If you’re a diehard GEARS reader, the name Transolution might be a familiar one: We visited Transolution Auto Care Center in Missoula, Montana, when we were doing the shop visits on our trips around the country for ATRA’s regional tech seminars.
But those shop visits were more of a social call… not much to be learned from them. So we decided to sit down with Chris and discover just how he built his business, and what other shop owners could take away from his successes.
Transolution operates from a beautiful shop in a thriving town, but that isn’t where it began. “I had two other locations before I built this shop in 2004,” says Chris. In fact, his first shop wasn’t even called Transolution.
“I was in Hamilton, Montana, for about 13 years, and I had a shop called Chris’s Auto Service. Then I moved to Missoula and started Transolution in 1989.
“In addition to owning a shop, I was also a research tech with Gil Younger. We had a number of conversations, and I realized that, if I hoped to continue in the industry, I’d have to learn electronics and start moving in that direction.” In retrospect, it was obviously a smart decision.
Missoula was also a larger area with a much denser population than Hamilton, so it provided Chris with a better market to support his business model. “I made the decision to close the shop in Hamilton and move to Missoula.”
Chris opened Transolution in a small shop he rented. “I was there for about 13 years,” explains Chris. “Then I ran into a guy from Chile named Luigi who owned a foreign car repair shop. He needed someone to handle his tranny work and we became friends.
“A few years later, Luigi decided to move back to Chile and he offered to sell me his three-bay shop. I worked out of that shop for about 13 years, but I’d always dreamt of having a state-of-the-art automotive facility. I found a property nearby and, after a few years, I was able to put enough money together to build the shop we’re in now.”
He started construction in 2000 and they moved into the new shop in 2004. Today, Transolution operates in a 5600 square-foot, five-bay, state-of-the-art auto repair shop.
In addition to transmission repair, Transolution is also a general repair shop. Big deal, right? Lots of transmission shops now offer general repair. It’s become a common business model over the last few years.
But what sets Transolution apart from so many other shops is that Chris started his business as a general repair shop… a general repair shop that also offers transmission repairs. As it turns out, that provides Chris and the technicians at Transolution with an interesting advantage over many other shops today.
A big part of that advantage has to do with Chris’s background: “I started out doing general repair — I was doing trannies too — and I was into the performance side of the cars,” explains Chris.
“I was building a lot of transmissions and I ran into a few problems, so I started studying the hydraulics and how they work; that’s when I got involved with Gil Younger.
“When I moved to Missoula, I realized they didn’t have any really good transmission shops there. I loved building trannies, and I built a lot of them. So I started thinking about how I could go from just general repair into a transmission shop. That’s when I came up with the name ‘Transolution’: We were the solution for their transmission problems.
“But I had the background knowledge of how engines worked and how to deal with driveability issues. People would come in and say, ‘My transmission’s acting up,’ but the problems was an engine misfire; not the trans.
“I ended up fixing a lot of cars because other shops claimed they had a transmission problem when it was something else entirely. When I realized that, I decided to remain a full-service general repair and transmission shop.”
They started really expanding their general repair service after the turn of the century. “Transmissions were lasting longer and working better, so we needed to expand further into general repairs to continue to pay the bills,” explains Chris.
That background in general repairs has become a real advantage for Transolution as transmissions have become more integrated with the rest of the vehicle.
“I count my blessings for having been involved with hotrodding when I was young,” says Chris. “That’s where I learned how engines worked. I had a perfect background for it, so it’s easier for me to deal with both sides of driveability issues.”
Of course, as most shop owners have discovered, providing general service also allows them to build a much stronger relationship with their customers, long before they have to deal with a transmission problem. Which means, when that transmission problem does show up, they no longer have to build trust with their customer: that’s already firmly entrenched.
Open to Remans
Currently, Transolution doesn’t use many remans. But they are open to them. “I don’t do a lot with remans,” says Chris. “But I’m at a point in my life where I can see the benefits of having them available.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about remans: People don’t like them: ‘They’re making all the profit and you’re just becoming an R&R shop.’
“But the remans are here and they’re going to play an even bigger role because a lot of shops don’t have the programming capabilities or they don’t have the techs. And a lot of the tooling has changed. So I think there’s going to be a lot of movement toward remans.
“I still love rebuilding; it’s what gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning. I just love that part of my life. But the remans are coming. A lot of shops are going to start using them for units where they don’t have the experience or the tools to do the job properly. Remans will let them stay focused on what they can do.”
Like most successful shop owners, Chris makes it a point to take a role in his community. One program he’s been involved with is Toys for Tots. “Customers would bring in a toy for the program, and I’d give them a free oil change,” he explains.
He was also part of a highway-cleaning program with his local Corvette club. “We’d get people to come out with us to help us clean up the highway, and for helping out we’d give them some discounts in the shop.”
Chris has also helped support some of the programs that the local police have put on for the school to help educate kids about drug use and the like.
All ways to help in their community while keeping their name in front of their customer base.
“Ten, fifteen years ago, one of the biggest struggles I had was profitability,” says Chris. “The reason was that I didn’t understand how to budget or the true cost of doing business.”
That’s when Chris got involved with the 20 Group of automotive professionals. “It was a three-day event, four times a year. We’d all sit down in a classroom and we’d talk about it. We’d look at the figures, we’d look at each other, and we’d have webinars together. We looked at what it cost to do business.
“We’d discuss what you can change versus what you can’t change. You can’t change the rent, the lights, the heat. But you can change what you’re charging and the cost of parts. We had to look at things like that in a broader view.
“As we started looking at our business costs, we realized that we were losing money like crazy. And we worked out how to change that. We’d brainstorm together and come up with ways to change how we were doing business.
“It was a way for me to tap into the knowledge from a lot of other shop owners who were struggling just like I was, and we worked together to learn what it really takes to run an automotive repair business successfully. “That’s when I started learning about profitability: How to make money in this business and what my true cost of doing business was.
“Up till this point, I’d been a wrench turner and I built trannies. I built a business, but I didn’t understand its true cost. I started looking at that, examining my numbers, and determining what it takes to make money in this business. So many business owners struggle day in and day out because they don’t understand what it costs to do business.
“Once I started to learn and understand that, and charge based on what it costs to operate my shop, things started to change. I became more profitable.
“You have to understand your true cost of doing business if you want to be profitable. Otherwise, you’re working seven days a week, ten hours a day…
“I’ve been caught up in this for years, while a guy down the street will do a job at half my price. But he doesn’t have the overhead… he doesn’t offer the warranty… he doesn’t need to consider all the things I offer my customers. I charge for it, because I have to be profitable. Without that, there’s no way to stay in business.
“That’s something a lot of guys struggle with today. They just don’t understand what it takes to run a business, pay the bills, and keep people employed. It’s something I wish I’d learned 20 years ago.
“Knowing your bottom line — knowing what you’ve got to make to stay alive — and then working toward that goal is the only way you can do it.”
A Marvelous Journey
It’s been a long ride for Chris and Transolution, but something he’s quick to acknowledge is his love for the industry. “The automotive world is an amazing place to be,” he says. “It’s been good to me… it’s been a marvelous journey, through all the ups and downs.
“It’s still a terrific field, even with how quickly the technology is advancing, it’s still a great career and there’s still tons to learn. “I’ve had tough times, but I’ve had a lot of fun, too.”
What advice would Chris have for other shop owners? “It’s about making sure the customer knows that you’re there for them; not just for the bucks. If you go out of your way to do the best you can, it’ll come back to you.” Somehow that sounds familiar… and great advice for everyone.