A lot of transmission shops now offer general repairs to help serve their customers and supplement their businesses. And many shops rebuild their own torque converters. Some shops even sell remans to other shops.
But Trans-Tech Transmission and Auto Service, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, owned by John Braconnier, does it all and more. In fact, Trans-Tech consists of four separate divisions:
- the repair division, where they fix customers’ cars
- the rebuilding facility, where they handle rebuilding transmissions, transfer cases, and differentials
- a torque converter division, where they rebuild their own torque converters
- a parts division, where they handle transmission parts sales for other shops
It’s an interesting business model, one that’s serving John exceptionally well.
A Fascination with Transmissions
John became interested in the transmission repair business when he was still a youngster. “When I was 16, I went for a drive in my first car and blew the transmission out,” he says. “I had the music cranked up too loud and was driving in first gear.
“My uncle helped me fix the transmission and I decided I liked working on them. I went to school for it and started working at dealerships, specializing in transmissions, until I got my certification.
“I opened my first shop in 1980. It was a little shop; the door was just six feet tall. I’d drive a car in, lifted it up, pulled the trans, and rebuilt it. When it came to trucks, I’d drive them up on a ramp I’d built outside, and I’d pull them out there. I did that for three years. Then I built another shop.”
Creating a New Business Model
Over the years, John opened and bought other shops, until he had six of them. But having so many shops created its own problems. “A manager would call in sick, so I’d have to go over and run that shop; a rebuilder would go down, so I had to steal one from another shop or send transmissions over. It was a very stressful situation.”
He opened his present location in 1997: A huge shop — over 10,000 square feet — with warehouse storage for over 600 stock units. And he started handling all his rebuilding through that shop, sending rebuilds to his other locations. But there were still difficulties keeping the other shops working the way he wanted.
Meanwhile, the rebuilding shop was growing exponentially. He began selling his rebuilds to other transmission shops in the area. “When I started, 95% of my rebuilds were going to my own shops; 5% were outside sales.”
Within three or four years, those numbers had reversed themselves: 95% of his rebuilds were outside sales. “In the beginning I only dealt with maybe two or three transmissions shops; now I deal with 30 or 40 of them. We’re like a lifesaver to them, because they don’t have builders.”
John sold off his other shops and now he does all his business out of one shop. That lowered his stress levels and allowed him to keep his business on track.
Not that he has to keep watch over everything; he has four managers on staff to do that: one for each of his divisions. And his son-in-law, Jason, is his general manager, keeping an eye on the entire business. Between them, they can handle the day-to-day operations without John having to step in.
What John does do for the business is handle purchasing: With the number of parts that he sells, purchasing can be a full-time endeavor. “I buy things from all over the country. I have one guy shipping me four pallets; that’s about $14,000. I have another guy today shipping another $7000 worth of stuff.”
Most of these parts are used transmissions; not cores. “I don’t buy cores anymore. Everything I buy I want to be good. Building cores is just too expensive. You buy a 6-speed for $500 and it’s all damaged; it doesn’t pay. You’re better off spending $1500 and get a nice transmission right off the bat.”
Anyone operating a shop today knows how much computers enter into the daily business operations. But at Trans-Tech, they’ve almost turned it into an art form.
To begin with, Trans-Tech no longer prints out repair orders for the technicians. “We have maybe 10 tablets, and each technician grabs a tablet when he comes in,” explains John. “The shop manager assigns the jobs, punches that information into the system, and hands him the keys.
“The technician has all the vehicle information on his tablet, including the history and the customer’s complaint. Maybe the transmission won’t shift into 3rd or 4th gear. So the technician goes out to the car and checks it over. He makes a note of anything he sees, and takes pictures of any problems. He enters the mileage and takes the car for a drive.
“When he gets back, the shop has Wi-Fi, so he can get everything he needs right on his tablet. They can search for bulletins or research codes on line.
“Say the problem turns out to be the transmission: They pull the trans, tear it down, and take pictures of the damage. That goes to the service writer on the big screen. The service writer works up an estimate and contacts the customer.”
According to John, the tablets have improved their sales by as much as 15%. That’s because the technicians have a checklist on the tablet that they have to follow whenever a car comes in. If they find something wrong, like a leak or a worn component, they can take a picture and send their recommendations to the division manager.
The manager sends the pictures to the customer, along with the estimate, and the customer approves the repair by text or email. In a lot of cases, there’s no phone call, and the approval is linked right to the customer’s records.
“I watch it here; it pops up on my screen who my manager’s talking to. They’re all lined up; he’s sending them texts and emails and they’re all replying. And they pay by credit card and pick up their vehicles that night. It’s that simple.
“It’s amazing and the guys love it. They take pictures of everything and the customers get to see it. They can even take a movie showing the component working. At first the guys were a little skeptical, but now that they’ve gotten used to it, they love it.”
“A lot of today’s transmissions have a computer built in that has to be programmed to the vehicle. So, when we ship one of these late model transmissions, we ship a computer out with it. We put a core charge on the invoice so we’re sure to get our computer back.
“They install the transmission, plug the computer into the vehicle, and we program it for them.”
It’s a wonderful use of today’s technology, and it’s paying them back in a big way.
Adding General Repairs
Trans-Tech changed its name a few years ago to include “auto service” as part of their business model. As with most shops, the change came about because of two reasons: first, because transmissions were lasting longer, so they weren’t selling as many rebuilds.
Second, and maybe even more important, they started doing general repairs because their customers asked them to.
One of the great advantages of offering general repairs is that John and his team build long-lasting relationships with their customers. And that means they no longer have to develop trust when one of their customers has a transmission problem.
“I don’t have customers coming in asking, ‘Can you do this? My friend can do it for this price.’ Those days are gone. People come in and they know we can handle the job, and this is how much it is. Today the big question is, ‘When can you get it done?’”
Another benefit of having a service department in house is that the staff is familiar with the cars that their transmissions are being installed into. That gives them a leg up when a call comes in about one of their transmissions. “The industry is changing so quickly that you need to offer general repairs just to keep on top of things,” explains John.
“A customer would call in and say, ‘I’m having this problem with my transmission.’ It’s much easier when you have a service department, because you can go to your service technicians — who are working on those cars — and ask them what they’ve seen about these problems.”
Success Hinges on Happiness
One of the things that John focuses on in his shop is to make sure his employees are happy. What he’s discovered is that happy employees work harder, they take greater pride in their work, and they aren’t likely to move on and leave him stranded. It’s a win-win.
“I bought out a couple shops here in Winnipeg. They had great opportunities to sell their buildings — they did — so they retired and I took their businesses.”
And their employees came to work at Trans-Tec. “The guys love it; they wish they’d have come here years ago when they were younger. They just didn’t know how nice it could be to rebuild transmissions.
“They have a nice place to work. It’s heated in the winter and air conditioned in the summer. It’s comfortable, their tunes are on, and they build. They don’t have to run for parts or listen to the car’s owner telling them to put two clutches in because that’s all they can afford. They build the units the way they’re supposed to be built. They’re rebuilt properly, they’re dynoed, and they’re shipped out.”
John recognizes that one of the most important ways to keep his employees happy is to respect them. That respect is usually reciprocated.
“We’re right across from a big donut place, and every day, customers bring us boxes of donuts. It’s almost like my guys smell the donuts in the back. Here they are, all my sales people, my office staff in the front… everybody’s coming by, grabbing a donut and chatting.
“Some business owners would come down and bark at their employees, and tell them to get back to work. But five minutes having a donut, saying hello, and chatting, it’s all part of business. Because, when they’re happy, they produce.
“You watch a shop where the staff is unhappy. Man, they will milk your company dry. I won’t have attitudes in my building… ever. I want my people to be up and bubbly. Because, the way I look at it, that’s what makes us successful.”
There must be something to that, because John has built an exceptional business, one that raises the bar to a new level for our industry. It’ll be interesting to see where he takes things in the years to come; no doubt it’ll set the standards even higher than he has today.