You know when you’ve come to Philadelphia’s Main Line: The homes are large and stately with well-coiffed yards and gardens. And you’re much more likely to see a Mercedes or a Land Rover than you are a Chevy or a Toyota.
Yep, these folks have money, and lots of it. So you may be wondering how a shop like Main Line Transmission, in Paoli, PA, can possibly be doing well. After all, these folks can afford to take their cars to the dealers when they have a problem.
But, as it turns out, they don’t want to. Particularly when they can depend on Phil Montagno, the owner of Main Line Transmission, to provide the highest quality work, often at a far better price than the dealer is willing to offer. And just because they can afford to pay more doesn’t mean they want to.
“These affluent people have two or three children, and a lot of them have Accuras, Hondas, Camaros,” says Phil. “And you have the boys who want a Jeep and the girls who want a CRV. We’re doing a lot of them.
“Then again, there are two Mercedes dealers in the area. They’ll say, ‘It’s $9000 installed.’ ‘Geez, I can’t afford that!’ ‘Well, between me and you, go see Phil down at Main Line; he’ll probably do it for about $6000.’ So we get those jobs, too.
“And we’re doing our share of Beemers and Benzes and Land Rovers. There’s a Land Rover dealer nearby who sends us customers. They’ll give the customer a price of $12,000; we’ll do it for eight. The customer’s happy and we make money.
“This is a great area. The people can afford the work and they all have two or three cars.” And of course, Phil and his crew treat those customers exceptionally well, so they’re only too happy to bring their cars to Main Line.
While so many other shops have begun to expand into general repairs, Main Line Transmission is just that: a transmission-only shop.
“Sometimes a customer will come in and ask us to do a brake job while we have their car on the lift. I’ll usually ask, ‘Who’s your regular shop?’ They’ll say, ‘Bob’s Service Center.’ And I’ll say, ‘Then let Bob do them, because we don’t normally do brakes.’ Bob sends us work, so I don’t want to compete with him.
“On the other hand, if he says, ‘Phil, I’m new in the area; I don’t have a regular mechanic,’ I’ll tell him, ‘Okay, I’ll do your brakes, but I’m going to recommend Bob’s Service Center for your future repairs.’ Who I recommend will depend on where he lives.
Of course, the exception is a mechanical or electrical problem that’s directly affecting transmission operation. In that case, they consider that a “transmission” problem, so they’ll handle it in house.
In addition, they generally stick with custom rebuilds, unless the damage is so great that the cost would exceed the price of a reman. But in most cases, they’re a custom rebuild shop.
Phil’s start in the transmission business wasn’t as direct as it was for so many others. In fact, it took a few curves along the way.
“I played bass and sang in a rock band, so I was never afraid to talk to people. I wasn’t shy; I liked to converse with people.
“And, being in a band, I worked for myself. I didn’t want to work from eight to five, and at five of five have someone beating me up, saying, ‘Hey, you have five more minutes!’ I wanted to be independent.
“So I knew it was time to make a change. I decided to open a Cottman Transmission center. I got a lot of negative feedback on that. Even my own father said, ‘Phillip, what do you know about transmissions?’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know a damn thing, but I’m going to learn.’
“I went to school, I took a management course, and the rest is history. The first couple years were tough, I’ll admit. I had good people, but not a lot of business.
“Then my son, Phillip Jr., was born, I realized that, when I take this little boy home from the hospital, I’d have to provide for him. I decided it was time to grow up and make this business work. I was going to devote my entire life to this business, to provide for him.
“That’s when everything changed.”
Phil didn’t know much about transmissions. But that’s where his luck kicked in again. “I was blessed with a good builder who lived about a mile from the shop. When he found out there was a new transmission shop opening about a mile away, he was on me before I’d signed my franchise agreement.
But Phil still didn’t know a lot about transmissions: “I lived near the shop, and my builder’s wife worked four to twelve, so he didn’t have anything to do. He’d say, “Boss, I’m going to come over and show you how to rebuild this 350.’ So after work, I’d go into the building room and he’d start teaching me.
“I learned how to build a little bit… just enough to do a 350, a Torqueflite 6, a C4… and that’s about all I ever built.”
It wasn’t about becoming a rebuilder, but it gave Phil a perspective on the transmission end of the business, and helped him understand what was going on inside them. That made it easier for him to explain things to customers. “I built maybe five or six units in my life and never had a no-go or a CB!” Phil says with a chuckle.
For many shops, outside sales are something they remember from back in the ’70s and ’80s. But in today’s market, they don’t believe they can make money with an outside sales program.
Phil might disagree with that: “I’ve always been big on outside sales,” he says. When he talks about outside sales, “I’m talking about repair shops and dealers. And the dealers that we handle keep us on our toes. They stress quality and they stress timing.”
But how much business can one shop get from an outside sales program? “60% to 70% of our business is from referrals and dealer shops… auto repair, body shops, whatever,” says Phil. In a shop that’s doing a million and a half a year, that’s a substantial amount of work!
“I have an outside salesman who’s been with me for maybe 15 years. He just keeps pounding, and every week he tries to hit two or three new venues. And the ones who kick him out? He’ll go back again!” According to Phil, they probably get about 10 to 15 new shops every year. That’s a lot of business from a marketing program that most shops have given up on.
“When I get a call from one of those new shops, the first thing I do is call him. It makes him feel good.”
Phil works out a special pricing program for his wholesale customers so that they can make something on the job. And he picks up and delivers the car to their shop, so their responsibility for the job is really just a phone call. It provides both Main Line Transmission and the wholesale shop with an opportunity to be profitable.
Blessed with Luck
“I’ve been blessed my whole life with luck,” says Phil. “I grew up with my grandfather who used to say (in Italian), ‘Get up and live; you’ll be a long time dead.’ And I’ve always gotten up in the morning with an attitude that, I don’t know if this is going to be my last day on Earth, so if it is, I want to enjoy it and I don’t want to make anyone dislike me.
“That’s the attitude I’ve lived with… that’s my motto, and I try to instill it in others, because one day you’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t I treat this person a little better?’
He likes to remind his technicians that, “If it weren’t for the customers, we wouldn’t be here. So you don’t get mad at the customer when he comes back with a problem. It’s because of him that you’re here.
It must be working: “I’m 74 years old, I’m in good health, I have a beautiful home in Florida — my wife and I go to Florida quite a bit — and I’m enjoying life! Business is good and the guys are being paid. What more could you ask for?
“Any way you look at it, I’ve been lucky.”
Maybe he’s right, but from here, it sounds like something more than luck. Maybe just a terrific attitude and a strong business model?