We recently spoke with Frank Wulff, owner of Frank’s Transmission and Auto Repair in Richmond, MI, about how they started and where they are today after 40 years in the industry.
Wulff says he started at AAMCO in Pontiac, MI, back in 1976. “They hired me as an assistant manager, so I worked at AAMCO for a few years, but I moved around as a lot of guys did. From there, I went to work for Royal and back to AAMCO again and eventually ended up at Royal in Utica. I worked there for about 15 years. That’s where I met Bob White.” These days, White is the global sales manager for Superior Transmission Parts. “I actually hired Bob as my cleanup guy,” he says with a laugh.
When you call Frank’s shop, you get to speak to the boss, his wife, Donna. She stays on top of the books and handles towing and customers as they come into the shop. It’s a family-owned atmosphere at Frank’s with his son Jason also working as a transmission tech.
In the ’90s, Wulff started working on transmissions on the side in his pole barn. At the time, he was also working at Bill’s Transmission during the day. “I’d get home at night, and there’d be four or five transmission jobs waiting for me. I had to decide, I was either going to work 150 hours a week between two jobs, or I was going to start my own shop. So we decided that we’d start our own shop. I remortgaged my house and borrowed the money to do it. I had already accumulated a lot of equipment from working on the side in my barn.”
Wulff bought a cleaning machine, and he had a few presses already, and then he bought a brand new gray transmission jack, but he couldn’t use it in the barn since he had to R&R on his back. And that was enough to get them started when they went into business in 1998.
“I rented a building on a dirt road in Richmond,” Wulff explains. “The area was still pretty much farm country. It was pretty rural back then, but it has grown now. I was busier than hell on that dirt road. But I could walk out back and go deer hunting and come in and work on transmissions. During deer hunting season, I’d work until about three o’clock, clean up, and go out back to hunt.”
Wulff stayed on that dirt road for about ten years until he had saved up enough money to put down on their current property. “We have a nice commercial property with about two acres. We got a land contract, paid for the land, and used it for collateral to build my building. My building has five bays and is 6,000 square feet. And it’s got offices. It’s a state-of-the-art shop.”
Over the years, Frank’s has branched out into other areas besides transmissions. But the transmission and driveline side is the heart of the business. “I bought an alignment machine. And I tried air conditioning. That wasn’t great for us, so we got out of it. But we do tune-ups, front end work and rear ends. I’ve been doing rear ends since I was 18 or 19 years old. I started building rear ends before I built transmissions. I’m pretty good with electronics, and I do a lot of wiring. We also program our own vehicles. We’ve got the Drew Technologies CarDAQ-M J2534 Universal Interface, so we can program our stuff now rather than call somebody or pay a fee to rent one.”
On the transmission side, Wulff says they work on a lot of manual transmissions these days because there is a demand for them in his area. “I just had a gentleman bring me a G56 out of a diesel truck. He says, ‘man, I can’t find anybody to do them. There’s a guy in Texas doing them, and he’s backed up two months.’ I’m good with manuals, but my son is big into the diesel stuff. He became friends with Derek Rose who owns DNR Customs. He’s one of the top diesel drag racers in the world. We build a lot of transmissions for him.”
According to Wulff, because they are in a rural area, they get a lot of diesel work. “We build a lot of diesel transmissions. We’ll do anywhere from two to three performance diesel jobs a week. And they’re big money jobs.”
Frank’s builds diesel transmissions and also takes on some of the driveline work. “If you take a 68RFE, you can beat the hell out of that thing. But if they have big tires and too much power, you have to change the ratio on the differential. So we’ll do that type of stuff. If the guy’s pushing a 3.73 and he’s got bigger tires and everything, he may need a 4.56. My son, Jason, handles pretty much all of the performance diesel stuff. When they call, I say hold on, let me give you the Jason.”
Frank’s son, Jason, has been working in the shop since he was 12 years old. Wulff says he taught him how to tear down transmissions when they were working in the barn. He showed him how to lay out all of the parts so that Frank could quickly and easily assemble the transmissions. Frank hopes to hand off the business to Jason at some point in the future. But for now, he is enjoying the work and is not ready to retire. His wife, Donna, however, is going to cut back a little so she can be home more.
While Frank’s Transmission and Auto Repair may be a small family business, they treat everyone, including their customers and employees like family. The family includes R&R techs Jon Clark and Stan Bobruk along with Jason, and Kevin Roe does maintenance and other jobs. We’re not sure if Frank can still hunt deer out back, though.