Tony Kuczynski may be on the executive side of the transmission industry these days, but having gotten his start as a technician, he has experience with both the business and the technical side of things.
For the past five years, Tony has been president and CEO of Mister Transmission, Canada’s largest transmission repair shop chain, with 55 locations across the country and 59 years of history.
The first Mister Transmission location opened in Richmond Hill, Ontario in 1963, back when the idea of a specialized transmission shop was a brand-new concept. According to an interview from 2015, the name was, in part, a joke: Founders Bruce Brillinger and Jerry Etkin saw a Mister Donut shop across from their new business venture and joked that they should name their shop Mister Transmission as a parallel. The name stuck, and buoyed by the commercial jingle “hey Mister, you’re a friend of mine,” the company grew from that one shop into a franchise business by 1969 and has continually expanded ever since.
Over the last two months, Tony says Mister Transmission has been enjoying “record sales for the company, greater sales than we’ve ever had.
“Not just recently or post-COVID, but ever,” he continues. “The sales per store have been really strong. I attribute a lot of it to great customer service backed up with really good quality work from well-trained technicians.”
Thriving though it may be, there are challenges for Mister Transmission as there are for any business. The first thing Tony brings up is the need for technicians.
“There are just a lot of people retiring, and skilled tradespeople across North America are in short supply,” he says. “With the Baby Boomers retiring, we’ve been challenged and we had to get really creative in terms of what we’re doing to recruit technicians, and then of course train them and retain them.
“So that means everything from the online advertising on places like Indeed to social media campaigns with videos to talk about how great the transmission industry is. We also have a foreign program where we’re bringing transmission technicians from other parts of the world to come to work at our shops to learn and train and be part of our organization.”
Tony is also a big proponent of Right to Repair legislation to help even the playing field for independent and aftermarket shops, especially in this age of over-the-air updates being delivered to vehicles straight from the OEM.
“Now, we’ve got cars with over-the-air updates, they don’t have OBD [On Board Diagnostics] ports, and the new car dealers are getting notifications of new repair issues, they’re getting data and they’re recommending to their customers to go schedule this repair at the car dealer,” he notes. “That’s a challenge and a competitive advantage for them and a disadvantage for us; we need access to the data.
“The automotive aftermarket does a lot of the work on cars that car dealerships simply don’t have the bay capacity to fix. We provide high-quality repairs and great service at a fair price. We extend the useful life of our customers’ cars, and we need to make sure we’re on a level playing field; we need access to this information. And without it, it’s just getting more and more challenging for us and our customers.”
Training is also key, especially considering all the different types of work Mister Transmission does.
“Of course,” Tony says, “we started with rear wheel, then we went to front wheel, all-wheel, CVTs; now we’re doing hybrids, and we’re actually training on EVs as well. Now EVs aren’t with us yet in large numbers, but we want to continue to evolve and stay on top of the technology—and of course with hybrids and EVs, there’s a lot of voltage there we’ve got to be careful with. So, we’ve started that work.”
That last point about electric vehicles is a hot-button issue in the automotive industry, and has been for years. It’s an especially pointed question in the transmission industry: what happens to specialty transmission shops as electric vehicles become more popular?
“We joke at our office,” Tony says, “EVs are 2% of the car population and 80% of the publicity.
“Right now in Canada, we’ve got 29.6 million cars on the road,” he notes. “Almost all of them are conventional internal combustion cars. They will continue to be the cars we work on for quite some time. And again, there will be a sprinkling of more and more EVs. So, it will become more and more of a challenge but also an opportunity. But right now, from the stats I’m hearing, they estimate that for a new car made today, it will be 19 years before 90% of them are off the road. So, we will have to watch. And of course, we have the advantage because new cars are under warranty for the first couple of years. So, as they come out of warranty, we will need to start to repair these vehicles.”
It comes down to a principle that Tony says is very important to Mister Transmission: You don’t turn away business.
As an example, he brings up the growth of CVTs over the past decade-plus.
“I heard all the reasons why we shouldn’t be working on CVTs: ‘the parts are hard to get, they’re higher cost to fix, I don’t know how to fix them’—but we just took every one of those objections and we overcame them. We’ve become very expert and we have a large share of CVT repairs because so many new cars today come with CVTs; I’ve heard numbers as high as one in four. [Ed. Note: In the U.S., the number was 30% of new cars as of 2017.] And, they don’t last as long. They have four times the failure rate of a conventional transmission.
“So, you can turn those cars away, and a lot of shops do, and it’s not hard when you’ve got lots of business and business has been really strong. But you shouldn’t turn business away, especially if you can do it successfully and profitably. CVTs are not technically challenging; they’re not hard to fix. You do have to find the parts, and they don’t have quite the profit margins as conventional transmissions will, but we can’t turn away CVTs, we can’t turn away hybrids. We need to continue to evolve, and we’re going to continue to evolve.”
In a franchise business, it’s important to have good franchisees of course—those who can uphold the standard set across the business. So how does Mister Transmission find franchisees, and what do they look for?
“It’s pretty simple in terms of things that we look for,” Tony answers. “Our customer service, the way we treat our customers, is so important. So the person that we talk with to become a potential franchisee, they really have to be customer service-focused.
“And I tell our franchisees, we get all this feedback every day from customers, but it’s rarely about how well the car works. It’s a transmission and works like it did before. It’s almost always about how well they were treated, how we went over and above, how the price matched what was quoted. It’s all about customer service.
“So, we look for franchisees that are absolutely customer-service-focused and will serve customers well, first and foremost. Secondly, we like people with business acumen, strong leadership skills. You know you have to be able to treat people well for them to come work for you and for them to stay. So if you understand how to get the most out of your people, how to treat them so that they actually enjoy and want to work with you and do a good job for you and your customers, that’s a big part of our success. But you have to have the right skills. If you don’t know how to treat people, how to direct them and help them overcome their challenges, you likely will not be successful.”
Tony adds that while business acumen is prioritized, you don’t have to be a technician or know how to rebuild a transmission—but you do have to understand the business, how transmissions work and what your technicians are doing.
“So now, there is one thing that I will say that’s far and above everything, and that is motivation,” he adds. “Motivation, tenacity, grit, call it whatever you want. Will they do what it takes to make this business successful? Will they overcome all the challenges that they meet on a daily basis, whether it’s customers, staff, or parts? If they’ve got a history of being successful and overcoming challenges and obstacles, very likely they’re going to be successful with us. If you’re a learner, you’ve got a good attitude, you’re motivated, you want to be successful, you’ll fit.”
For a company that, in 2023, will be celebrating its 60th anniversary, keeping its reputation in the marketplace is very important—and that means finding good franchisees, doing good work, and making sure customers keep coming back and leaving good reviews.
From Tony’s perspective, it’s the people that make Mister Transmission the successful business that it is.
“The quality of the people at Mister Transmission make Mister Transmission what it is, and that’s why we’ve got 91% net promoter scores, 96% customer satisfaction scores, and 4.7 Google ratings. That’s what makes us unique.”