My boss, Dave, had me go over to the shop and take care of what needed to be done. He ended up buying the business and I stayed there and ran it for him. I was 28 at the time.
“Then the state wanted to add a bypass around Fond du Lac, and they were trying to buy up properties. The guy who owned the building wanted to sell it, but I wasn’t interested in buying it the way it was. So, in 2003, we bought a new piece of property and built a brand new shop.” That’s where Bob’s is now.
So even though it’s no longer owned by Bob and it’s not on Highway 151, Kirk retained the name Bob’s 151 Transmission Center.
“We felt it was important to maintain the authentic name for our loyal customers,” says Kirk. “Geared for quality service and repair since 1972, Bob’s 151 Transmission Center has serviced the Fond du Lac area with a goal of complete customer satisfaction. Our customers know us by name, regardless of location, so expanding to our new location allowed us to meet the complete auto repair needs of our growing community.”
A SUCCESSFUL MOVE
As most business owners know, moving a shop — even just across the street from its original location — will often cost them customers. Some people seem to be more acclimated to the location of the front door than they are the actual business. So moving a business, particularly a customer-service business, often costs customers.
Kirk moved Bob’s 151 a good three or four miles from its original location. In some areas, that might be enough for customers to separate permanently from the shop. So you might think that they’d have lost some business because of the move.
Just the opposite: “It actually helped our business,” explains Kirk. Turns out the new location had a higher traffic count than the old one. And the new shop is about 10,000 square feet, with nine service bays. A far cry from his old shop!
Having a larger shop that’s set up to allow for better workflow, they were able to turn more cars than ever before.
“Another thing that helped is that everyone knew Bob’s Transmission; they called it ‘the tranny shop.’ It was always out of town about three miles. Now we’re only about a quarter mile from the interstate, so there’s a lot more traffic passing by every day.”
FROM TRANSMISSION ONLY TO FULL REPAIR SERVICE
Another change that affected their business is that, after the move, Bob’s 151 went from being a transmission-only repair shop to a full-service auto repair center. That was in 2003; long before most other shops considered adding general repairs to their service menu.
But Kirk had been a full service technician from the very beginning of his career. The only thing that kept him from adding general repairs in the old shop was room: The shop was too small to accommodate the additional services and equipment necessary. Once he decided to build his new shop, he built that extra room into his facilities.
And, of course, back then, there was still a lot more transmission work available. As we moved into the 21st century, transmissions began lasting longer, so adding services became important for many shops, particularly in more rural areas, with lower customer density than in the cities.
Today, Bob’s 151 handles a wide range of repairs, including A/C repairs and wheel alignments. While Kirk has some experience with these repairs, most of it falls to his technicians, who came with backgrounds in a variety of auto repair services. “It just kind of came about naturally,” says Kirk.
“And, of course, we go to training classes whenever we can, to keep up to date. We’ll take as much training as we can get.”
Another thing that made it possible for Bob’s 151 to add general repairs to their service offerings is that they do very little wholesale transmission work. So they didn’t have to worry about losing their wholesale work because of competing with them.
PRIMARILY CUSTOM REBUILDS
While Bob’s 151 is a full-service repair shop, they’re still a transmission shop at heart. In fact, it’s still in their name: Bob’s 151 Transmission Center. Because of their focus on transmission repairs, they generally prefer to build custom rebuilds for their customers.
“Or you get some in that are like a nuclear meltdown, with every hard part destroyed. We won’t even bother to take them apart.
“Or we’ll get someone from out of town, with a Ford truck with a big camper on it. I’ll buy a reman for them.” And that makes it one that Kirk doesn’t have to deal with, no matter what happens next year, when that truck is a few states away.
Overall, the percentage of remans they use is fairly small, but they’re glad to have them available when they need them.
For the rest of their customers, they prefer to rebuild the units themselves, and they’re well equipped to do so. “We have all our own valve body rebuilding equipment in house,” says Kirk. They have a valve body test bench, a solenoid tester, and a vacuum test bench for finding leaks in the valve body.
They test all their valve bodies before they install them, which gives them a certain level of security with their work. “You know it’s going to work properly, even before you put it into the transmission.”
BEST MARKETING? CONSUMER REFERRALS
When it comes to marketing, Bob’s 151 has all the usual bases covered: They have a nice web site — www.bobs151.com — and he runs some radio ads on a couple local stations. “They have an AM station which is marketed more toward women, and an FM station that’s basically classic rock.”
They also have an ad on a local news talk radio station. “The ad has run at 7:30 every day for the last 20 years. A lot of people tell me that they heard my ad on that station,” says Kirk.
He also does a little with Google Adwords. “I do about $100 a month with Google,” says Kirk. He admits that he puts very little effort into choosing his words or adjusting his parameters, but since the shop stays pretty busy, he doesn’t see a lot of reason to spend any more time or effort with the program.
He also takes advantage of the customer retention marketing through his Shopkey program. “It pulls my customer information from the computer, sending a thank-you emails and service reminders to customers. And they can run an email blast if I want to run a special,” explains Kirk.
One thing he’s adamant about is that his best advertising comes in the form of customer referrals. No surprise there, as customer referrals have always been the best performers when it comes to bringing in new customers. Those referrals do a lot to ease customers’ fears and build trust, before they even reach the front door.
And one look on line and you can see that Bob’s 151 receives more than its share of terrific reviews… a sure sign that their customers are happy with their work, and likely to be sending new customers their way.
IT’S ABOUT THE CUSTOMER
When it comes to a business philosophy, Kirk reinforces what we seem to hear from virtually every successful shop owner: “It’s about taking care of the customers,” says Kirk. “We take care of our customers, and we take care of their actual complaints when they come in.
“I like to walk them through the complete process, from beginning to end. I try to communicate with the customer… speak at their level so they understand what we’re going to do and how that’s going to help them.
“By the time we get done with the initial explanation, they’re pretty secure with what they’re going to get done. If the customers come to pick up their cars and I’m not here to explain things, they just pay their bills and take their cars. They already know what we’re going to do and what it’s going to cost.
“That’s how I take care of my customers. I walk them through the whole job. It’s about good communication.
“There’s the trust factor: You need to build their trust. Once they trust you, everything else is easier.”
Of course, as a full-service repair shop, trust is a lot easier to build with customers. Unlike a transmission-only shop, where the first time the customer meets you may be when he needs a major repair, a general shop sees that customer six or eight times a year. The trust is already established. Then, when a transmission problem shows up, all you need to do is tell them about it.
AVOWED FAMILY MAN AND FIRST RESPONDER
When he’s not in the shop, Kirk is an avowed family man. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Cynthia, and their two daughters. “We love to go out fishing and kayaking together,” he says.
“Each summer we’ll go to a cottage for a week on a lake,” where the family can spend time together doing the things they enjoy.
In addition, Kirk is an Emergency Medical First Responder for the Utica Volunteer Fire Department. He’s often the first one on the scene when someone calls 911 in their town. It’s a service he’s proud to provide to his community.
It’s a simple life for a guy who simply wants to provide terrific service for his community. Not surprising that he’s managed to be so successful at it.