The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly caused detrimental effects on the economy, supply chains, and small businesses. I often ask business owners how the pandemic has impacted them, listening to accounts of how they have fought through the difficulties caused by the pandemic. Also, how they’ve been keeping their businesses open and flourishing in innovative ways. One success story I’ve had the privilege of hearing is that of Tim Tapper of Detroit Transmission Specialists located in Denver, Colorado.
Detroit Transmission Specialists is a transmission shop that specializes in big truck builds, including fire trucks and dump trucks. They focus on the vehicle’s powertrain, handling the repair of transmissions, differentials, and transfer cases. It has developed into a successful endeavor since its opening in 1980. Tim had a long-term lease for the building since 1988, until the property owner abruptly contacted him to let him know that he would need to relocate. The owner had received a purchase offer from a large chain of filling stations, and he decided to accept. This came as a shock, as the owner had not allowed Tim the opportunity to place a counteroffer.
The timing of this situation could not have been worse – it was at the height of the pandemic. Banks were not loaning money, and prices of properties were skyrocketing. I could only imagine the difficulties that Tim and his wife, Kathy, had to face in executing this enormous project. “It was difficult for sure,” he said, “like looking into the abyss and wondering what the future held. What would happen to me? What would happen to my employees?” Tim continued describing the doubts he had – pondering if he, himself, would be able to find a new position amid the pandemic, should he be forced to shut down the company.
Kathy and Tim both agreed on one thing, they would do everything in their power to make sure this business succeeded. “Kathy was my support during this very stressful process. She has been by my side through it all,” Tim stated. They have been married for 40 years, and she provided major support through this trying time.
It proved to be challenging for Tim and Kathy to locate a business in the Denver area, especially with the strict regulations that automobile-related enterprises are subjected to. After searching diligently, however, they found the ideal site that was previously used as a Union Pacific maintenance facility. It is a 10,000 square foot building that is in a prime location. Tim stated, “discovering that the property met zoning restrictions was a tremendous blessing.” Tim said that the building was in decent condition, but it still needed repair work to bring it into code. Approximately $100,000 in electrical repairs and modifications were required to meet the code standards. This was yet another expenditure in addition to the other moving costs.
Finding the business site was step one; the Tappers then had to locate a bank willing to grant them financing. Finding sources of money was quite difficult during the pandemic. “Banks refused to even consider giving us a loan, even though we have excellent credit and had the financial means for a down payment,” Tim said. That’s when we found out that our accountant made numerous mistakes in our paperwork. We had to fire our accountant and find a new one immediately,” he described. Not only did they have to do this, but they also had to continue to pursue the loan process. Tedious measures were taken to review and revise financial documents to provide accurate data. The new accounting firm took on this task and corrected the loan paperwork.
“We went from nothing being available in terms of financing – not even from our local banks – to being approved for financing to purchase the property by a bank in California. It was overwhelming, yet satisfying at the same time,” Tim said. This meant that they could move forward and purchase the premises.
Interestingly, the owner from the original location contacted Tim during this time, letting him know that the loan fell through with the buyer, and he wanted Tim to purchase the shop. Tim declined the offer, informing the owner that earnest money had been put down on the new location and that the loan process was already in progress. The owner of the previous facility was then left with an unsold, unoccupied building that remains available. (Writer’s observation, “It seems like karma.”)
Moving into the new building was the next challenge. The couple sought a home equity line of credit for the moving expenses and was shocked to discover that the SBA had placed a lien against their house while the Tappers were getting the loan for the property. The bank helped them clear away this lien so they could get their equity loan. However, their ordeal was not yet over. The business was slow to develop during the relocation of shops. The virus also negatively impacted the shop crew – both financially and physically. Everyone on the team became ill, and they were placed in quarantine, during which Tim continued to pay the payroll. Because sales had dropped so much, Tim and Kathy were concerned about the future of the business.
The decision was made to lay off two employees – one came back to work, and the other did not. However, as the business recovered, Tim replaced the positions eliminated during the layoffs. “There were a few nerve-racking months where we weren’t sure what the future held. Now, things are back to normal – we’re extremely busy and successful,” he said.
They discovered one of their strengths is having plenty of employees – an asset that many businesses have struggled with recently. The staff now includes five builders, including Tim, and four technicians in the shop. Kathy handles the bookkeeping, and two employees are running the front. Tim states he is grateful for the staff members and their committed assistance through this entire process. Tim explained, “During the transition, one employee was especially helpful. Vany Jimenez assisted with the paperwork revisions throughout the complicated loan process.” Tim continued, “She rose to the challenge during this stressful time.”
When asked how they managed to stay afloat, Tim said they have accounts with the Regional Transportation District (RTD), Fire Departments, City Municipalities, and the State of Colorado that were significant factors in keeping jobs in the shop and food on the table during the slow times. Quoting Tim, “It can’t be overstated how much these companies and government entities helped sustain us in keeping our heads above water. We have the capability of repairing ZF automatic transmissions for large government vehicles, and this keeps business flowing.” Tim added, “They were our saving grace for sure.”
This tale has a happy ending – the shop is now one of the busiest in Colorado. Tim founded the business in 1980, and though the pandemic and relocation took a toll on the shop, it has persevered. “Our plan to remain open during the pandemic has been a success,” Tim stated. Tim’s business has not only survived, but it is thriving in the present economy. The team has fought through adversity with dedication and commitment to not allow the company to fail. The forced relocation of the company has provided the opportunity for them to finally own their business property. They now have a positive outlook on the future of the company. At the end of the tunnel, the proverbial light replaced the fear of staring into the abyss. By fighting through that fear, Detroit Transmission Specialists has a stronger team and a thriving business.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.