Over the years, we’ve met dozens of multi-generational shop owners; many who can trace their automotive lineage back three generations.
But Chris Park, owner of Independent Transmission, in Ventura, California, is the first one whose family history in the auto repair industry began halfway around the world: Chris’s grandfather was an auto mechanic in Korea.
Chris moved to the U.S. with his parents in 1982, when he was just 16. “My father was a mechanic for a company that built farm equipment,” explains Chris. After graduating high school, Chris attended a technical college where he studied automotive technology.
“My father opened a shop in Oxnard, CA, called Tony’s Transmission,” says Chris. “I began working there in 1987 with my brother.” He and his brother, Tony, continued to operate the shop after his father retired in 1998. In 2000, he and his brother decided to go their separate ways; his brother continued to operate the shop until he closed in 2006.
“I moved to Ventura and found a shop for sale in 2000,” says Chris. “It was a very small shop: only three bays and two lifts. I took the shop and expanded it to five bays and five lifts.
“In 2012, the owner of the property died and the new owners wanted me to sign a 10-year lease. I looked around and found the shop we’re at now. The first shop was just 2700 square feet; this new shop is 8000 square feet with eight lifts.”
One thing that impresses customers when they come to Independent is its cleanliness: Chris and his staff keep the shop spotless, and it gets commented on a lot. “We put everything away and clean up daily, to where it’s become something of a habit.
“It makes a terrific impression with our customers,” says Chris. And that impression helps build referrals… and sales.
Transmission and General Repair
The name Independent Transmission might be a bit misleading today: The shop offers complete auto repair services, although they do specialize in transmission repair. Like many transmission shop owners, Chris decided to expand into general repairs during the economic downturn at the end of 2007.
“We started seeing more and more customers who couldn’t afford to have their transmissions repaired,” says Chris. “I’d never seen a situation with so many customers saying they had no money to fix their transmissions!”
For many transmission shops, this could have posed a problem, because a substantial portion of their businesses comes in the form of referrals from other shops in the area. But most of the work coming to Independent Transmission is based on direct consumer referrals. So expanding into general repair wasn’t a problem from that aspect.
Of course, expanding into a new line of work meant more than just adding the services to their web site. It meant buying additional tools and equipment, and even hiring new technicians who were versed in those repairs.
One thing Chris has discovered is that offering general repairs allows him to build stronger relationships with his customers. That’s because, instead of seeing customers once in a decade when they’re experiencing transmission troubles, he’s likely to see them several times a year.
This improves the relationships between Independent Transmission and their customers, so, when they do have transmission problems, they wouldn’t think of taking their cars anywhere else. And, because of the regular connection between them, there’s no need to build trust with the customer: That trust has already been established.
According to Chris, customers seem to appreciate having a “one-stop shop” for all their auto repair needs. It’s better for them, and the shop remains busy… and profitable.
So, while general repair may not be for everyone, it’s working well for Independent Transmission.
The name of Chris’s shop is Independent Transmission, but his web site is CJPAutomotiveInc.com. The reason? “When I first built my web site, someone else already had the name ‘IndependentTransmission. com,’” explains Chris. “So I decided to go with the CJPAutomotiveInc.com.”
Chris tried advertising on local TV and radio, but didn’t feel he was getting a reasonable return for his investment.
But recently, Chris began advertising on the Motor Vehicle Network, or MVN. It’s an advertising network that runs on the screen at the nearby Department of Motor Vehicles offices, so drivers who are getting their licenses or changing their addresses will see Independent Transmission advertised while they wait.
“Only one of each business type can be displayed on the screen, and we’re it for auto repair,” explains Jenna. “Right now they have two separate screens: one that plays the ads and one for client numbers. But in the next couple months, they’ll be combining them. So, if you’re waiting for your number to come up, you’ll have to look at the screen with our ad.”
Chris and his shop are members of Business Network International (BNI). According to Jenna, BNI is “the largest referral-generating leads group in the world. It has about a quarter million members and it exists in 87 countries around the world.”
The local BNI group organizes a weekly breakfast meeting for its members. “The program allows for multiple people in the same industry, as long as their services don’t overlap directly,” explains Jenna. The object of the group is to provide referrals to one another.
The local group includes lawyers, realtors, insurance agents, professionals from the health and beauty industries… “It runs the gambit of services that you’d be likely to need on a regular basis,” says Jenna. “I’ve been involved with the group for about eight years, so I know a lot of the people here.”
While the networking itself is a terrific resource, BNI doesn’t end there. They do a lot of work in the community, which also helps build relationships for its members.
“I volunteer with Project Understanding,” says Jenna. “It’s a group that helps homeless people find jobs and transition into the community. I’m going to be an incoming board member for them. I’m also an ambassador for the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, and work with other groups in the community.”
With these programs, Chris and Jenna work to help build relationships within their community.
Building Referrals Through Compassion
But while marketing keeps the shop’s name out in front of prospective customers, the vast majority of their business comes from word-of-mouth advertising. And those word-of-mouth referrals are based on years of exceptional service and kindness.
“The level of compassion that Chris has goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen,” says Jenna. “It’s without comparison.
“There’s an electrician he knows who was in the business for over 40 years. Now he’s disabled, and his disability payments aren’t enough to cover his expenses. He’ll come by and ask whether Chris needs any electrical work, and Chris will say, ‘Sure, take care of this for me.’
“If a person comes in needing repairs that they can’t afford, he’ll ask, ‘What’s your budget?’ And he’ll try to work something out to help them. He’ll help them choose the issues that need to be addressed right away and leave the rest for later.”
And Chris is always willing to lend a hand to technicians from other shops. “He has mechanics from other shops here every single day, saying, ‘Hey, I have no idea what to do. Can you help me?’ And he helps them,” says Jenna.
Chris is also active in his church, and takes advantage of that connection to help others. “When a car comes into the shop that the owner surrenders or sells cheaply, Chris will repair it and then he donates it to members of his church who need help,” says Jenna.
Another thing that helps build Chris’s reputation is his willingness to spend time talking to customers, answering any questions they might have. “When customers call and have a question about their cars, I’ll spend as much time as necessary to answer them,” says Chris.
“Whatever they want to know, I try to give them the best answer, no matter how much time it takes. Sometimes they’ll even give me a computer code and I’ll explain what it means to them.” And, very often, that customer will bring the car in for Chris or his staff to check.
Not much wonder that Independent receives so many terrific referrals!
An immigrant from Korea, Chris became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1986.
An often unfortunate condition of being “different” is dealing with stereotypical assumptions from the general public. These views can damage business and create conflict, often for no logical reason.
So how has being Korean in an American market affected Chris’s business? If anything, it’s made it easier for him to thrive. “A lot of our customers seem to like Asians,” says Chris with a chuckle.
“They look at me and think, ‘I can trust this guy.’ And they seem to think Asians are smarter than anyone else.”
Well, if you have to deal with stereotypes, at least those seem to work out in Chris’s favor.
And, as Chris and his family have proven, sometimes those stereotypes carry an element of truth: He and his wife, Yeonhe, are the parents of two lovely daughters: Stefanie (14) and Catherine (13). Both girls are A+ students, and both are active in sports, art, and music.
According to Jenna — a musician and composer herself! — the girls each play multiple instruments, including violin, piano, and drums. “They’re extremely talented,” proclaims Jenna.
No doubt about it: The Parks are a remarkable family, and Independent Transmission is a remarkable shop. We wish Chris many years of success.