Mary Gentry has been around transmissions and automotive repair all her life. Her father ran a shop, her brothers are all in the transmission business; she even met her husband in her shop. It pretty much runs in the family.
Growing up in the business, you learn a lot of lessons. Mary, owner of AAMCO Transmissions in Roanoke, Virginia, remembers three in particular that her dad imparted on her.
“One of the biggest ones is, anytime something would get off kilter, or you felt like things weren’t coming together the way that you thought they should have, he would always say you should get back to basics,’” she shares. “There’s just a very basic way of running the business, and it’s easy to get away from that. So when things would get away from us it would be that ever-famous saying: ‘get back to the basics.’
“Another thing was honesty. As silly as that sounds, it’s pretty important. When you’re honest with your customers, and your employees, and yourself, then everything is good. You never have to worry. You don’t have to look over your shoulder or wonder if somebody told the customer something different.
“Keeping it simple—that was another big thing with my dad. You don’t have to make things difficult. It’s a business—it’s money in and money out. So you try to keep it as simple as you can.”
Mary learned these lessons not just in growing up with her dad, but also in working with him—the two opened a shop together in 1997, and then opened AAMCO together in 1999.
Today, AAMCO has six employees, six bays, and services all makes and models of cars and trucks. The shop performs general repair services on components like engines and tires in addition to transmission repair.
Those simple but effective principles still form the cornerstone of what AAMCO does. In an automotive industry that, fairly or otherwise, has a reputation among the public for being occasionally duplicitous, that honesty is just as important now as it was in the 1990s.
For example, Mary says, “20 years ago being a woman in the business, when another woman would come in, it was like they were so relieved to see another woman because they felt like they had a chance of someone being more honest with them.”
That gender split has changed somewhat over time, Mary says, but the importance of honesty when running a shop remains.
“A lot of people, and a lot of women especially, don’t know cars. And when someone would tell us this is what’s wrong, or this is how much it’s going to cost, we pretty much had to trust them to be honest with us. That honesty is something that I definitely went overboard with, and that came from my dad.”
As Mary alludes to, transmission repair is a male-dominated business, and was even more so in 1997, but she says it wasn’t a challenge, describing it as “a lot of fun, actually.
“And it still is,” she continues. “We have customers who come in and may not know me. And I might be standing there with Pete or Tim, and they look directly at the man. The question, everything is directed straight to the man. And it’s pretty funny when one of them will turn around and say, ‘Hey, Mary, what is that transmission?’ or, ‘What do you think about that complaint?’ Or I’ll grab a scanner and go out to check a car and raise eyebrows. It was always kind of fun to me to see the expressions on their faces.
“But I can’t say it was difficult [being a woman]. I never had anyone, any employee or any customer, cause a problem. I never felt like I was less or had to prove more. It was a pretty natural thing.”
In recent years, in addition to her father’s lessons, Mary says she’s learned a lot from her husband, who owns a transmission shop of his own: Clover Racing Transmissions in South Carolina. The two met at Mary’s shop—yet another family link to the transmission business.
Teamwork makes the dream work
When asked what makes her shop stand out, Mary instantly answers that it’s her team.
In addition to Mary, the five other employees at AAMCO are Pete, the service manager; Cameron, the assistant service manager; technicians Mike and Homer; and Salvador, the shop’s builder.
“The most successful years that I’ve had over the 25 years that I’ve been doing this now, have always been the ones where you have the ‘Super Bowl Crew.’ It’s always been the superstars in your shop, your guys that go the extra mile, that care.”
She likens it to building a football team—you need your passers, your runners, and your defenders to all come together to make that team really shine. And anyone in the transmission industry—or anyone (this author included) who has rooted for a long-suffering pro football team—can tell you exactly how hard it is to bring that cohesive, talented team together.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, by the way,” Mary affirms. “It takes quite an effort to put together the crew that meshes. And when that comes together, you’ve got something pretty golden.
“It is a job, but it’s not just a job. We all come there, and we’re a team, and we help each other out. We troubleshoot things together. It’s a challenge. It’s fun. And what makes my shop stand out, undoubtedly, is my people.”
It’s this faith in her team that has enabled Mary to, recently, go into semi-retirement from the daily grind of running the shop.
“It’s been pretty cool, that I don’t have to work 40, 50 or 60 hours a week like I did in the beginning.”
Despite having taken a step back, Mary is still highly involved in the shop, and still bring those lessons learned from her dad with her into the way AAMCO operates.
“I love the business. I’ve always loved the business. Even when it was hard, I still loved it. And I think that’s what’s got me through,” Mary says.
“I lost my mom a couple years ago,” she shares, “and that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. And I can tell you that there was no other place that I could go that made me feel like home. Because of course, they sold my mom’s house, so that feeling of home wasn’t there.
“And the place where I got that feeling of home was my shop. I know that it is brick and mortar, but for me, it’s alive. It breathes. And it’s been with me for a lot of years.”