Mike Sparkman got his start in the transmission business back when he was just 13 years old. That was in about 1973. Back then, his father, Mike Sr., was managing a shop, and Mike would come by after school to help clean the floors and empty trashcans. That was his first taste of the transmission business.
By the time he was 16, his father had opened his own shop, Quality Transmissions. “That’s when I went to work for him,” says Mike. “I started R&Ring transmissions and learning to rebuild them.”
Mike continued working for his father for a few years, and then moved on to other shops, offering him a chance to round out his education as an R&R tech and rebuilder… what we used to call a swing man. “That was probably for about eight years,” says Mike.
“I ended up moving to California to work for my Uncle Dennis, who had a chain of transmission shops called Sparky’s. I went to work for him as a rebuilder.” Yes, Sparky’s seems like an odd name for a shop that isn’t a tune-up shop, but remember, the family name is Sparkman, and everyone called Mike’s uncle Sparky. Suddenly the shop’s name makes a bit more sense.
Mike eventually worked his way up to where he was running one of the Sparky’s locations in Carlsbad, California. He continued to run it for several years.
“I was in California for about eight years. Then I moved back to Wichita and started Sparkamatics; another transmission shop. I operated that for about five years, then sold that business and took some time off.”
It was during his time away from the business that he met and married his wife, Cheryl. Then, in 1999, they started Mastertech. In addition to being an owner of the company, Cheryl also handles the bookkeeping and account management for the company.
And Mike’s stepson, Joshua, has been working for Mastertech as a rebuilder for 19 years. “Josh and I, we work together to solve problems. We pull bulletins from the ATRA web site, we look at all the problems, and we work out the best ways to solve them.”
While Mike is still a rebuilder, “nowadays it’s mostly management, sales, and driveability.” Mike notes that his work in driveability is strictly related to transmission issues.
Mastertech is a transmission-only shop. They don’t handle general repairs. If one of their customers needs repairs outside their scope, they’ll refer him or her to another shop that’s better suited to handle the repairs.
And they have a lot of contacts when it comes to other types of repairs, because about half of Mastertech’s work comes from wholesale or business referrals. The rest are retail customers who are either referred by a friend or who found Mastertech on line. And they have some very good reviews on line.
Of course, most transmission-only shops also handle manual transmissions and differentials. But Mastertech focuses strictly on automatics and transfer cases. They won’t rebuild manuals or differentials, preferring to purchase remans or send the jobs off to a nearby shop.
They will handle clutch work, and, if a manual comes in that needs repair, they’ll purchase a reman and install it for the customer. But they avoid rebuilding manuals themselves.
They’ll also handle driveability problems, but only those that seem to be related to the transmission. Ignition or fuel problems? Those get referred to one of the general repair shops in town.
“We only refer our customers to trustworthy shops that we know are honest… shops we’ve had relationships with for years,” says Mike. “We like to stick with the people we know who’ve been at it for a long time.”
Those shops also send their transmission work to Mastertech, which makes up about half of their work. That’s a valuable resource, because those wholesale referrals come with the trust for the shop that referred them. It means less selling and more repairs.
Mastertech is also happy to use remans when the situation warrants. “I don’t have a big crew, and sometimes we need to use remans to keep up with the demand. We do what we have to do to keep people going.”
Those situations may include a transmission that’s too damaged to repair directly, or those that, no matter what you do with them, they never seem to come out right. “It’s a valuable resource if you use it right,” says Mike.
Mike and his team are a religious bunch, and they try to put their faith to work when serving the public. “Our philosophy is that we want to treat people the way we’d want to be treated,” explains Mike. “We want to create an environment where people are comfortable, and treat them right… don’t overcharge them… just be fair and honest with everyone.”
Seems simple, but it goes beyond that: “Over the years I’ve always told my employees, no matter what, ‘Do what you gotta do, even if it’s going to cost us money,’ and that’s kept us on the honor role with the Better Business Bureau. I’ve only had one complaint in all these years; I just try to solve problems before they get any further.”
Turns out that isn’t just about trying to do things right: “I went through an experience one time at a shop where the technicians didn’t check the car properly and it turned into a big problem. The DA came in with charges of fraud, and I saw the impact it had on all the people involved.
“I was a young man, and that showed me just how important it was to make sure the right techs were checking things properly, and giving that customer an honest and accurate estimate on every job. I learned just how serious it can be if you’re negligent: the impact it can have on you and your family. That stuck with me and drove that into my heart.”
According to Mike, there are about 20 transmission shops in the Wichita area. That’s a lot of competition for them, so the fact that they’re so busy is a testament to the way they serve their customers. “We stay busy all year round,” says Mike.
When it comes to bringing customers in the door, Mike is working on a couple fronts. For one thing, he’s still using the Yellow Pages to advertise his shop. But recently he began tracking the success rate of his marketing, and he’s realized that the Yellow Pages no longer makes financial sense. So this is their last year in the book.
They have a web site — www.Mastertechinc.net — which provides their basic services and gives customers a way to contact them and find their shop. And they also have a Google account, which sends more customers to their site.
They aren’t doing any kind of radio or TV advertisements. But thanks to their exceptional reputation in the Wichita area, they manage to stay busy all year round. So why keep chumming the water?
While not particularly active in the neighborhood, they do support a number of programs through the churches in their town. “We support missionaries out of Russia, and they have all kinds of programs that support alcoholics and the elderly, things like that.”
One of the more interesting ways they helped keep customers happy was to bring their dog into the shop. “One of our mascots was our lab, Kaylee. She was our greeter. Most of our customers would come in and she’d greet them with affection.
“That turned out to be a great ice-breaker for customers who’d never been in before. It created an atmosphere of family; that you could relax; you’re in a good place where we’re going to take care of you. That helped a bunch.”
Kaylee is long gone, but a friend created a beautiful oil portrait of her and they have it hanging in their waiting area as a testament to her years as the Mastertech greeter.
“We’ve been ATRA Members since pretty much when this shop opened in ’99; I’ve had the same number for at least 25 years!” says Mike. He was a Member back in his Sparkamatic days. His reason?
“They’ve really helped us grow as rebuilders, to gain the knowledge to build transmissions right.” He’s primarily focused on the unmatched technical support that ATRA provides. “ATRA helped me out with their seminars; we still rely on a lot of that information to build good units.”
While they haven’t been to Expo in a few years, Mike is quick to acknowledge how much they got out of it when they last attended. “I took my whole crew and we took our certification tests there. We stayed up there all week and it was awesome! We learned a lot, made a lot of contacts with vendors and people… it was terrific.”
While they haven’t been there in a while, Mike’s considering attending this year. We’ll be looking for him there.
In addition to being a longtime ATRA Member, Mastertech is also an AAA Member Shop. “The folks from triple-A came in and reviewed our credentials and equipment, and they called 250 of our customers. Then they evaluated the results and approved us for membership. That was about 10 years ago.”
They still receive referrals from AAA, as well as the ATRA shop finder web page.
Wichita is a fairly small town when compared to large cities like L.A. and New York, and that translates into fewer potential customers. But somehow, the folks at Mastertech manage to stay busy year round. They must be doing something very right.