Shop Profile - January/February - 2021

Northampton Transmission – Gone Fishing

This shop profile is going to be different than any I’ve ever written. My interview with John Hunter, the owner of Northampton Transmission in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one I’ll always remember. I hope you feel the same after you read it.

The first questions I ask the shop owners I interview for shop profiles are, “What makes your shop different from your competition?” and “Why should a customer choose your shop over your best competitor?” I ask these questions as conversation starters, and I’m rarely surprised by the answers I get. It usually goes something like this, “We really care about our customers, and we treat them the way we’d want to be treated. We’re fair, honest, and we do great work.”

When I tell them that their answer doesn’t differentiate them from the competition, I get responses ranging from pushback to defensiveness to them asking what I’m talking about. The truth is that it’s not differentiating because it’s what every shop says and believes about themselves. If you don’t feel that way, you should probably get out of the business.

I’ve written about our industry for nearly 30 years. If you’re a regular reader of my articles, you know me well enough to know there’s a reason I’ve started this article this way. You guessed it! This time I got a different response. In fact, what John Hunter had to say would be an excellent topic for a management seminar.

While John’s answer included treating customers right, with honesty and integrity, and providing quality repairs, what made his response different was this. He said, “We’re different from our competitors because we treat our employees differently. We emphasize being honest with our employees, respecting and valuing them, and treating them the way we’d like to be treated. By treating our employees well, they naturally do the same for our customers.”

This was the beginning of a very fulfilling telephone conversation – not as much an interview as it was a free-flowing, in-the-zone conversation. You know the kind of conversation I’m talking about. We talked for over 2 hours, and it felt like we were just getting started.

Intuitively, most of us know that happy employees are key components of good customer service. We’ve all encountered the grumpy server at the restaurant or other lousy customer service experiences. I’d always attributed it to someone having a bad day. I’d never considered it to be a systemic or company culture matter. However, when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Unhappy employees aren’t likely to provide excellent customer service.

John offered this observation, “Customer service runs parallel to how employees are treated by their employers. Throughout my 45 years of professional life, I’ve had the opportunity to work in numerous industries that have provided me with many life and business experiences. The common denominator of these experiences is that the most successful companies understand and value good working relationships and fair treatment of their employees, which naturally flows to the customers.” John added, “Operating a successful business is easiest when people treat one another fairly and equally.”

So, how did John Hunter learn these insightful lessons? John credits his business philosophy to Tom Phillips, the body shop owner that he worked for when he was still a teenager. John reflected on that experience, “It was one of my first jobs. Tom had an easygoing demeanor, strong work ethic, and he was a talented body man. He was a supportive employer and cared deeply about his family, employees, and customers. Tom provided me with tremendous support and helped develop my skills and acumen in auto repair. Beyond being my employer, he was my role model. Tom provided me an insightful perspective from his life and business experiences. He convinced me to pursue a path to further my education beyond high school rather than an automotive career.”

When I asked how he ended up in the transmission business, John told me that he had many jobs in sales and marketing before he finally settled into the transmission business at age 45. He was tired of the extensive travel required by his former profession. Thinking back to his happy memories of that first job with Tom Phillips, he decided to explore purchasing a car repair business. In October of 2003, he bought a transmission franchise and built the shop from scratch on the current Northampton Transmission site.

After a few years operating on thin to no profit, John realized that the franchise wasn’t going to work out financially. Ultimately, he reached an amicable separation agreement, and in 2010, John seamlessly rebirthed the business as Northampton Transmission. John recalled, “Even though the franchise relationship didn’t work out, we’ve always had steady business. The day we opened in October 2003, our parking lot was full, and we’ve been busy ever since. But now we’re profitable.”

John attributes his financial turnaround to three things.

  1. The loyal, dedicated team that thrives on doing nice things for customers. (You’ll meet the team members later in this article.)
  2. The cost savings associated with separating from the franchise. The lower costs of doing business allowed John to make a fair profit while taking better care of his employees and customers.
  3. Purchasing ProfitBoost Shop Management Software. John says, “With ProfitBoost, I can effectively manage the key financial aspects of the business and monitor our customer satisfaction results in real-time.”

John was eager to tell me about the team, and he allowed me to chat with them before we wrapped up our phone call. He gushed with pride as he told me about each of them. Here’s my best effort at conveying his descriptions.

Ed Berard has been with John since before they opened the franchise in 2003. As Ed put it, “I helped install the floor tile in the building.” He started as our center manager, but during our transition from a franchise to independent, he voluntarily took on some tech duties for about two years. He’s been the center manager ever since. John said this about Ed, “Over the past 17 years, Ed’s developed a strong working knowledge of diagnostics and drivetrain repairs. He does a great job managing customer relations, scheduling, and service advising. Additionally, he manages workflow, parts purchasing and returns, and when necessary, he steps into the role of a technician.” Ed has also deployed his building trade skills to build and install shop fixtures, shelves, and equipment to improve shop efficiency.Whenever Ed’s not at work, he enjoys gardening and making cool things like better feeders for birds and wildlife.

Chris Lenox is the lead technician and transmission rebuilder. He’s another long-term employee serving almost 10 years of his 36-year automotive career at Northampton. He also holds several ASE certifications. Chris has plenty to do outside of work. He enjoys bike riding and camping with his wife, spending time with his two grown sons, fixing his 1931 Ford Pickup, and riding his fleet of motorcycles. His two favorites are his 1943 and 1948 Indians. His daily driver is a 1977 Dodge truck. He loves old stuff, buying and selling all sorts of treasures and army surplus items he finds while traipsing around New England. He sells custom dog tags on the web at www.dogtagsne.com. I’m sure this only scratches the surface of Chris’s busy life outside of the shop.

Curt Hale has been with the company for nearly seven years. John observed, “With over 25 years of automotive repair experience, Curt can repair anything on four wheels. He’s a smart, talented guy with great attention to detail.” Outside of work, his wife and two daughters keep him busy. The family is continually working on their “Old 1940s Farmhouse.” Curt’s generous with this time, keeping his friends’ snowmobiles, mowers, 4-wheelers, motorcycles, golf carts, gators, and tractors in good repair. Sounds like Curt is a good neighbor to have.

Allison Lapierre-Houle takes care of the bookkeeping duties. She works a few hours per week for the Northampton while holding down several other jobs and raising her two children.

Tyler Borrell joined the company earlier this year as a part-time owner’s helper. His initial job was to help with things like keeping the shop clean, but he’s already progressed to R&R and a mechanic’s helper. Tyler’s a smart, hardworking high school senior with plans to major in engineering at Western New England College on a Lacrosse scholarship.

When I asked John about his role in the company, he provided me with a long “to do” list. It contained all the “normal” owner functions – if there is such a thing as “normal” when it comes to the owner’s “to do” list: the full gambit of financial oversight functions, the operational management details, and of course with his background in sales and marketing, he fits right into that role. He also performs the outside sales duties for the company.

However, my sense of it is that his unspoken roles are his most valuable. He’s clearly the team’s leader, coach, and cheerleader. And like any great coach, he knows that he’s primarily a facilitator and motivator. He does this by removing obstacles to their performance and providing the tools, training, and equipment they need to perform in a clean, safe, professional environment. John measures his personal effectiveness by how well the team performs without his supervision.

Nowadays, John balances his life between the shop, his wife of over 37 years, Sheila, his two children, and two grandsons. He also enjoys fly fishing, golf, and working around the “homestead.”

Did you notice the common thread that weaves its way through the descriptions of the Northampton team? They’re all people-oriented – at work and away from work.

I hope that as you read this article, you felt John’s affection and respect for his employees. I wanted to conclude this article with a story that John shared with me. He didn’t know it when he told me about it, but this story provided both the title for this article, and it demonstrated to me how much he cares about his employees.

John makes lunchtime on Fridays special. He provides food, beverages, and he spends time with the team. He recalled one time when he asked how long it would take to wrap up the remaining jobs that needed to go out that day. Then he told them, “As soon as you’re done, let’s hang a Gone Fishing sign on the door and take the rest of the day off.” I didn’t confirm this with John, but I’m willing to bet that this wasn’t the only time the Gone Fishing sign was hung on the door on a Friday afternoon.

At the beginning of this article, I shared John’s answer to my question about what makes Northampton Transmission different. I think John summarized it perfectly, “How I was treated by my past employers shaped how I treat my employees. They make us different. We’re special because our people are special.”

John Hunter’s approach to life, to business, and to building relationships with his employees and customers is an example of what’s called Servant Leadership. How much dedication, loyalty, and commitment to customer satisfaction do you think John’s leadership style is generating? And how much influence do you think he’s having on the lives of the people around him?

You can learn more about Servant Leadership in my article titled, Follow The Leader, in this issue of GEARS.