Entrepreneurs with modest beginnings provide some of the most interesting success stories. Launching into a new profession from scratch may be thrilling, but it can also be stressful when you’re just getting started. Frank Grieve of Transmission Exchange in Liberty, Texas, has one such story – a story with a happy ending.
Interestingly, Frank’s earliest automotive repair skills developed from working on the family cars with his mother, that’s right, his mother, Barbara Freeman. She was a single mom going through nursing school, and times were tough. She couldn’t afford to have her cars repaired in a shop, so she and Frank teamed up to keep them running well.
Frank explained, “It wasn’t uncommon to see mom dressed in her nursing uniform under her 1976 pickup in the hospital parking lot, banging on something, trying to get it started.” As I listened, I couldn’t help but create a mental picture of Barbara in a white nursing uniform, white hose, and nursing shoes under the hood of a pickup truck. Frank went on to say that he did his first transmission pull with his mom. When he was older, he began doing auto repair work and tinkering with internal transmission repairs on his own.
Frank continued to develop his automotive skills as he progressed into adulthood. He started in the transmission repair field as an R&R technician back when a lockup solenoid was the extent of the electronic components. He advanced to building transmissions, but Frank didn’t enjoy the repetitiveness of the rebuilding task. He ultimately found his passion in diagnostics. Frank explained, “I started with R&R, and as I became proficient at that, I began reading every issue of GEARS Magazine and any other automotive literature from cover to cover.” He also attended ATRA seminars and EXPO classes, attending at least every other year. He continued, “My diagnostic career epiphany came when I read one of Dennis Madden’s articles. Dennis pointed out that there are only two pressures – line pressure and governor pressure. That one principle crystalized my understanding of diagnostics.”With that inspiration from Dennis’s article, Frank began hooking a scanner to every vehicle – even those that were only in for routine maintenance. He reflected, “By doing that, I learned what both good and bad look like.” He was essentially self-taught in diagnostics by “the school of hard knocks” and greatly appreciates ATRA and TRNW for providing essential educational opportunities necessary to excel in his career.Frank began working at Transmission Exchange in 1996. At that time, Bob and Sam Jones owned the company. It originally started as a remanufacturing facility in Houston, Texas, with seven satellite installation shops, including one in Liberty, Texas. At that time, about nine transmissions covered 95% of the transmission market served by Transmission Exchange. As the market broadened, more variations of transmissions were being manufactured, and the business model was proving to be too difficult to manage. By the early nineties, front-wheel drive vehicles became more common, as well as increased numbers of electronically controlled components. Eventually, the satellite shops hired their own crews and rebuilt units on site. Only three of the original seven satellite shops remained when Frank started working at the Liberty location.
You might think this business model evolution was a negative, but for Frank, it proved to have positive consequences. Sam turned his attention to other aspects of the business and allowed Frank to run the Liberty shop. Frank ran it as if it were his own for 15 years. It has provided the opportunity for Frank to advance in his career and build a reputation as an excellent diagnostician.
Frank’s keen diagnostic abilities led to more growth for the company. As he advised customers that they didn’t have transmission problems but rather general repair issues, they trusted Frank and wanted him to do the repairs regardless. He’d tell them, “Yes, we’re capable of performing these repairs, but it may take us a little longer.” Generally, the customers responded that they didn’t care if it took a little longer because they knew their vehicles would be correctly repaired when they got them back. Thus, Transmission Exchange evolved into a complete automotive repair shop.
Recently, Frank told Sam that he was thinking about starting his own transmission shop. Sam encouraged Frank and offered him the opportunity to transition into ownership of the Liberty location. Sam explained that he didn’t want them to be competitors but partners instead. Frank is currently in that transitional phase and in the process of building his new team.
Frank has maintained a family-oriented culture, and most of his staff are relatives. He’s hired two of his nephews, Shane Strawn and Anthony Fielder. Shane is training as an R&R tech, and Anthony is in high school, working on Fridays and weekends. Frank also has three daughters, Sadie, Kelbie, and Kera, who help part-time in the front office. Joey Bruton rounds out the team, specializing in general repair, and he’s a builder-in-training. Like many shop owners, Frank wears multiple hats. He manages the workflow, helps in the build room, and performs his favorite specialty, diagnostics.
Frank is heavily invested and focused on the new generation of transmission technicians. “It’s hard for me to believe I’m not the newbie anymore, but the veteran,” he humbly commented. One of the characteristics Frank wishes to instill in the upcoming technicians is active listening. He teaches them that attentively listening to the customers’ concerns makes a dramatic difference in more accurate diagnostics and providing more customer satisfaction. Transmission Exchange’s customers are loyal because they’re confident that the diagnosis is accurate, and as a result, the “right” repairs will correct their concerns.
Frank’s focus on the future also includes his community connections with the Liberty Independent School District, where among other things, he supports FHA sales for the kids. He has created trust within the local market through community involvement and honest repairs.
Frank admits that his biggest challenge is keeping up with creative ways to market in the rapidly growing community. His wife, Jennifer, and their daughters are extremely helpful with innovative marketing techniques and more contemporary strategies.
Delegating has also been a challenge for Frank. He’s learning to delegate tasks and let go of his temptation to micromanage all business functions. He attributes his delegation skill development to Sam, “He is my employer, business partner, and friend. Sam has guided me through this progression and enlightened me to the fact that I have to start delegating or I’ll always be doing this myself.” This tends to be something that many small business owners struggle with, especially those who have handled things from the ground up. Frank is sincerely grateful for the mentorship he’s received from Sam. He states, “I could have just started out on my own years ago, but his guidance and business sense has put me lightyears ahead of where I would have been and kept me from making some potentially big mistakes in business.”
Frank is also grateful for the support from the ATRA team in providing the educational material and seminars that keep him up to date with solutions to common and uncommon transmission failure points. He’s now focusing his attention on obtaining the necessary education for working on CVTs to continue expanding the shop’s capabilities.
Frank’s number one mentor, his mom, is now a retired nurse living in the hill country of Texas. However, Barbara maintains the work ethic she engrained into Frank. She works part-time as a nurse, and she and Frank enjoy restoring her classic 1965 Mustang. The skills that Frank learned early on formed a foundation for a successful and rewarding career. It looks like these humble beginnings have proved beneficial for ensuring a prosperous future for Frank, the company, and the entire Transmission Exchange team.
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.