By Debbie Briggs
Oceanside Transmission has been in business since 1989 and over the years Owner Dean Kuhn has seen a lot of changes in the transmission business. Gone are the transmission-only shops of the past; to survive, a change in the shop’s business model was a must.
“The transmission shop as we know it is gone,” Kuhn says. “My transmission shop in Oceanside is doing well, and it’s sad to say, but it’s because of the demise of the other transmission shops in my town. There were 11 transmission shops in 2008. It’s me and AAMCO now, and AAMCO’s doing general repair. I think the stand-alone transmission shop is a thing of the past.”
Satellite Tranny Shops
In an effort to expand his shop’s customer base, Kuhn formed Certified Transmission of San Diego, CA, and opened satellite transmission shops within other general repair shops throughout the county. The Certified Transmission Network includes eight shops throughout the county, and it features its own website and marketing plan. It’s a unique approach to growing his business, and it’s really paying off.
“In Encinitas, I have a satellite shop at Brad’s Foreign and Domestic,” Kuhn explains. “I’m in the building with them, but we have a separate office. Their technicians do all of the repair work. My Oceanside store is Oceanside Transmission, but it’s also Certified Transmission of Oceanside because the certified network is a main part of how we market ourselves.
“Customers who need a transmission go onto our certified site and find a location, and then they book the appointment at that repair shop. If the shop needs a transmission or they need technical support, we send it to them.”
Kuhn says his business is also thriving thanks to the business relationships developed with local repair shop owners outside the Certified Transmission Network, as well as with wholesale transmission shops.
“We do work for all the general repair shops in our area, and we also supply transmissions, our own rebuilds and our own remanufactured transmissions, to all the cities, school districts, municipalities and military,” he says. “Being a specialist, what happens is the aftermarket will deal with us because we’re not their competition. The local general repair shop doesn’t really want to send their customers down the street to someone who’s doing the same types of repairs. And being a specialist has allowed us to team up with the wholesale business, as well.”
Feet On The Street
In addition to long-time technicians and machinists, Kuhn says he also employs outside salespeople, who do nothing but go out and “meet and greet” other area shop owners.
“I try to bridge the gap between the general repair guy who is doing transmission work, but he’s not a specialist,” Kuhn explains. “Sometimes he gets in a rut, and we try to be his answer. If he wants to buy one and install it, we’re there for him. If he wants to take it out and have us rebuild it, we’re there for him. And if they don’t understand their diagnostic process or something along the way, we’re there for them. Once we’ve done that for them a couple times, we usually have a pretty good relationship.”
Oceanside Transmission also provides transmission work to retail customers, who usually find the business through the Internet, an important part of attracting customers who will most likely have the need for a new transmission once only in their lifetime.
“Being a transmission shop, most of the retail people who come to us are new,” Kuhn says. “When they’re new, they’re looking for information; they’re looking to build credibility. They’ll investigate us. A good website is absolutely a must.”
Shop Appeal And First Impressions
Kuhn also pays close attention to shop appearance. It’s everything, he says, especially when customers visit your shop only a few times; it’s critical to make a good first impression.
He was doing outside sales (and had opened up a place in Orange County) and found that whenever he would walk into a shop for the first time, he would rate it after he left. “Every time I found myself giving a shop an ‘A’ it was because of the curb appeal,” Kuhn explains.
It inspired him to really focus on making the shop presentable for the customer. And since 1997, that’s what he’s done.
“I have older buildings that are all from the ’40s and ’50s. We painted them a million times and finally said, let’s do something different,” he explains. “I have guys in my machine shop who are really talented, and we put a complete glass façade on our building. Then we put $55,000 into the office and customer waiting area. That was in ’98, and it still looks awesome.”
Most of those talented employees have been with Oceanside Transmission for several years — as long as 17. Kuhn credits being open about business with helping employees to have a vested interest in the shop’s success.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve done is having a transparent business between us and the employees, to where they really understand what needs to be done for the business,” he explains. “That, in turn, allows us to pay them better. I found when I shared my ideas and strategies — and the books openly — it seemed to really help them understand.”
Tailored employee compensation programs, medical insurance and a healthy time-off package — starting at three weeks per year — all help attract and keep employees.
“We don’t work Saturdays,” Kuhn adds. “One day is not enough time for employees to do their ‘honey-do’ list, get a nap in and play with their kids. Years ago, we went to Monday through Friday.”
And that’s one thing Kuhn learned early on from working with Elite Worldwide, Inc. (an auto repair business sales and marketing solutions company, www.eliteworldwide store.com) — he knows how to hire the superstars. And, by empowering his people to have a vested interest in the company, turnover is one business concern that doesn’t affect this successful shop.