Superior Transmissions didn’t start out with a plan to become known as an auto repair and off-road performance shop. It’s just one of many examples of the resilience and resourcefulness of Chris and Julie Elko, the founding owners and operators of the company.
As we got to know one another during the interview for this article, I couldn’t help but think of the old television series, The A-Team. The A-Team’s commander, Hannibal Smith, was played by George Peppard, and he ended every episode by lighting up a cigar and saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Of course, if you’ve ever watched the program, you know nothing ever went as planned. But in the end, it all worked out. There’s been a lot of that in Chris’ and Julie’s lives.
Chris recalled, “I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. I used to work on my own cars and also fixed cars for friends and family. My family and roots are in Michigan, but back in the 1980s, I moved to Houma, Louisiana to work as a welder in the shipyards. In 1987, the industry started to fall apart and I found myself facing unemployment.”
This is when Chris and Julie first put their toe in the water of business ownership. While working at the shipyard, Chris had struck up a friendship with a fellow named Harry, who was an all around mechanic and transmission rebuilder. Harry’s job at the shipyard was repairing machinery and equipment, but he never gave up transmission rebuilding, which he was very skilled at doing.
Even though none of them had any experience with owning or managing a business, Chris, Julie, and Harry decided to open Royale Rebuilders, specializing in transmissions and engines. They had three bays with no lifts.Chris says, “It was a pretty low-budget operation. I learned what I could about rebuilding from Harry and the rest by just doing it. We had some Chilton labor guides, and we used them to price out and sell the jobs. We didn’t know any better.”
By 1991, Chris and Julie realized that their Royale Rebuilders partnership with Harry wasn’t going to ever become what they’d hoped. They decided to head back to Michigan where Chris went to work as a general repair auto mechanic. He continued to keep up on transmissions by doing occasional side-jobs for friends and friends of friends.
In 1994, Chris went to work for a transmission shop in Muskegon, Michigan where he continued to hone his trade. Four years later, Chris took a job as the head rebuilder at a shop in nearby Grand Rapids.This is where he met Fred Misner. Fred and Chris became good friends, and they discovered that they shared similar ethics and values. Fred commented, “We didn’t like the way the shop treated people, and we wished we could work in a shop that we’d be proud to work in. You know; a place that does good work at a fair price and treats people with respect.”
In 2002, with Fred at their sides, Chris and Julie opened Superior Transmissions. Fred was involved from the very beginning – even before it opened, helping with organizing and setting things in place. Fred finished his previous commitment, “And 18 years later, we’re still here and growing every year.”
Julie recalled, “Things went pretty well for us, from the very beginning. But, along with the rest of the automotive industry, we struggled through the recession of 2008. During that time, we went without paychecks and even had to put personal money into the business to stay open.” Chris followed Julie’s lead, “Yeah that was a challenging time. But, my dad has always been my role model, and he taught me to be generous and to work hard. I believe both of those character traits helped to see us through that challenge, and for that matter, they still provide the foundation for our business.”
The trio’s commitment to treating customers right has also yielded a spic & span, squeaky-clean, 5-Star rating on the internet. As you know, a 5-Star rating is difficult for any business, but it’s next to impossible for a transmission, general auto repair, and performance shop.
That’s right, another outcome of the 2008 recession, and an example of their resilience, was the decision to expand from transmissions to general repair and ultimately into off-road performance. Chris explained, “The move into general repair was already happening before the recession, but the recession sped it up. With vehicles becoming so integrated through computers and all the related electronics, it was essential to take a holistic approach to diagnostics and repairs. We pride ourselves on not just fixing the problem, but also correcting the root cause that led to the problem.”
Chris continued, “However, the transition to doing off-road performance work was sparked by our oldest son, Chris Jr. Off-roading, or what we, in Michigan call two-trackin is one of his passions – second only to motocross racing. In fact, Chris Jr. and his brother, Jake, are competitive racers, competing in local, regional, and national events.”
Having never heard of two-trackin, I did some research about it in preparation for writing this article. Two-trackin seems to be a Michigan phenomenon that got its name from the parallel tire tracks common to long stretches of hunting trails and dirt roads running throughout the countrysides and forests. Many of these trails are 20 to 100 miles long, and two trackers run these roads at high speeds in their off-road performance vehicles.
It looks like Superior Transmissions got into this sport at the right time and in the right place. Two-trackin clubs and state sanctioned trails abound in Western Michigan. Additionally, Silver Lake State Park is one of the most popular off-roading sites with miles of sand dunes, and it’s located within striking distance of the shop.
While Fred is a qualified technician in his own right, he’s the shop manager. He does almost all the sales and service writing. Fred admitted, “After selling repair work for years, and having to be the bearer of bad news most of the time, it’s refreshing and fun to sell performance parts, accessories and even the repairs. For these customers, they’re buying fun, and that makes things more fun for us too.”
Julie said this about Fred, “Fred has a nice way with customers. He builds rapport by listening to them and usually learns enough about them to recommend the perfect service or repair to fit their needs. He’s never pushy, but he’s not afraid to break the bad news when it’s necessary. Most customers just ask him what he’d do if it was his car.”
Since we’re talking about roles, let’s meet the rest of the team and each of their roles. In addition to sharing ownership responsibilities with his wife, Chris is the lead technician and the shop’s only rebuilder. He’s been an ASE Master Certified Technician in auto and truck for over 25 years. Chris has taken on everything from a Model T to a Volvo A-30 dump truck (earth mover) transmission. Chris explains, “With our 25,000 pound hoist, we can do jobs that most shops can’t. We do dump trucks, garbage trucks, fire trucks, and we also take care of the local Cruise America motor home rental branch. One of our first commercial relationships started shortly after we opened. We rebuild transmissions and differentials for Legends Restoration, a company that does complete restorations on vintage and classic vehicles of all types. In fact, that’s where the Model T came from.”
Julie has worked side-by-side with Chris ever since their first shop back in Louisiana. She handles all the administrative and accounting aspects of the business, and backs up Fred at the front counter.
The shop also employs two technicians, Tanner Denhof and Patrick DeYoung. Tanner came to the company about a year ago after graduating from Lincoln Tech with an AA in Automotive and Diesel Technology. Patrick has been with the company for about 6 months, and he brings over 16 years experience in automotive repair.
Superior Transmissions – Auto Repair & Off-Road Performance supports the local community through its membership in the Chamber of Commerce. They’re also a proud member of ATRA, and they issue an ATRA Nationwide Golden Rule Warranty on every qualifying rebuild. Chris joked, “Tell the ATRA members that they don’t have to worry about a Model T rolling into their shop for a warranty repair. We didn’t put a Golden Rule Warranty on that one.”