Imagine you wake up one morning to discover your shop is on an island… cut off from the rest of the world by an ocean. The only way to get there is by boat or airplane. There’s no bridge access, so your entire market is limited to the island’s residents.
It’s a big island: about 4000 square miles… nearly four times the size of Rhode Island, but only a fifth its population. And the people are spread thin, so many of those potential customers could be almost two hours away.
If that wasn’t enough, the island is an active volcano! Lava is spewing from its gaping maw, redefining the landscape moment by moment.
What do you do? How do you build a business model under those conditions?
Sound a bit farfetched? Maybe even impossible? Not to Vic Comesario, owner of Transmission Technology on the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s the business model he wakes up to every morning, and, to hear him tell it, things couldn’t be going better.
One of the ways Transmission Technology sets itself apart from other shops on the island is they’re willing to repair transmissions; not just rebuild them. “Money doesn’t grow on trees; many of our customers are struggling, so if the rest of the transmission is okay, we’ll give them the option to repair it.”
That difference has brought Vic and his crew a lot of customers… and it’s one reason they’re more likely to get a referral from other customers.
His first shop is in Kona. In 2006, Vic opened a second shop on the other side of the island in Hilo. Having a second shop means Transmission Technology is always close to its customers, making it easier for everyone to take advantage of their service.
The Hilo shop handles general repair and transmission diagnosis. But they don’t rebuild transmissions. When they sell a transmission job, they remove it and take it to the Kona shop to be rebuilt. Then they get it back and install it.
This business model works well for them, because there just aren’t enough cars on the Big Island to support two shops rebuilding transmissions. But when added to the general repair model and their terrific reputation, both shops are doing extremely well.
What sets them apart from their competition? “We’re focused on customer retention,” says Vic. “To do that, we have to provide the best service possible. Customer service is number one to us.”
Vic’s wife Gwen agrees: “When we opened, we talked about how other shops had treated us. Too many were more interested in selling additional work… we said ‘We’re not going to do that. We’re going to be different. We’re going to treat them like family.’”
“When a customer comes in, I ask them about their family… I try to get to know them,” explains Vic.
And he believes in taking the time to understand the customer’s problem: “When a customer brings a car in, the first step is always to get to know them a little. That lets us learn more about the customer and his problem. The service becomes more personalized.”
To top it off, Vic has a real talent for remembering his customers. “When I see a customer on the road, I vividly remember what we did to the transmission. I’ll think, ‘That was a 604 with a blown planet.’
“I’ll talk to the customer and I’ll remember his son’s name. I’ll ask, ‘Is Jake still in college?’ It helps build a solid rapport with that customer. They know they’re important to me, and they send their niece, their nephew, their kids… the next generation is coming to us, and that’s client retention.”
Transmission Technology’s best referrals come from other shops. Vic works hard to build relationships with those shops, so when they have a transmission problem, they send them to him.
“Last week, one of the local shop owners came by with some seals and asked me what they were,” say Vic. “I told him ‘they’re lockup seals; they let the converter clutch apply.’ He asked me if I had them, because the dealer would only sell them the kit, and that would’ve cost $620!
“So I found the seals and he asked ‘How much?’ I told him, “You know what, brother? You take ’em. One day I might need your help.’ And he said, ‘You can count on me.’”
Vic is also careful not to step on anyone’s toes. “In our complex we have an engine specialist, a muffler and brake shop, and an auto body shop. So, even though we offer general repair, when one of my customers’ needs brakes or engine repair, I’ll refer them to one of those shops. And when they have a car that needs major transmission repair, they’ll send it to me.”
It’s that kind of relationship building that has Vic getting referrals from every shop on the island.
Sense of Community
One of the ways Vic gives back to his community is through sponsorship of local events, from high school sports, to charity fund raisers and quarterly car shows at Kailua Kona’s main shopping center – Lanihau Center. But the biggest event that the shop produces is the semi-annual Summer Car Show at the Kona Ballpark.
But calling it a car show probably doesn’t do it justice: Sure, they have cars — racecars, sports cars, antiques, 4x4s, and more — but they also show motorcycles and trucks.
Transmission Technology is the event host and Vic markets the program and gets all the other businesses on board to sponsor the event. For the 2014 show highlights, visit their web page at transtechhawaii.com.
Their first car show drew a lot of attention, with over 2000 spectators. That show was to benefit a young boy who was hurt in an accident. “Half his body was titanium,” says Vic. “The bill was horrendous.
“So we put on this car show and it was a tremendous success. The community came together and we raised money to help him cover some of his medical bills.
“Since then, we’ve focused on one non-profit organization, such as the Hawaiian Island Food Basket. This year’s is to help support the teachers’ association.”
The upcoming show will include a tug-of-war between the local police and the fire department and a fitness competition for both men and women.
“We do it for love. I’m a believer in karma; I believe what goes around comes around.” If he’s right, Vic and Gwen certainly deserve the best the future has to offer.
Vic’s wasn’t always well known on the island. He had to get his name out there just like anyone else. To begin with he has a nice web site at transtechhawaii.com.
“I’m a believer in advertising and I know customers respond to repetition. I made a deal with the local radio station: I fixed the transmission in their van, and we worked out the cost in air time.
“I have a commercial that runs four times a day at two different radio stations. And I go in once in a while to talk about our upcoming event. All my ads include this tag line: Transmission Technology: The Gear Master… Shifting Power for You!
“I also became a columnist for Hawaii Motorhead Magazine. I did the monthly trans tips.
“In addition, the local newspaper, West Hawaii Today, voted us Best Auto Repair Shop in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. And we’re an accredited member of the Better Business Bureau, rated A+.
“Of course, sometimes customers have complaints; we can’t satisfy everyone. But we always try to rectify problems before they get out of hand. We want the customer to leave us on a positive note.” It’s a smart move and one that’s served them well.
Vic began working in Honolulu repairing VW Bugs in 1985. “In 1987 I moved to Seattle and took a job at a transmission shop. I started as an R&R guy; that’s where I learned how to rebuild transmissions.”
Four years later, Vic went back to Hawaii, where he met Gwen and decided to remain there.
“I didn’t want to fix cars any more, so I took a job selling knives for Cutco Cutlery. I was part of their inter island management expansion program.” For that, he moved to the Big Island to expand their sales under their Vector Marketing program.
“As part of the program, I Corey from the Hilo crew! Transmission Technology Above photo is Vic and below is Zhymer and Jason from the Hilo crew! Above photo is Wayne and below is Robert from the Kona crew attended a number of marketing and motivational seminars. And I apply a lot of what I learned there to my auto repair business. I did pretty well; top 20 in the nation for sales and marketing.”
But being a great salesperson in a limited market created a problem: “By 1995 I’d saturated the market. Everyone had the knives so business died out.
“I was living in a small studio — about 300 square feet —with my wife and two small children. I was flat broke; I was behind in my rent when my landlord approached me and asked what skills I had. I told him I knew how to rebuild transmissions. He said, ‘That’s a rare talent; you don’t find too many mechanics who can do that.’
“He told me to check the other shops in town. I discovered there were only two guys who rebuilt transmissions. I realized this could be a great opportunity: The hills and the heat are brutal for transmissions. And I thought, ‘What an awesome place to start a transmission shop.’
“My landlord was having trouble with his car. He needed a timing belt so I replaced it. He was so happy with the work he let me use my home to start a mobile mechanic business.” His work area? Out back, under a Haden mango tree. “It was a 12’ by 12’ canopy tent,” says Vic. Sadly the tree is no longer there.
“Shops would pull the transmissions and I’d come by and rebuild them. Then I started doing transmissions for the local dealership; they had a bench all ready for me.”
So now Vic was doing transmissions and general repair in his free time, and working full time as a cook at the Orchid at Mauna Lani hotel. Suddenly he was a very busy guy. And, being one of the only transmission repair guys on the island, his business kept growing.
Finally, he decided to open his shop in Kona. In 2007, Vic opened a second shop in Hilo. He added general repair during the economic slump in 2008.
Since there really aren’t a lot of other shops to compete with, you might wonder why Transmission Technology would be a full ATRA Member. Tech support, sure, but what’s the point of the Golden Rule Warranty with no other shops around?
While it isn’t common, Vic has had experience with the Golden Rule Warranty. “We rebuilt a transmission for a customer in 2005. Later he shipped the car to Nevada.
“The transmission failed and we referred the customer to Hoppy’s Transmission Factory, an ATRA Member shop in Las Vegas. Hoppy’s took great care of the customer; that’s when I became a true believer in ATRA!”
Vic has also taken care of at least one car for another ATRA Member. “The customer moved to the Big Island from Southern California. The transmission had a valve body problem, so we replaced it and got the car back on the road. The whole transaction was quick and smooth.
“Of course ATRA always provides tremendous tech support and terrific information through the ATRA web site. It’s been very beneficial to us; ATRA’s one of the key reasons we have so few comebacks.
Vic’s only complaint is that ATRA doesn’t offer technical seminars on the Big Island. But since that’d pretty much mean the seminar would be exclusively for his techs, it may be a while before ATRA plans a seminar there. But even for a shop tucked away on an island, there’s still terrific value in being an ATRA Member.
A successful auto repair business operating on an active volcano in the middle of an ocean. For many of us, it’s an unbelievably impossible situation. For Vic and Gwen and their staff at Transmission Technology, it’s just another day in paradise.