Think pink: Curtis Price strikes out on his own and has Liberty Transmission and Auto Care stand out from the crowd - Transmission Digest

Think pink: Curtis Price strikes out on his own and has Liberty Transmission and Auto Care stand out from the crowd

In 2018, Curtis Price, at 43 years old, found himself at a crossroads in his career in the transmission industry: unsure whether he could move up in the family business where he had worked for 20 years, or whether he should start his own. At the time he was working at Price’s Transmission in Virginia Beach, in the Hampton Roads area of Southeastern Virginia—a shop owned by his father and his grandfather before that.

Curtis tells the story: “When I came to my dad and said, ‘Hey dad, what about some ownership in the business?’ My dad basically told me to pack sand. So at that point, my wife and I sat down and talked for a while, and a good friend of mine called me and said, ‘Hey man, I know a shop for rent. I know you’re not happy down there working for your old man, and he’s not going to give you the ownership in the shop. Why don’t you go talk to this guy?’

“It was a little three-bay shop, an old Aamco station with a little room in the back that I could make into the builder’s room. The landlord said she’d rent it to me, but I didn’t have the money. So I had saved some money in my kids’ college fund, and I talked to my wife, and I took all the money out of my kids’ college fund and got things rolling in November of 2018 to open my own shop in March.

“I still worked hard for my dad every single solitary day [after that]. I didn’t know if it was really going to work out; I was kind of scared to death.”

In January 2019, Curtis had a meeting with his brother and told him what he was planning.

“I let him know that I was going to open my own shop in March and that I was going to give my two weeks’ notice in late February. That was on a Friday. On Monday, my brother came back and said, ‘Hey man, you can’t be working for dad and trying to open your own business, you’ve got to resign today.’

“I wrote a resignation letter, went back to the shop, called my old man on the phone, told him what I was doing and basically resigned with a two weeks’ notice. Well, that was at about 10 in the morning. At about one o’clock, my brother came in and fired me. 

“My wife calls me at five o’clock and said, ‘you’ve got two employees sitting at the kitchen table.’

“So two of the guys were going to go with me, and the shop found out about that and fired them too. So now I have no shop, two employees and about $18,000 to my name. So I told the two guys, ’I’ve got payroll for a month. I’ve got a plan.’ 

“One of them said we could work out of his garage. So the next day I had the toolboxes towed to his house. I went and got my business license, because I wasn’t going to do that until I officially was going to leave the family business. 

“We started working in that garage, and that was on a Wednesday. I made payroll by Friday for the two guys, and we were shuffling cars back and forth the whole next week. It was February, we were freezing to death.”

Curtis Price.
Curtis Price.

Curtis says he saw the strength of the local automotive community during this time. 

“After I was let go, every transmission shop in town called me and said, ‘what do you need? How can we help you? Do you need parts? Do you need a place to build?’ So Rory and Sons, who’ve known me since I was a kid, rented me a bench at his shop for a hundred dollars a unit. So I would pull the transmissions out at my buddy’s shop, go to Rory’s shop where my builder was, drop the units off and he’d build them. The first month I was in business, I did 23 transmission jobs without a shop, basically. I opened Liberty Transmission and Auto Care, got into that three-bay building in March, and it was unbelievable.”

Curtis says it didn’t take long to get the word out that he was opening his own shop.

“Nobody knew [ahead of time] that I was leaving. But if you know anything about the transmission business, you know it’s the biggest gossip [network] in the world. As soon as I was fired, my phone started ringing and then I started calling my wholesale customers to let them know.

“They didn’t know I didn’t have a shop, they didn’t know that I was working out of a one-bay garage for two weeks, I just basically said, ‘give me the work and I’ll get it taken care of.’ And that’s how we were able to do 23 units in 30 days and pay my guys and pay the parts bills and all the insurance and everything. Most of my work my first year was wholesale and word of mouth.

“We did a lot of money in business right away. Every job we did, we had to actually push every vehicle out of our building to get the next job in. Two years into it, I busted a million dollars in business. And then last year, we did $1.4 million out of that three-bay shop.”

In October of this year, Liberty Transmission and Auto Care moved into a newly built space, designed to their specifications, going from an 1,800 square ft. shop to one that has 5,000 square ft. of workspace, with another 1,500 square ft. for offices and the builder’s room; and an upgrade from three bays to six bays. The new shop is also in Virginia Beach, about a 15-minute drive from Price’s Transmission. They moved in on Oct. 1—at the time Curtis spoke to TD, the grand opening was one week prior. 

“It’s just hard to put into words how fast five years went from where I started to where I am at this present time,” he says. “Right now we are the largest transmission shop in the Hampton Roads area, square footage wise and in gross sales.”

Think pink: Standing out in the market

Curtis wanted his shop to stand out in the market, and found a colorful way to do it.

“I wanted to paint my transmissions a different color than anybody else. We paint the transmissions with a pink pan on the bottom. And I did that for two specific reasons. One, it’s completely different than where I came from. Two, if that car goes to another shop and gets an oil change done, they’re going to ask them, ‘who put the transmission in the car and why is the pan pink?’ And all the customers know that I paint them pink.

“It’s a conversation piece. So everybody knows Liberty Transmission is by the pink pan, and that’s part of my advertising. It’s on the signs on my building: It’s the home of the pink pan. So it cannot be confused with anybody else’s transmissions.” 

At the family shop, Curtis was the operations manager and was in charge of the wholesale part of the business, and he says he’s set things up at his shop in a similar way.

“My service writers take care of all the retail work, and I take care of all the wholesale work,” he says. “Our goal is to run about a 60% retail, 40% wholesale business throughout the year. The wholesale keeps us going if times get slow. 

“I’ve got 15 to 20 shops right now selling my transmissions all over the Hampton Roads area and some very big accounts. I do city of Chesapeake police vehicles. I do all of AAA. Just about any garage around that does automotive work, I will provide them a transmission service. They don’t even have to take the transmission out. They send me the whole car, they deal with the customer, they make about a thousand dollars on every job. So we are the transmission experts and we allow other shops to make a very good living by just answering the telephone. 

“On the retail side, we’re very customer service oriented. The way I have my shop set up now, the builder’s room is immaculately clean. I’ve separated each bay with enough room that the technicians are not walking on top of each other. It looks like a dealership when you walk in.”

Curtis anticipates making a much bigger impression on new customers thanks to the new space. 

“My other shop was very small. The parking lot was always in disarray. I could not get the work out fast enough. So being able to expand to this size in such a short amount of time has allowed us to really not be so rushed, provide a little bit better quality control because we have the room and we have the technicians that can get it done.”

The crew

Curtis walks us through the crew:

“I have Joe Nelson, our general manager. I have Doreen Hollers, who is my bookkeeper. I have Tito, who is my lead R&R guy. I have Matt who has about five years of experience in the R&R business. Dan is my shop foreman, lead R&R technician and diagnostic guy. Mark is my lead builder. And then myself, I am the owner slash whatever-it-takes guy. And then I have my son down here, Curtis III, who’s my entry-level tech. My wife, Michelle, is the vice president and helps with the delivery of vehicles and helps on the advertising side.

“I’ve got a fantastic crew. Fantastic bookkeepers, fantastic manager—everybody works really well with each other. And my lot is always full.”

Curtis says that he values giving employees good salaries and benefits, and that the higher upfront costs of doing so is preferable to the risk of losing them to another shop and the constant turnover that would go along with that.

“I pay all my guys’ health insurance 100% for them and their spouses and if they have children,” he says. “In order for me to retain the people that I have for me, I pay them a great salary. I take care of all their insurance. I’m getting ready to open a retirement account for them in January to give them an opportunity to put some money away to save, and the company’s going to match a portion of that. So I’m doing these things so I can retain the guys that I know can do the job. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money when you’re talking about retaining quality people.” 

The last word

Looking back on this journey, Curtis says that things couldn’t have gone better.

“I have no regrets,” he concludes. “The best move of my life was taking the risk. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward, and it’s very humbling and very overwhelming at the same time to have been able to accomplish this from basically the ground up.”

Read more of our shop profiles here.

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