We’ve long established the value of building a community presence in today’s business environment. But for most shops, that usually means sponsoring a local sports team, joining a service club, or taking part in a community event.
Few shops have taken community to the level of Western Transmission, owned and operated by James “Jimmy” McGeachin and his wife, Janice. Their business presence roams a wide swath within their home in Idaho. To begin with, they operate a rather large transmission and auto repair shop in Idaho Falls. And, yes, Jimmy’s a member of the local Rotary Club. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
They also own two transmission parts stores: one in Idaho Falls and a second in Boise. And they have their own torque converter shop. And a very popular bar in town, The Celt, operated by their daughter, Liza.
Truth be told, with all the businesses they operate, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Idaho Falls who doesn’t end up connecting with them at some level.
As if that weren’t enough, Janice has been a member of the Idaho legislature for the last 10 years. And, she was recently elected the first woman lieutenant governor of Idaho!
How’s that for community involvement? Not the kind you probably normally associate with getting to know the folks in your area, but certainly effective ways of getting their names out there.
A Little History
Western Transmission got its start in 1969 with Jimmy’s father, Jim. “Dad came out to Idaho Falls in about 1954. He was a nuclear engineer and was working at a local nuclear lab,” explains Jimmy. “He worked out at the lab for about 16 to 18 years. But he always wanted to be in business for himself.”
Jim really had no automotive experience, but, “He found a book on franchises, and he eventually chose an AAMCO franchise. He opened his AAMCO center in 1969. But AAMCO wasn’t able to provide adequate support for shops in the area, so he dropped the franchise within about a year and opened as Western Transmission.”
Operating a transmission shop without any automotive repair experience can create a difficult situation. You need to have dependable people working for you, and, “You have to mind the store,” says Jimmy. “If you aren’t going to mind the store, you’d better find a different business.” By the mid-70s, the transmission shop was doing well, but getting parts could sometimes be a problem. “Back then, most transmission parts came from Lempco in New York. You’d tear something down in Idaho, and, if you had to order parts, you could be waiting almost a week before they arrived.
“We realized that was pretty inefficient, so we started stocking parts for ourselves. Before long, everyone in the area knew we had the parts in stock to fix transmissions. Back then, there weren’t that many units, so it didn’t require maintaining that big an inventory.”
But a lot of the shops were located in very small towns, where stocking just wasn’t financially feasible. So they’d come to Western to buy their kits. It wasn’t long before Jim opened their first parts warehouse — Idaho Transmission Warehouse — in 1976. They opened a second parts warehouse in Boise in 1982.
At the time, Jimmy was in junior high, but he began helping out in the shop, coming in after school and on weekends. After graduating high school, Jimmy attended the University of Idaho. He came to work full time at their parts warehouse in about 1982.
Since then, the parts business has become the largest part of their business, providing about 75% of their overall income. “We put our own rebuild kits together, and we sell hard parts and soft parts for standards, automatics, transfer cases, and differentials.”
Their parts business is generally regional: “We sell mostly to the intermountain west,” explains Jimmy. “We sell to shops in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and of course, Idaho. And a little bit of Nevada.”
If that weren’t enough, they also opened a converter shop in about 1986. “We were originally selling RPM converters,” says Jimmy. “Then RPM came into the area and began selling directly to our customers, so there was no way to continue selling their converters profitably.
“We tried a few other converters but we weren’t happy with what we were getting. At that point, several companies started building converter remanufacturing equipment for smaller rebuilders, so that’s what we did. We were selling enough torque converters that we could justify doing them ourselves.”
No doubt about it: When it comes to transmission repair in the Idaho Falls area, Western Transmissions certainly has their hands in pretty much every step in the process.
While transmissions are a big part of the business model at Western Transmission, today they’re also a full-service, general repair shop. That’s really no surprise: These days a lot of transmission shops have expanded into general repairs, usually because they don’t have enough transmission repair work. But usually not for the reason they did at Western.
“We’ve always had a lot of work, probably because of the synergies. We have the warehouse, the parts, and the torque converters, and they’ve always worked very well together.” So it wasn’t about filling the slow times. Turns out it was their building that dictated the addition:
“Last year, we had the opportunity to buy a much larger shop; a 12-bay shop with 11 lifts. It was already a general repair shop,” says Jimmy. “Customers were coming in the door, asking us to do everything. We had the extra bays, so we figured, ‘Why not?’ And we began offering general repair.” They hired the staff necessary to expand their service model into general repairs.
Taking on Remans
In addition to selling transmission parts, Idaho Transmission Warehouse also offers remans. In 2013, they became a distributor for Certified Transmission.
“Somewhere in the mid-80s, a big part of our business became selling reman transmissions that we rebuilt in our shop,” says Jimmy. “We sold mainly to other shops in the area that didn’t want to rebuild on their own.
“We ended up with a pretty good inventory of our own units; at one point we probably had 150 of our rebuilds in stock. Of course, a lot of them were the 350s, 400s, C6s… pretty easy ones.
“After a while, we started having trouble keeping up with the demand. We toyed around with trying to create a bigger reman facility.” They finally decided not to go that route, so Jimmy went out and visited the remanufacturing facility at Certified.
“When we saw how big a technical team they had, and all the dynos, it seemed to me to be the way to go with our business.” Originally they started by picking and choosing which transmissions to rebuild themselves, and which to buy from Certified.
Today remans make up a substantial part of their business model.
Western Transmissions is truly a family-owned business, one that now encompasses three generations of the McGeachin family. It was opened by Jim McGeachin back in 1969.
Jim’s son, Jimmy, came to work in the business in 1982. “Dad got the whole thing started,” says Jimmy. “I was always more interested in the parts business. I did R&R one summer and decided that wasn’t for me!” So Jimmy definitely gravitated more toward the parts end of the company.
And recently, Jimmy and Janice’s son, James McGeachin, joined the company after earning a business degree: the third generation of the McGeachin family to be part of the company. While Jimmy is overseeing the company as a whole, James is currently working as the controller for the family’s parts business.
Longtime ATRA Members
Western Transmission has been an ATRA Member for many years. “I can’t remember us ever not being a Member,” he says.
A big part of their reason for that has to do with the Golden Rule Warranty. “When you sell a service to someone who’s just passing through — we’re really close to Yellowstone Park, so we see a fair number of out-of-towners — it gives us the ability to take care of the customer and provide coverage no matter where they live. If there is a problem, we can handle the warranty, or even if they just need a regular transmission check in their home town, we have somewhere to send them.”
And not just for the warranty: “Our technicians use ATRA for technical support on a regular basis. And the ATRA seminars have always been an important part of our training program. If you don’t maintain your education in this business, it’ll get ahead of you… faster than ever now. We go to several ATRA seminars a year.”
The technicians at Western Transmission have been to Expo in the past, but it looks like this year they won’t be able to make it. That’s because Jimmy is busy working with his wife on her election campaign. In fact, if you call Jimmy’s office at Western, you’ll get a message that you’ve reached Janice’s election campaign office. Maybe he’ll have more time to attend Expo next year!
Making a Difference
Janice McGeachin was elected as the new lieutenant governor of Idaho. According to Jimmy, part of her reason for being involved in politics has to do with what she’s learned from her role in the family business.
“She really believes in the importance of helping the next generation get into small business. It’s amazing how hard it is for people to get into business today: understanding all the labor laws, taxes, payroll… it’s just getting more and more complicated. If we want small businesses to survive, we need to make it easier for the little guy to get into business.
“We see it all the time in this business: A good technician decides to open a shop and he gets run over before he knows what’s going on. He doesn’t know how to handle the payroll, quarterlies, workers’ comp, unemployment, taxes… it just becomes overwhelming.
“If you’re already in business, it isn’t as hard to start another business, because you already know what you have to do. Both of our kids graduated with business degrees, and they both ask, ‘How would anyone know about all the things you’re required to do?’”
When it comes to this business, here’s what Jimmy has to say: “I think the key to our industry is really about taking care of your people. Our average employee has been with us for 15 years, but we have some who’ve been with us for over 30 years.
“These days it’s pretty easy to find another job; it’s really hard to find a new home. If you can make a home where they know you have their best interests in mind, you’ll have way more success.”
It sounds like a reasonable approach to this business. Maybe it’s not surprising that they’re doing so well.