Ever start going one way, only to end up somewhere completely different? But once you get there, you realize that where you ended up turned out to be way better than where you were planning to go?
That’s kind of the storyline for Fort Dodge Transmission, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, owned and operated by Tom Donney. He opened Fort Dodge as an import car repair and transmission shop. Over time, it became primarily a wholesale transmission and torque converter shop, selling their rebuilt transmissions and torque converters to shops in their area.
His start in 1980 was something less than impressive: “I rented a building with $200 that I borrowed from my Dad,” says Tom. “By the time I paid my first month’s rent, I had $25 left in my pocket.”
That first building wasn’t particularly remarkable. “The roof leaked so badly that we strung plastic through the building. We put a pressure plate in the corner and cut a hole where the rainwater settled in the plastic, and we put a 55-gallon drum under it to catch the leaks.”
And growth began slowly. “It would be a year before I hired my first employee.” As time went on, the business began to take a turn away from the retail world and more toward the wholesale trade. By the late ’80s, Tom recognized the opportunity and pounced on it.
“Luck is when opportunity and preparedness meet,” says Tom. “We found ourselves in a position to sell transmissions to a wholesale market and decided that was a smart way to go. Fort Dodge isn’t very big, and at the time, we were the third transmission repair shop in town. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat left on the bone. But wholesale seemed to have room to grow.
“We started with a salesman who was working for another company at the time. He’d put out our cards while he was on a sales call, and we started picking up quite a few wholesale accounts.” It quickly became evident that the wholesale market was a better choice.
Their salesman would even go into other transmission shops. “Those shops sometimes have employees who call in sick or go on vacation, or transmissions they’d just rather not rebuild themselves. So we’re actually able to serve them.”
Not that they ever abandoned their retail business; they’re still a full-service and transmission retail repair shop. That accounts for about 25% of their total business model.
When did they finally acknowledge that they were changing from a local repair shop into a wholesale transmission rebuilder? According to Tom, there was no real “ah-hah!” moment; it just sort of continued to swing in that direction. And he took full advantage of it.
It should be no surprise to learn that Fort Dodge rebuilds torque converters. Back when they were getting their footing as a transmission wholesaler, it wasn’t always easy to find torque converters that met their standards. So Tom started looking into rebuilding torque converters in house.
“By 1987, Tom wanted to take control of the quality of his torque converters,” explains Dave Roe, manager of Fort Dodge’s torque converter rebuilding facility. “I think he may have bought the second torque converter rebuilding system that Corky Myers sold.
“Tom went to Reno, where Corky was based, and they trained him to use the system. Then he hired me, and we spent two weeks working together. But we were having a few difficulties, so he called Corky and asked if he could send me there. I spent two weeks in Reno; I came back with more confidence and a little more knowledge, and I never looked back.
“The equipment back then was pretty basic, but I kind of liked that because I had to learn how to rebuild converters from the basics forward.” According to Dave, it forced him to develop a stronger understanding of what a converter was and what was necessary to rebuild one properly. That’s something rebuilders might not learn with today’s more automated systems.
Bringing torque converters in house was the last piece in the puzzle to becoming a full-fledged wholesale transmission rebuilder. “Back then, transmission rebuilders blamed everything on the torque converter because it was a sealed unit,” says Dave. Once they started rebuilding their own converters, “there were no more mysteries. We could tell if I did something wrong or if the problem was in the transmission.”
Once they removed those inefficiencies from the process, they were comfortable offering transmissions to a wholesale market. “Slowly, Tom built a client base, with the help of his salesman and our reputation, and it just kept growing.
“Back in ’87, we were considered a cutting edge torque converter and transmission shop,” says Dave. “We were among the first shops to step into rebuilding torque converters in house. That brought us head-and-shoulders above some of our competition in terms of quality and experience.”
In addition to rebuilding converters for their own transmissions, Fort Dodge sells their rebuilt torque converters to other shops in the area. Local shops can buy them over the counter, or they can order them to be delivered with Fort Dodge’s regular transmission delivery service.
When they first started selling transmissions to other shops, Fort Dodge tried using a local delivery service company. But that company was delivering for another transmission wholesaler, and “they didn’t want to [upset] one of their largest customers.” So they refused to deliver transmissions for Fort Dodge.
“So we started delivering transmissions on our own,” says Tom. “That was okay, because we were doing business on an exchange basis. We had to get the core picked up at some point anyway. The customer would pay to have the transmission delivered and we’d be responsible to pick up the core. So we’d either pick it up during the delivery or we’d get it the next time the truck was out.”
“We’re somewhat centrally located… we’re about an hour north of the state center and maybe a half an hour to the west,” says Office Manager Earl Wilhelmi. “Most of our wholesale business comes from the southeast portion of the state.
“We usually deliver up to about four hours out. If we can get a driver there and back in about eight hours of driving, we’ll usually deliver transmissions to them. We have five, half-ton Chevy delivery trucks, and five part-time delivery drivers. And we have a backup guy in the shop who wears a few hats; in a pinch we’ve had to send him out with a truck full of trannies.”
Four hours gives them a pretty large region. “We service all of Iowa, the northern 30 or 40 miles of Missouri, and about the southern third of Minnesota,” says Earl. “Our largest torque converter account is just across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin, and we have a couple customers in southeast South Dakota.”
One thing they have no real interest in is shipping across the country. “It’s quite a bit more expensive and then you have to deal with the core coming back. We have the shipping tubs and we tried shipping, but it wasn’t as profitable. You have to really want that market,” explains Tom.
Generally speaking, Fort Dodge is an over-the-counter transmission wholesaler. They don’t handle the vehicle diagnosis or installation on the vast majority of their wholesale transmission work. The customers call for a transmission and they sell it to them.
Of course, that can lead to a variety of problems on the back end, from misdiagnosed units, to improper installations, to other problems that need to be addressed. That leaves the technicians at Fort Dodge with the responsibility of talking their customers off the ledge and helping them get their customers back on the road.
“We offer a free techline for anyone who’s done business with us recently,” says Earl. “That actually produces quite a few sales for us. You might spend 10 or 15 minutes on the phone, telling them what to check. Then you give them a half hour to run through their checks, and they usually call back and order a tranny.”
Suddenly a techline sounds more like a really valuable marketing program rather than a free service. “It’s probably one of the better things we offer from our customers’ perspective,” says Earl.
ATRA and TCRA
“Our guys are on the ATRA web site every day for technical information,” says Earl. “We try to hit the local ATRA technical seminar for the latest updates. And we have an entire room full of hand-built binders with all the bulletins we’ve printed out over the years.
“When I started building trannies back in 2015, I read those bulletins extensively; it’s a great source of information. And the seminars can actually be a lot of fun. It isn’t just the technical information; it’s about meeting people that do the same thing you do.
“You get people there from, oh, say southern Missouri. They have a little different weather, a little different terrain. They see different cars… some of the same problems, some different ones. You swap war stories… you can glean a lot of information from people who’ve fought a fight that you haven’t.
“The TCRA site is kind of the same thing,” says Earl. “We went out to Certified back in 2008; that was my first one. We’ve been to Dayton, Ohio, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Dave went to the one out in Tennessee.”
“The networking is sometimes more valuable than the seminars,” says Dave. “A lot of times, the seminars are about stuff that’s brand new that we won’t see for three or four years. But you can talk to the other guys about stuff you’re seeing now and ask, ‘What are you doing with those?’ Sometimes just hearing their confidence tells you, ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’
“I’ve never been to a seminar where I didn’t learn something new, and a year later I was using the same information I learned there.”
When it comes to their success, Tom seems to have a good handle on the formula: “Having good, loyal employees has been critical to our success,” says Tom. “I’ve had a lot of employees who’ve reached the 20-year mark; a couple who’ve reached 30 years. Having that kind of loyalty — people you can count on — is difficult to do today. I’ve been fortunate to have a team I can count on.”
Of course, great employees tend to stick with great employers, and by all reports, Tom is a terrific boss who fosters an environment of trust, quality work, and honesty. It’s easy to see why Fort Dodge is doing so well today.
Where they ended up may have been a far cry from where they were headed in the beginning, but for the folks at Fort Dodge Transmission, the result has been a truly profitable one.