Milton Costakis and William Lorefice are the owners of Sharp Transmissions, a transmission and general repair shop in a rural area of New York. When the shop opened, about 32 years ago, there were some competitive businesses in the area; today, Sharp is the only transmission shop nearby.
Milt runs the business from the front counter; Bill is a transmission technician who keeps the benches humming. According to Milt, he’s been a part of auto repair business for years: “My father owned a gas station, so I’ve been in the business for as long as I can remember,” says Milt.
“I remember being 12 years old and a car came into the shop. It was a Camaro, and I walked behind it and it said ‘Z28,’ so I asked what that was. The customer explained it was a performance package, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
It’s those types of experiences that got a lot of us interested in the business back then. And maybe the lack of that kind of thing is one reason why today’s young people aren’t as excited about following in our footsteps. Another is the lack of gas stations that also repair cars. A lot of us got our start there.
But Milt’s interests didn’t end with cars: He was also interested in music: “When I got out of high school, I wanted to play the guitar, so I was in bands for years. I still am,” says Milt. “And I also have a restoration shop at my house.” It isn’t part of his business, but it keeps him busy!
But what got him into the automatic transmission business?
“I needed a job and I answered an ad for a transmission R&R technician. I went into the interview… I was nineteen, maybe twenty, and everyone there was a bit older than I was. They all had tools… heavy duty toolboxes.
“So the guy hires me, and that’s how I got into the transmission business. Over time, I worked my way through various small shops, and eventually becoming a rebuilder. I ended up working in a rebuilding shop where the guy had four rebuilders on staff, building production.
“Finally, an opportunity opened up for me to open my own shop and I took it. At the time, Bill was working for me at the transmission shop. So I told him about the opportunity and asked him to join me and he said, ‘yeah!’ We’ve been working together every since.”
Apparently the partnership has been working out well, because they’ve been in business now for 32 years. “Bill is our main rebuilder,” explains Milt. “He’s one of those super-talented, detail-oriented kind of technicians.” The kind of guy you want leading your rebuilding bench.
When it comes to naming a shop, many people use their own names. Or they’re likely to use a name like “Quality,” or “Budget,” or any other number of common names that say something about their shop.
If it’s an older shop that used to depend on the Yellow Pages for their advertising, they were more likely to use a name that starts with the letter “A,” to put them near the front of the book. There are more than a few AAAA Transmission shops out there, based on that very simple, strategic goal.
So why Sharp Transmissions? Turns out it doesn’t really have any particular meaning. “It’s just something I came up with,” explains Milt. They had all those big industry names out there, and they simply wanted to look sharp when compared with them. So Sharp Transmissions it is!
Transmission and General Repairs
“About 10 years ago we had to change directions,” says Milt. “Transmissions started lasting longer and the dealerships started pushing their factory remans.”
Not a great surprise, particularly for a shop in a rural area. For many of those shops, there just isn’t enough transmission work to keep their staff busy. So for many of them, the answer was to expand into general repairs. But it wasn’t just the longer life expectancy of today’s cars that hurt:
“I remember people looking for cheap cars and there were no cheap cars; they all got destroyed. The dealerships loved it; it was a big boost for them, but not for smaller, independent transmission shops.”
Today, about 50% of their work is general repairs, so making that switch turned out to be a valuable part of their business strategy.
For many shops, adding general repair just isn’t in the cards. Too much of their work depends on wholesale work. And, if you compete with your wholesale customers, you stand a good chance of losing a lot of them.
But, for the folks at Sharp Transmission, that isn’t much of an issue because very little of their work is wholesale. “Back in the beginning, about 40% of our work was wholesale. Then, as the dealerships and general shops started to buy their transmissions in a box, all of that fell away.”
Fortunately, Milt and Bill made it a point to offer quality service, and they built their reputation to where, today, the vast majority of their repair work comes from repeat customers and customer referrals. It’s a great way to do business, especially when you’re working in an area that doesn’t have a heavy population.
One thing that helps, according to Milt, is that they really don’t have a lot of competition in the transmission business. “There are no chain centers, and even all the smaller, independent transmission shops that were in the area went out of business.”
No doubt that the lack of direct competition is another reason why Sharp Transmissions is doing so well.
“The warranties were killing us,” says Milt. “Guys were finding out that they could get a transmission from GM or Ford for $1500, and it came with a 3-year, 100,000-mile warranty. It’s hard to compete with that.”
To combat that, a lot of shops made deals with one of the reman companies to keep transmissions in stock. They could turn the cars out quicker and offer a nationwide warranty that was competitive with the dealers.
“That makes a lot of sense if you’re in a metropolitan area with a lot of potential customers,” says Milt. “We’re in the mid-Hudson Valley, which is very rural; we’re two hours North of New York City, an hour south of Albany. We just don’t have the volume for that kind of program to make sense.”
One thing that helped them compete on a more equal footing is the ATRA Golden Rule Warranty. That lets Sharp Transmission offer a 3-year, 50,000-mile warranty on most of their rebuilds.
“For customers who really don’t leave the area, our in-shop warranty is adequate: We offer 2-years, 24,000- miles for that. But for customers who want protection outside of our area, the Golden Rule Warranty is terrific.”
“We do really good work at a fair price, and we stand behind it,” says Milt. “And I think what’s really important to our customers is that, when they walk in the door, the owners are here. We’re the guys they can talk to. People feel really good about that when they come in.”
According to Milt, customers prefer talking to the shop’s owner than to a service writer or manager. “People come in and they say, ‘My car has this problem; are you the owner?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah,” and they say, ‘Oh, okay, great!’ They feel good about being able to talk to the person who makes the decisions.
“Not only do I talk to them up at the counter, but I’m also the one who oversees the work on their car. I’m gonna be the guy who does the final road test on it. I’m hands on all the way across the job.” And customers seem to appreciate that.
While it may not be possible for every shop, it’s a business model that works well for Sharp Transmissions, and it’s a big part of why they receive so many referrals from their existing customers.
Like most shops today, Sharp Transmissions depends mostly on its web site for marketing. They have a site —www.sharptransmissions.co — which provides a good look at the work they offer and who they are as a company.
Their site also includes a FAQ page, where people can research how to care for their cars and to learn about different repair options. That gives customers a reason to stop by, even if they aren’t in need of repairs right now.
And they offer a link to the ATRA web site that enables customers to compare the advantages of repairing their cars over buying new ones.
Interestingly, they still maintain a presence in their local Yellow Pages; not nearly the size ad they used to have, but something for potential customers who still haven’t migrated to the internet when searching for a nearby business. Usually that’s restricted to older customers, but they’re paying customers, nonetheless.
“But what’s really important to us is our customer reviews. Most of our customers today are younger folk, who do go to Google, they do go to Yelp*, and they look through our reviews. That’s really the driver of new business for us.”
In addition, they have a Facebook page that gets a little attention; “Not a lot of that,” says Milt. But then again, every little bit…
One thing the folks at Sharp Transmissions try to do is maintain a good relationship with their community. “We have a community agency called Family of Woodstock that comes to us occasionally with customers who can’t afford to have their cars repaired, and we’ll take care of those repairs for them.”
Milt and Bill are happy to help whenever they can. Whether it helps their business or not, they do it because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
They’re also members of the local Chamber of Commerce. And they get involved with a local car show, which gives them a bit of exposure in the community. And it gives Milt a chance to show off a little by showing some of the cars he’s restored at his home shop.
Sharp Transmissions is a small shop, and Milt and Bill like it that way. They keep things intimate and that keeps them busy all year round. “We try to make a living, do it well, and be happy,” says Milt.
It’s not a bad way to operate a business. We wish them well in the years ahead.