Shop Profile - May - 2018

Quality Transmission and Alignment: Remaining Successful in Small-Town USA

One of the characteristics of small town living is that just about everyone knows your business. Just one unhappy customer could irreparably damage your reputation in a matter of just a few hours, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

So it says a lot about a business that’s been operating successfully in a small town for almost 40 years. That’s a long time to avoid the stigma that an unhappy customer could release on your business.

Quality Transmission and Alignment is one such business. Owner Don Keiser has been operating his shop in Norfolk, Nebraska, a town of only about 24,000 people, for 38 years now. And according to Don, business is booming.

“I started working on cars when I was still in high school,” says Don. “That was back in 1972.

“My brother gave me a 1957 Chevy after he got out of the military. He got it and he had fun with it, and after a while driving it he tore up the transmission. He put a used one in and he tore that one up, too.

“So then I got the car. I took the automatic out and replaced it with a 3-speed, floor-shift manual transmission. Later I went to a 4-speed and a bigger engine.

“I had a good friend who was into automotive stuff and was a year ahead of me in high school. He and I would work on them.

“Then, in 1975, I went to Northeast Technical Community College to learn automotive technology; later it changed its name to Northeast Community College. I graduated in 1977 with honors.

“After graduating, I took a few jobs in a few other shops here in town until 1980, when I opened my own shop. I started in a rented building on South 4th Street; it was on a one-way street going north. Talk about making things difficult. But customers started coming in.”

A New Name

“I started with the name Quality Transmission and Auto Repair. But I built the new building in 1985 and added an alignment rack in the beginning of 1986, so that’s when we changed the name to Quality Transmission and Alignment.”

They still do minor general repair, like brakes, struts, and of course, complete driveline service. But they won’t touch major general repairs, such as replacing an engine. For that, they’ll recommend one of the general repair shops they work with.

And they no longer advertise general repairs; just transmissions and alignment. But it turns out there’s an important reason for that: “Our real bread-and-butter and true interest is in automatic transmissions, clutches, and alignments.

“We also do maintenance work, like oil changes, for some of the businesses here in town, and our friends and local people. But I don’t want to advertise oil changes; I hate ’em.”

That works okay if you’re busy enough, and for years they have been. Although lately some of the work they used to count on has gone by the wayside.

Wholesale Business

“We used to do a lot of transmission work for Ford dealerships in the area,” explains Don. Then Ford cracked down on their dealers and told them, ‘You either do them in house or you buy them from Ford.’”

That was a big hit for Don and his crew, because they had about five Ford dealers in the area sending them transmission repair work. That went away when Ford changed their policy. Those dealers still send their used cars to Quality, but that’s a far cry from where they were a few years ago.

Of course, that transmission work would have dropped dramatically even if Ford hadn’t intervened. Today’s transmissions are just lasting longer than the ones those Ford dealers used to send to Quality. So one way or another, the late model Ford work was going to dry up.

But even without the late model Fords, Quality still handles a lot of wholesale work for the other general repair shops in the area. According to Don, about half of the transmissions they repair are wholesale jobs.

In this case, that could mean anything from the shop pulling the trans and bringing it to Quality or the shop sending the customer to Quality for the repairs and keeping their hands off the transmission entirely.

In addition, they handle a number of fleets in the area, including a nearby plumbing and heating shop, a large mechanical contractor, and others. And of course, the difference between fleets and wholesale is that fleets are more concerned with getting their vehicles back on the road quickly; price isn’t as important to them.

But between wholesale, fleets, and retail customers, Quality tends to stay busy all year long.

Adding Alignment

One of the unique features of Quality Transmission and Alignment is right in their name: alignment. You don’t see a lot of transmission specialty shops including wheel alignment as part of their business model. But as Don explains, the connection makes a lot of sense.

That’s because a majority of today’s cars are front wheel drive, so removing the transmission often means disassembling the subframe. And, no matter how carefully you do that, when you put the subframe back together, the alignment is going to change.

So a wheel alignment is a great addition to their transmission repairs. “We try to include an alignment with every major transmission repair,” explains Don.

But as we said before, alignments aren’t a common service to combine with transmissions. How did they make that connection? “The guy who got me started in 1972 in high school ended up coming to work for me in 1983. And he liked doing alignments, so when I built the new shop, I included an alignment rack especially for him.”

Those alignments quickly became a lucrative part of their business, so, while they’re primarily a transmission shop, wheel alignments have become a valued service they offer their customers.

Occasional Remans

Quality Transmission is primarily a transmission specialty shop, so most of their transmission work involves custom rebuilds. But occasionally they’ll purchase a reman for one of their customers.

“We’ll use remans on some foreign cars, and we’ve used them on some of the 6R140s; they just get too time-consuming to rebuild in house,” explains Don.

Of course, if a unit is too burned up to make a custom rebuild cost effective, that’s another situation when they’ll recommend a reman.

While a lot of shops also consider a reman for out-of-town customers, that isn’t a common situation at Quality. “We don’t have a lot of tourists visiting the area,” explains Don, “so out-of-towners aren’t a big consideration for us.”

But if it makes sense, they’re only too happy to use a reman to provide their customers with quick, reliable service.

Great Service

As with so many other successful shops, Don and his crew are focused on providing honest repairs and quality service at a fair price.

They must be doing something right, because, after all these years in business at the same location, they’ve managed to maintain an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau.

Of course, there’s generally no better way to keep your name out there than with community service. And Don is happy to contribute to local charities and service groups in the community. “We’ve been a member of the Chamber of Commerce forever, the Kiwanis, and a member of the Elks club.” He also contributes to the local churches and the YMCA.

Longtime ATRA Member

Quality Transmission has been an ATRA Member since 1982; just a short time after they first opened their doors. Don had already been introduced to ATRA’s benefits, so he knew how important membership would be for the success of his shop.

“One of the shop’s I’d worked for before opening my business was an ATRA Member, so I was already familiar with the Association,” explains Don. “I signed up shortly after we opened.”

His reasons for joining? “The technical information and the nationwide warranty,” says Don. No surprises there; probably the two most common reasons for a shop to become an ATRA Member.

Of course, the information services are nothing like they were when Don first opened his doors. Today’s technology is changing at an alarming rate. But Don was happy to point out that ATRA has done a wonderful job of keeping up with the changing technology.

And, in addition to the information services ATRA provides on line and by phone, the technicians at Quality Transmission also take full advantage of the regional seminar program that ATRA provides.

Success Depends on Terrific Employees

One thing that Don was quick to acknowledge was just how integral his employees are to the success at Quality Transmission. And he wanted to be sure to take the time to thank them individually for their contributions to the business. “They’ve been with me a long time,” says Don.

And that says a lot, not just about the employees themselves, but also about Don as an employer. Employees don’t stay where they aren’t happy, but many of Don’s staff have been with Quality Transmission for years. His desire to acknowledge them only reinforces his respect for his team.

Kevin Olson is their head rebuilder and diagnostician; he’s been with Quality Transmission since 1982.

“Stubb” Hoesing came to Quality in 1983 as a general technician. He retired a few years ago, but his influence is still felt there.

Jerry Prauner is their R&R technician. He’s been with Quality since 1985.

Janna Beeken has been the company’s bookkeeper since 1986.

Steve Sampson came on in 1987 as a transmission rebuilder.

Brad Carlson is the new guy at Quality, having come on in 2013 to replace “Stubb” when he retired. Brad is their all-around technician and diagnostician.

“I’d like to thank my employees for all they do to keep us at the top of our game,” says Don.

It’s nice to hear a shop owner who remembers the contribution he receives from his employees, so we’re only too happy to include them in GEARS.

After Hours

While a big part of his day is spent operating his shop, after hours Don is pleased to head home to spend time with his wife, Sheila. They have four grown children: Jesse, Dusty, Kristina, and Nicole.

Operating a successful transmission repair business is hard. Doing it in a small town can be even harder. And remaining successful in that environment for nearly 40 years is nearly impossible.

But Don and his team at Quality Transmission and Alignment have managed to beat the odds. That says a lot about their business model and their dedication to serving the community. We’re proud to have them representing our industry in small town, Nebraska.