Over the years, we’ve met a lot of transmission folk who’ve heard the call of the wind and taken to the skies to earn their pilots licenses. For many it seems to have become the next step in their transportation lifecycle: walking, driving, and finally, flying.
But Curtis Price, owner of Price’s Transmission, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has taken his wings to a much higher level. Not content with simply flying small private planes, Curtis earned his captain’s bars and today he works for Jet Blue, flying Airbus A340 and A341 jets to such exotic locals as Bermuda, Europe, and South and Central America.
Of course, flying for a major airline takes him away from the shop most of the time. So he’s passed daily operations of the shop on to some of his family. These days, the shop is being run by Curtis’s son Nicholas and his son-in-law, Jeff Miller.
“They took over last fall,” explains Curtis, “and are really doing a bang-up job getting things back on track the way it was.”
A Little History
Curtis got his start in the auto repair business right out of high school. And he was kind of lucky in that respect, because one of his bosses was fairly demanding: “One of the guys I worked for told me I wouldn’t be any good with transmissions until I knew how everything worked… every component, every gear… I had to know everything about it or I’d just be a parts changer.”
Maybe a little harsh, but not all that far from the truth. And that kind of knowledge enabled Curtis to build a reputation early on as a talented transmission rebuilder, which gave him his start in the business.
By the time he was 19, Curtis was rebuilding transmissions in his garage at home on a part-time basis. Most of his work was wholesale, from car lots and general repair shops in the area. It wasn’t long before he became so busy he needed to get his father involved.
“Originally, my father would pick up the trans, bring it to the house, and he’d tear it down and clean it up for me to rebuild later that night. He wasn’t much with transmissions, but he was a terrific mechanic, having worked on airplanes and cars all his life.”
Within a couple years the work became too much to handle at home, so Curtis found a shop nearby — the same location they’re operating from today — and he rented a portion of it. Price’s Transmission officially opened for business in 1978: 40 years ago this year.
Originally, Curtis handled everything himself: diagnosis, R&R, and rebuild. “Maybe it was ego… maybe pride… but I didn’t want comebacks, I wanted my work to be perfect, and when you start letting someone else get involved, the product can suffer.”
Over time, Curtis found the right people to work with him, and Price’s Transmission grew. He eventually took over the whole shop he was in, and, a couple years ago, he added a second building on the property, expanding his business even further.
Transmissions and Some General Repair
Price’s Transmission is exactly as the name suggests: a transmission shop. They’ve been doing transmissions for 40 years, a nd doing them extremely well. But recently they started handling some general repair.
That’s not unusual; a lot of transmission shops have started handling general repair. It became a big thing back during the economic collapse of 2008. Shops needed to enhance their income, so they expanded their service model.
But at Price’s, general repair was only added in the last year or so, and not to enhance their profit margin. The problem was a familiar one: Too many “transmission” problems had nothing whatever to do with the transmission itself, so they were left with a choice of depending on another shop to handle the repair, or handling it themselves.
“The quality of service was suffering,” explains Curtis. So they equipped the shop with the tools they needed, took advantage of the latest training, and now they’ll handle those repairs themselves rather than send them to a second shop. “The overall quality of the work is better,” says Curtis.
Price’s is still primarily a transmission repair shop. But, while the car is there, they’ll look things over, and if something else is necessary, they’ll be happy to help the customer out by handling those additional repairs, even if the repairs needed have nothing to do with the transmission.
“The car is here and it’s out of commission,” explains Jeff, Curtis’s son-in-law and Price’s general manager. “If we can take care of it while it’s down for repairs, we can save the customer time and inconvenience. It’s a win-win for both of us.”
While they’re willing to handle just about anything, they prefer to keep those additional services under wraps: “We don’t really advertise the general repairs much,” says Curtis. “It’s more for customers who are already there.”
Another point that keeps some transmission shops away from general repairs has to do with their wholesale customers: The more wholesale work they handle, the less likely they are to add general repairs into their service model, because their wholesale customers don’t appreciate the competition.
According to Curtis, about half of the transmission work they do is wholesale. But when asked about that conflict, he shrugged it off. “Our wholesale customers really don’t seem to care,” he says. “At this point, I’m looking for a better bottom line.” And there’s little doubt that retail customers generally offer a better profit margin for the shop than wholesale customers.
Curtis was quick to acknowledge the advantage of handling general repairs when transmission problems show up. “There’s almost no sales necessary,” he says. “We just let them know what they need.” The trust has already been developed over time with the customer.
“I want to do the job right the first time, at a fair price,” explains Curtis. “And I want to provide my customers with a no-hassle deal.
“I once had a customer call me with a problem with one of my transmissions. He was stuck at the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He said, ‘I need it back right now.’ I had an airplane, so I flew up there, brought the transmission back to the shop, fixed it, and brought it back to the guy. It’s about providing exceptional service.”
“When I was turning wrenches, if a car came back, most guys would put the comeback last in line; I’d grab it first. I couldn’t believe I’d made a mistake, and, if I did, I wanted to find out what I did wrong and make it right. We still do that today: If a customer has a problem with something we did, it comes first.”
One thing that Curtis is adamant about is the importance of keeping his staff well trained and up to date. “My guys went to a class just last week; we’re continually attending seminars to keep up with what’s going on in the industry.”
Over the years, that training has included attending Expo: “I’ve been to Expo myself a few times, and I’ve taken my son with me in the past.” We’ll be looking for the whole team to come out to Vegas one day soon.
Customers Come First
It’s no secret that one of the keys to running a successful shop is to serve the customers’ needs, rather than simply fixing the transmission. It’s a recent concept that’s been at the heart of the What’s Working program since its inception, but it’s one that’s gained credibility with each passing year.
Jeff is quick to acknowledge the importance of customer service. While he’s working as the shop’s general manager, his experience isn’t in the automotive industry: “I have my own business that provides financial services and planning, and investment counseling. We make sure our customers have prudent portfolios that’ll help them get where they want to be in retirement.”
A far cry from auto repair. But then again, we’ve seen more and more shops being run by people without automotive technical experience. That can actually be an advantage, because they’re more likely to understand the customer’s situation and be able to empathize with them.
And Jeff is a big believer in the customer-centric business model: “I come from a very customer service-driven business, so here we have two parts to our business model. One is certainly the automotive repair, but to me, it’s all about the customer experience.
My philosophy is that we always want to treat the customer with exceptional care, because it’s the customer base that provides the reviews, it’s the customer base that provides the referrals, and it’s the customer base that provides repeat opportunity to serve them.
“So, with business being so driven by social media and other avenues, that service mechanism and that delivery is really what creates the opportunity for them to feel good about the services we provide. Obviously we want to make sure the car is taken care of, but we want to make sure the customer is taken care of as well.”
Jeff may be new to the auto repair business, but it sounds like he has the customer service concepts well in hand.
Lockup Diagnostic Tool
Back in the early ’80s, a lot of transmission shops had trouble with a new technology that was heading their way: lockup converters. The manufacturers added a single wire to the transmission, and it knocked the transmission techs of the day for a loop. It was enough to put some shops out of business.
“When the lockup transmission came out, everyone was having problems with the lockup not working,” explains Curtis. Price’s was selling their own reman units to shops in the area, and many of them would still have a lockup problem after installing one of their transmissions.
“I’d send a technician over to the shop, and they’d have to tell the shop owner the problem wasn’t in the transmission. So I called a friend of mine — an electronics genius — and we designed the Falcon II test equipment for testing the lockup converter system. Bob Chernay and ATRA both used them in their seminars.
“Technicians could connect it in line, shift the converter clutch in and out themselves, and check current flow.” Curtis felt it was the only way he could continue to sell his transmissions and make sure his customers were checking the converter clutch operation properly.
“Delta Automotive bought the tester; they wanted the product. They saw ATRA using it in their seminars and they didn’t want their competition selling it.”
Curtis recently bought five acres near Lake Okeechobee, Florida, where he keeps horses and is working on building his retirement home. It’s a busy life, but he seems to be enjoying himself.
“I’ve been blessed… I’ve got no complaints… I’ve lived more life than I ever thought I would. My youngest is 14, my oldest is 43.”
It sounds pretty amazing; something we can all hope for. Here’s wishing Curtis clear skies and a long and happy life.