The day began like any other day for Kim Lingenfelter, founder, owner, and operator of Norfolk Transmission & Muffler (NTM) in Norfolk, Nebraska. Kim was living his dream. He opened NTM on January 16th, 1973, married his wife, Deb, in 1978, and had three children. The business was thriving, allowing him to chase his passion as a top-rated Late Model and Sprint Car owner and driver in the Greater Midwest Region. Life was good, but on that fateful day, Kim’s dream life took a tragic turn.
Kim was killed in a freak workplace accident on November 13th, 1986. Like most young, healthy business owners, Kim hadn’t planned for what would happen in the event of his untimely death, but fortunately, his wife and his younger brother, Ron, pulled things together and kept Kim’s dream alive. Over the years, they’ve turned Kim’s life and unfortunate death into A Living Legacy.
I often quote the late Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People.” In that book, he coined the phrase “To Live, To Love, To Learn, To Leave a Legacy.” Beyond the beautiful wording, it taught that a fulfilling life requires recognizing the existence and importance of four human dimensions – the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual.
While I never knew Kim, I’ve known Deb and Ron for over 25 years, and I’ve visited NTM several times. Based on many conversations with Deb, Ron, family members, and some of their long-term employees, Kim lived a life that reflected these four human dimensions. As a result, Kim’s memory and NTM live on as his Legacy.
Let’s look at how NTM has continued to grow and thrive since Kim’s death and what the NTM Legacy means to the family, the team, and the community.
Even though Deb and Ron had both worked within the NTM environment, neither of them was prepared to step into Kim’s shoes. All shop operations had orbited around Kim’s wise guidance and decision-making. However, the business didn’t stop with Kim’s passing. Somebody needed to step up and take care of the essentials, but who, and where to begin?
Ron recalled, “Deb had consistently helped out in the shop. She primarily dealt with the administrative end of things and dealt with customers when needed.” He added, “Deb could have taken the easy way out and would have had a secure financial future. Several opportunists were circling like vultures. They saw a potential chance to buy a thriving business from a grieving widow, but Deb resisted the temptation to take that easy road.”
Deb reciprocated by saying, “I’m not sure what I would’ve done without Ron. Ron and Kim had such a close brotherly relationship, and that gave me a high level of trust in Ron.” She continued, “I knew Kim was grooming Ron for a larger role. However, Ron’s grooming process was still in the early stages. That meant he’d have to carry a bigger load than he was prepared for. Thankfully, Ron was up to the challenge, and we’ve all benefited from it.”
While Deb’s role remained primarily financial and administrative, she would now need to perform those functions with the added responsibility of being the business’s sole owner. Business owners know the weight of that burden, but Deb has successfully carried that mantle for over 35 years. Like any shrewd businessperson, she knew her limitations and surrounded herself with qualified people.
Ron started working for his brother at the age of 18 in 1978. It was just five years after Kim opened the shop. Ron reflected, “I watched and admired how he progressed from having to live in an apartment above the shop to building a successful business. He was truly an inspiration and role model for me.”
Ron had a ground-floor start at NTM. He began sweeping shop floors and doing odd jobs. One of the highlights was helping Kim with his Sprint Car and going to all the races with him. Ron enjoyed being around the shop and decided to enroll in Auto Tech at NE Community College. While attending tech school, Ron worked nights and weekends learning R&R and even rebuilding some units. In the years leading up to Kim’s death, Ron experienced all aspects of the technical side of the shop and had begun to take on some of the service writing duties.
Becoming a Better Manager
Ron says that he owes a debt of gratitude to the many management speakers who provided much-needed sales and management training programs and ATRA for the management classes they incorporate into the Powertrain Expo every year. “Those classes taught me how to be a better salesperson and how to run a business.”
Ron’s first sales training class was taught by Terry Greenhut. At that time, Mike Lee also traveled with Terry promoting the industry’s first shop management software, Management Feedback Systems (MFS). Like most shops at that time, NTM ran on paper, writing estimates and repair orders with pens and calculators – not computers. Ron recalls, “Terry and Mike opened our industry’s eyes to using better customer sales and service procedures and more carefully managing parts and labor costs against sales prices. Up until that time, we essentially were charging whatever felt right.”
I first met Ron at my first ATRA Management Seminar in Minneapolis. He was a sponge, soaking up more than he could hold. We’d get together every year at that seminar and at the Expo. We quickly became best friends. In fact, Ron and his wife, Bette, visit my wife, Sue, and me almost every February for about a week to escape the harsh Nebraska weather. Sue and I have also been to Norfolk several times. Watching Ron grow as a businessperson over the last 25+ years brought me a great deal of joy.
Ron was one of the first adopters of the Profit Index Factor (PIF) financial system. He remarked, “That was the first time I fully understood how to determine the right price for estimating jobs. That gave me a high degree of confidence for running our business profitably while charging fair prices for our work. PIF ultimately became a key component of the ProfitBoost Shop Management Software System. That’s when we switched from MFS, and we’ve been a ProfitBoost client ever since.”
Ron attributes much of NTM’s continuous growth to their dedicated outside sales program and some creative marketing ideas. NTM has had an outside sales and wholesale program almost since Kim opened the doors. Ron said that a salesman named George Drake established the program, and it’s been rolling along ever since. Today NTM has two outside salespeople on the road.
Geographically, NTM distributes to a radius of over 100 miles. One unique benefit NTM provides its accounts is a Hot Flush© service. When a unit’s delivered, the delivery driver flushes the transmission cooler and lines on-site with a truck-mounted Hot Flush© machine.
NTM uses one of the cleverest ideas I’ve seen for creating top of mind awareness within the community while doing the community a service. At no cost, an out-of-town recycler agreed to place a can-crushing machine next to the shop and buy the crushed cans at a higher price than NTM pays per pound. By offering aluminum can recycling, they have a steady flow of locals dropping off aluminum cans. It’s a positive experience for the customers – they get paid instead of paying when they go to NTM. To make it more memorable, NTM pays with two-dollar bills. The can transactions often lead to service and repair jobs.
Norfolk, Nebraska is practically in the shadow of industry giant, Certified Transmission, which is less than 120 miles away. Rather than competing with Certified, Ron has become a Certified distributor. It’s a synergistic relationship with both companies enjoying greater success than they would as competitors. NTM sells Certified reman units to retail and wholesale customers. NTM still rebuilds units, but the option for Certified remans offers an additional layer of service in terms of time and warranty.
NTM has been rebuilding torque converters since 1989. Ron explained, “Our rebuilder is Rob Hans. He’s been with the company since 1984, when he was a transmission rebuilder. Today he’s one of the top torque converter rebuilders in the country and was recognized by TCRA with the Raybestos Innovation Award in 2014 and 2015. He was on the TCRA Board and has written articles for GEARS Magazine.”
Whenever possible, NTM matches original converters to original units for in-house rebuilds. They also sell and ship stock and high-performance converters.
One other differentiator is NTM’s basic warranty of 3 years/100,000 miles. In some instances, they even offer an unbelievable 1-Million Mile Warranty.
Speaking of high-performance. The company rebuilt Kim’s Sprint Car. It’s street-legal, and Ron drives it in local parades as well as local Cruise Nights. It’s often on display at fairs and other local attractions. It’s a real attention grabber – especially when he fires it up. It’s been known to set off nearby car alarms.
NTM also built the transmission for Ron’s son-in-law, Brian King’s nationally known AWD Olds Cutlass with over 850 HP to the wheels. It’s been featured on the TV show, This vs. That on Hoonigan’s – Brian Races against Tanner Foust in California (www.hoonigan.com). You’ll also find several videos on YouTube by searching “AWD 850 HP Cutlass.” The amazing thing is that the car is street legal. In fact, Brian drove it from Nebraska to California for the first show.
The Team Is the Key
Like all great leaders, Ron was quick to acknowledge that the team has been the foundation of NTM’s success. Ron and Deb must be doing something right for their team. The longevity of their employees is the best evidence of that. A few employees were with the company long enough to retire.
Of the current number of 15 active employees, 6 have been with the company over 20 years: Rob Crawford, Service Manager, Rob Hans, Torque Converter Rebuilder, Rod Palmer, Transmission Rebuilder, and Randy Howser, Installer/Diagnostician, plus Ron and Deb.
Four have been with the company for over 5 years: Kristi Crawford, Parts Manager and “Holiday Decorator In-Chief,” Jeremy Gnat, Dyno Operator and Tech, Carson Hrbek, Installer Tech, and Harriet Lorenz, Front Office Admin.
Only five have less than 5 years on the team: Ryan Hader, Shop Tech, David Holmberg, Exhaust Specialist, Tony Miles, Outside Sales, Ron Nealigh, Outside Sales, and Randy Wolff, Aluminum Can Recycling and Shop Maintenance.
- Memberships: ATRA, TRNW, TCRA, BBB, and Chamber of Commerce.
- Winner of the BBB Integrity Award.
- Community Activities: Kiwanis, Team-Mates Mentoring Program.
- Ron was selected as the Team- Mate Mentor of the Year in 2012.
- Ron’s Volunteer Leadership and Board Participation: NE Community College Automotive Advisory Board, ATRA Midwest Chapter Board since 1987, Member of the ATRA International Board 1993-1996.
- Ron’s returned to the ATRA International Board recently, filling the opening left when his good friend, Brad Benrud, retired last year.
I think it’s safe to say that Kim Lingenfelter’s dream did not die on that tragic day in 1986. He led a life that ended too soon, but he continues to touch many people as his dream lives on in the hearts and minds of his friends and family as a Living Legacy in the form of Norfolk Transmission & Muffler.
Over the years, I’ve strongly recommended that, as a part of their business plan, shop owners should also have a plan for transitioning into retirement – an exit strategy.
However, after writing this article, I’m modifying my recommendation to include a contingency transition plan for premature death, disability, or incapacity.
If you’d like some guidance with any of these important matters, please feel free to email me – firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Transition Planning” in the subject line of your email.
Best Regards, Thom Tschetter
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 email@example.com.