Inside the Straight Line Transmissions Inc. shop in Greenbrier, Arkansas, you will find four bays and five lifts, and Caleb Emberson is about to add a sixth. It’s impressive growth from the one-man transmission operation that Caleb bootstrapped six and a half years ago.
“When you’re starting a business from scratch, you don’t want to go right to the most expensive renting environment and not know if the area will produce. So I started at a little place just outside of Conway, Arkansas, because I really didn’t know the demographics of where I needed to be.” Caleb said, remembering those early days when he spent 14 months on his own—opening the shop, pulling a transmission out, fixing it, answering the phone, taking care of customers.
“It was the hardest time of my life,” he said. Not only did he start his own business, but he also got married and had three kids. Something had to give. “After about that 14 months, my wife and I drove around looking for a new location because the shop didn’t have much visibility in its first location. Business was decent, anywhere between three and four cars a week.
They found a location thirty minutes away just off on the second-most-traveled highway in the state and business boomed. The work tripled in the first two months and enabled Caleb to hire his first employee. Today, the shop typically performs more than a dozen every week. On the week he spoke to Transmission Digest, Caleb had 17 jobs on the board.
“These cars don’t sit here more than five to seven business days,” Caleb said. While he has more help these days—he employs a staff of five, including himself—this drag racing husband, father and transmissions guru is still running and gunning as the shop expands.
Driving growth, growing customers
He believes that his shop stands out because of his high standards and dedication.
“I believe my standards are a lot higher than a lot of other shops because I just find it in my heart that if I can’t do the best, I can do then nobody else needs to do it.”
Most of Caleb’s work comes through referrals, he said.
“I would say 55-90% of my work is referrals. People come in and see my work or on Facebook, or it’s someone just walking in saying ‘I always see your lot full of clean cars, and a clean building, and I wanted to check it out.’” Caleb is open with the people he talks to.
“I’m just very transparent, because I don’t have much of a filter. When I was really young it was hard for me to break because I didn’t know how to use that filter. I’m just point blank,” he said.
He said that if you’re his friend, and you’re working on a car and he thinks it looks “like crap,” he’ll be the first to tell you. “I’m not saying that the work you into it wasn’t great, but if you ask me my opinion, that’s how it comes across. But in business, I have to be really careful.”
He said he tries his best not to be rude or overbearing.
Caleb said his faith is what helps him day-to-day. “I put my faith in Jesus Christ, and I’m nowhere near the perfect guy and I screw up daily and ask for forgiveness daily, but like I tell people: you may have someone who builds the same transmission as I do, that provides you good work, but you’re not going to find someone that can out-heart me.”
For Caleb, it’s all about pleasing the customer.
“I’ll bend over backwards to make you happy. That’s me in a nutshell,” he said. He said that his skills are where they are because of commitment from a young age.
“I started when I was 18. Right out of high school. And I adapted well to it. I asked everyone questions and learned as much as I could,” Caleb said.
But he isn’t only dedicated to his customers.
Caleb said that, before starting his business, he had seen employees undervalued by their employers. He said that he sees the value in his employees as synonymous with the value in his customers.
“When I went into business, I vowed to show my guys how much I value them.”
This valuation presents itself not only as providing his employees with ample holiday time, but also as buying them lunch and even a short trip on a party barge as a surprise. “They’re making me money. Every Friday that I’m here, I buy them lunch.”
Caleb said giving back and valuing his employees makes for a good work environment.
“We have a great environment here. We all joke, we giggle, we work hard, we get along well, no one yells at each other.” In fact, Caleb said it sometimes seems almost unreal.
“Is the lord really blessing me with such an enjoyable environment?”
Caleb has been growing his skills in transmission work since he was a child and has been working professionally in the industry since he was 18 years old.
This business that Caleb is so dedicated to has been with him his entire life. He’s a car guy, and it was passed to him from his family.
“I worked for my dad for 11 years. My grandad did transmission work for around 48 years, so we have three generations of transmission experience. It’s in our blood. We really like to go out and service the communities we live in, the counties, because on my personal level, I have people driving three to four hours across the state for specialty builds, for race builds, antique builds, just because they know how meticulous I am on what I do. If I’m not happy, they aren’t going to be happy,” Caleb said.
After a while of working with his father, Caleb found that the tension of the working family relationship needed a change.
“It was that father-son deal. It was too close, and I decided it was time for me to step away, and it changes everything,” he said.
Caleb is a family man, with two daughters and a son, who he said does show interest in cars. He said he’s willing to help any of them if they want to go into the automotive business but won’t force them into it.
Caleb has a simple philosophy when it comes to what his children do, and that’s they can do what they want, but they have to be dedicated to it.
“Transmission work is hard work. It is not easy; it is not for the lighthearted. I don’t know if I want that for my kids; if they can work easier, work better and make more money with less stress. Like we tell all of our kids and what my dad told me, if you want to do something, you’re going to do it.”
Caleb, in this way, instills a sense of dedication in his children.
“You’re not quitting. You’re committed. There are no quitting Embersons.”