This year — 2017 — marks a milestone for i. It’s our silver jubilee — 25 years! — a quarter of a century since GEARS first appeared in the mailboxes for transmission businesses all across the country.
As always, a landmark event of this magnitude demands that we look back to the beginning… to understand the reason for its inception, and to examine how we got from there to here.
The idea for an in-house magazine was the brainchild of ATRA’s Board of Directors, headed by then-president Gary Jennings, owner of Jim Jennings Transmissions in Essex, Maryland. In fact, Gary likes to think of himself as a father of GEARS, and most folk who were there seem to support that assessment.
The story goes back to the early to- mid-80s, when ATRA was partnered with MD Publications to put on an annual trade show: Transmission Expo. ATRA provided the technical programs and supporting materials and MD Publications handled the logistics and management seminars.
It seemed like a good idea, but over time, ATRA began to lose its identity. “You’d walk onto the show floor, and there was nothing to indicate that ATRA was even part of the program,” says Gary. “We were fighting for our survival.”
So ATRA’s Board made a momentous decision… the effects of which would alter the future of the Association: They decided to create their own show… a show that would become ATRA’s annual Powertrain Expo.
“From there, we needed a way to market ATRA and its show. That’s when GEARS was born.”
It’s a decision that Gary is very proud of to this day. “In my opinion, GEARS Magazine saved ATRA. It gave us a way to publicize our Association.”
And, 25 years later, that decision is still going strong, keeping ATRA and Powertrain Expo at the forefront of the automatic transmission repair industry.
Anyone can decide to put out a magazine. Actually doing it gets a little tougher, and every step in the process comes with its own unique set of challenges. That fell to the shoulders of Steve Gray, ATRA’s executive director back then, and Cheryl Nicholson.
Cheryl was ATRA’s special projects director. GEARS was a new project, so she handled the day-to-day production tasks of the magazine, even though she had no real experience in magazine publishing. As close as she’d ever gotten was producing ATRA’s newsletters and tech bulletins.
It was Cheryl’s idea to produce GEARS as a tabloid-sized publication, to help set it apart from the existing trade magazines. And she chose newsprint for the early issues to reduce printing costs.
Of course, publishing a magazine costs money. For that, you need advertising. That task fell to Frank Pasley, a man with absolutely no experience in advertising or automatic transmissions. So who better to take the reins for selling ad space in the fledgling GEARS?
Actually, it isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds: “Selling is selling,” explains Frank. “I was selling insurance at the time. Selling insurance is a lot like selling magazine space: It’s an intangible product.
“When it came time to sell ads, I just picked up a copy of other trade magazines, checked their advertisers’ list, and started calling them, one at a time. And I told them, ‘We have a better deal.’
“One of the advantages of running a tabloid-sized magazine is that someone buying a quarter-page ad would get an ad that was nearly the size of a half page in other magazines. And we were offering it for less.”
Of course, you can’t have a magazine without articles… something to fill the space between the ads. That first issue included an introduction from Steve and an article on pollution insurance from Frank. And, quite appropriately for a first issue, there was an article on the importance of creating a strong business plan from Thom Tschetter.
“I’d just put on my first management seminar for ATRA,” says Thom. “Steve told me that ATRA was planning its own trade show and publishing a new magazine, and asked if I’d be interested in writing management articles.” It was the beginning of what’s proved to be a long and beneficial relationship.
But, from the very beginning, ATRA was and always will be about providing terrific tech: “By technicians for technicians,” as GEARS Managing Editor Rodger Bland so eloquently puts it.
Frank Pasley agrees: “The one thing that always sold GEARS Magazine — and it’s still its best selling feature today — is ATRA’s tech. No one else comes close to the articles from ATRA’s technical department. They’ve always stood head-and-shoulders above everyone else.”
So naturally, any magazine from ATRA would have to have a powerful technical presence. Through all the changes and upheavals, that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed… and it’s the one thing that never will.
That first issue had a technical insert called Techstop. It began with an introduction from then-Technical Director Rick Rickett. From there, the tech department stepped in, creating a series of columns that would grace the pages of GEARS for years to come: Electronically Speaking, Ask the Experts, Shop Talk, and more.
Back then, ATRA’s technical department consisted of such luminaries as Glenn Troub, Cliff McCormick, Paul Yaklin, and of course, Dennis Madden, now ATRA’s CEO. These were the guys who stepped up when the order came down for a new magazine.
Dennis’s first article for GEARS was Surviving the Ford 4EAT/Mazda G4A-EL, under his Shop Talk column heading. You might think he’d have found his new responsibility as a magazine writer intimidating. You’d be wrong.
“I was excited about it,” says Dennis. “Back then, I was deep in tech: I was writing things left and right, discovering new information for the guys in the field. I’d been writing articles for other magazines so, I saw this as a challenge and I was thrilled to face it.”
That level of excitement and responsibility hasn’t diminished over the years, an attitude he now shares with Technical Director Lance Wiggins. Today, you can see their influence throughout the pages of GEARS . Both Dennis and Lance regularly write their own columns and constantly oversee other articles in the magazine, to make certain they live up to the standards that were set 25 years ago.
“We might have gotten a little silly with the names of some of our columns,” says Dennis. “Ask the Experts, Tech Check, Parts Counter … we chose each column to have a specific focus. Parts Counter was about parts updates; Tech Check was where we corrected old wives’ tales that kept popping up in the shop; Ask the Experts was where we presented answers to calls that came into the tech line.
“We were trying to be innovative; it was about making the information interesting. And it gave us the chance to reach out to the entire industry, instead of just speaking with one technician at a time.”
Once they had all the articles and ads together, Frank would step in to help get the magazine assembled. “I’d get a stack of insertion orders, and I’d match them up with the ads. Cheryl would give me the articles, and I’d stack everything in my car and take it to the layout artists.
“I’d tell them, ‘I want this ad there,’ and ‘Put that one here,’ and they’d lay it out. They’d ship it off to the printer, who’d send us a blue-line to evaluate and approve. Once we approved it, they’d go ahead and print it.”
In 1995, Rodger Bland came on board as the GEARS production director. He took over many of the day-to-day operations that Frank was handling, leaving him free to focus on ad sales. Rodger became managing editor in 2001.
In 1997, ATRA hired Jeanette Troub away from a layout and design company, and she began laying out GEARS in house. That job became more than one person can handle, so a few years ago, Aurelio Peña came on board as a full-time artist and designer.
No doubt about it: Today’s GEARS is a far cry from those early issues. But the one thing that hasn’t changed… the one thing that will always be our priority… is that GEARS is, and will always be, the magazine you can depend on for the latest, most accurate information for your business.
In 1992, there were only two issues of GEARS: summer and fall. The first issue included several articles introducing the fledgling magazine to the industry and announcing the new trade show.
In its second year, GEARS became a quarterly, with winter, spring, summer, and fall issues. The following two years it increased to six issues a year. From 1996 through 2013, it jumped to nine, and for the last four years, GEARS has shown up in your mailbox 10 times a year.
The biggest change came in 2002: That was the year GEARS went from a tabloid to a standard-sized magazine. While the tabloid set it apart and provided larger images, it was difficult to store and advertisers had to create two different-sized ads: one for GEARS (tabloid) and one for standard size magazines.
So, in 2002, GEARS switched to a more familiar, more functional size. “We used the magazine specs for ad sizes, which were the same for nearly every automotive trade magazine on the market,” explains Rodger. “Now, instead of creating two separate ads, advertisers can use the same ad in each magazine.”
Also in 2002, Rodger began to submit GEARS articles for consideration with the IAMA (International Automotive Media Award). Since then, GEARS has received over 60 awards for writing, style, and production. Last year, GEARS won a gold medal for the cover design of the October/November issue.
In the early issues, GEARS was primarily focused on tech. Management and business subjects were on a catch-as-catch-can basis, with contributors offering whatever they wanted, usually having at least something to do with whatever service they were selling.
Today, GEARS consists of two halves: the technical half and the management half. And management articles are based on what we’ve learned from ATRA’s What’s Working program, with specific subjects leading to upcoming programs at Expo.
No doubt about it: GEARS has come a long way since its early days. Today GEARS has a full-time staff, plus a wide variety of outside authors and editors, providing articles on management and sales, business development, and of course, technical issues covering every aspect of the industry.
In addition to its familiar, print format, GEARS is also an online magazine — www.GEARSMagazine. com — with a new site that allows you to search for articles by keyword.
But, according to ATRA President Jim Rodd, probably the biggest surprise to come out of GEARS was that it became an unexpected source of revenue for ATRA. “The additional income from GEARS has helped us keep membership dues as low as possible,” says Jim, “which is a benefit to all ATRA Members.”
The GEARS of today is very different from what it was 25 years ago. And you can be sure that, by the time we reach our golden jubilee, there’ll be even more dramatic changes.
To begin with, we’ve only just begun to skim the surface of what’s possible on line. Pictures are great, but an online format allows for video, animation, and maybe even interactive presentations. The sky’s the limit, and we’re looking forward to taking full advantage of those boundaries. And, once we reach them, count on the GEARS staff to look for ways to push them to new heights.
“We’ll continue to provide the very best this industry has to offer when it comes to technical information and training,” says Rodger. “And we’re always on the lookout for fresh faces to grace our editorial and business pages.”
When the industry sees new challenges, look for GEARS to step up to the plate and continue to hit it out of the park. “Transmission people are the folks who fix the impossible,” says Dennis. “That’s the spirit of this industry. GEARS is here to help make the impossible become possible. That’s how it’s been since our first issue, and it’s going to be our goal as we look to the future.”
25 years of GEARS … for those of us who’ve helped shape it over the years, that’s an amazing thought. But one thing you can be sure of: We won’t be resting on our laurels. The next 25 years starts tomorrow, and we’ll be working on it with the same fervor that we’ve dedicated to the last quarter century.
We’ll be celebrating GEARS’s silver jubilee at this year’s Expo, October 19–22 in Las Vegas. Make sure you stop by and say hello to the folks who’ve made GEARS an invaluable part of your business model for the last 25 years. We’ll look for you there!