“We only specialize in transmissions in this shop; this is not a one-for-all shop,” says Bo West, owner of American Transmission in Louisville, Kentucky. “We only do automatic transmissions. No general repair, no tires, no engines, no tuneups, no oil changes. None of that. Just transmissions.”
West, the self-described “owner/diagnostic guy/transmission rebuilder,” took over American Transmission in 2015.
Bo remembers the exact day he started in this industry: December 23, 1996, at Mr. Transmission, another Louisville shop. “It’s hard to forget the day that you start doing this job, especially when it’s two days before Christmas,” he says.
“I started out as an R&R tech, where I just removed and replaced,” he shares. “I was in my early twenties at that time, when scanners started to become a big thing. Of course, I was a young guy, so they said I should learn these scanners. And then shortly after that, I learned that our builders in the house did not like building Honda units. And they said, ‘you’re the young guy, why don’t you figure out how to build Hondas?’
“So that’s how my career started as a rebuilder as well. In 2010 I ventured out on my own with a business partner.”
He and his business partner own another shop in addition to American Transmission—A-1 Transmission and Auto Repair—but West’s primary responsibilities are at American. With a staff of just three, Bo is the primary rebuilder, with two R&R mechanics rounding out the small group at the four-bay shop. West’s wife comes in a few days a month to work on the books and the shop works with a CPA who handles, in West’s words, “that legal mumbo jumbo.”
Business at American Transmission in 2021, West says, has been “crazy,” with about 350 cars in West’s estimation coming through the four-bay shop in 2021 as of mid-December.
“Last year,” he elaborates, “COVID hurt us for about three months. After that we got back on track, but numbers were still down quite a bit from the year before. But this year our numbers have surpassed last year’s numbers and 2019’s. We’ve been about a month behind all year long, scheduling for the next month when people are calling in. I can’t say so much about our parts distribution as far as filters and things like that, but business has been great.”
Parts availability has, of course, been a major challenge throughout the industry all year as material shortages linger.
“Filters have been a nightmare since COVID. It really hit us back in March of last year. It’s like no one in this country makes filters so there are a lot of transmissions where I’d be waiting on a filter for two or three days.”
Unfortunately, West says there hasn’t been much he can do about these shortages.
“When it comes to filters and some of these hard parts, it isn’t like you can clean them up and put them back in there, so you just get stuck waiting,” he says. “If I get the vehicle on my schedule to come in, I’ll order the filter two or three weeks in advance so it’s here in the shop ready to go. Same with modded pistons, we’ve had issues with modded pistons that go on a lot of these transmissions as well.
“Customers have been pretty understanding. I mean, anybody that watches the news sees the shortages on a lot of things. So they have to assume that we’re getting hit by those shortages as well. I’ve got a very good clientele of customers and I’m not one of these people that gets upset and angry. So if they get upset and angry, I do my best to calm them down and tell them that we’re doing our best.”
So what, in Bo’s eyes, makes American Transmission stand out?
“I think it’s the guys that work here,” he answers. “My mechanics are excellent. One’s been here for 26 years. So he came with the shop.
“Myself, I do my best to take care of every customer, just like I would want to be taken care of. I’m upfront and honest. If it’s a transmission problem, it’s a transmission problem. If it’s not, I send them to a good shop that can take care of their problem. I just wasn’t raised to steal money from somebody. I’ve seen customers being taken advantage of, and I’m not one of those people.
“I worked for a living and have for all my life. People do too. The last thing they want is to be taken advantage of when they come into a shop. And unfortunately in our industry, we’ve got a skill that you’re not going to find around the corner. So the customers are at the mercy of us. But whenever I can’t fix somebody’s car, I’m just going to tell you, ‘I can’t fix it.’”
To Bo, it’s all about customer service and maintaining that rapport and reputation.
“I like to get a good rapport with our customers when they come through the door,” he says. “When I first took over this shop, the previous owner told me I spent too much time with my customers, but I don’t think so. I like for them, when they walk out of my door, to know that they left their car in the hands of someone that’s going to treat them right and treat them fair.”