For some, success is measured in larger than life superlatives. Does having a massive shop providing everything to anybody really spell success to a shop owner?
Tucked into a residential area in West end Toronto is Toronto Automatic Transmission. At first glance one might be tempted to dismiss the shop as an aberration of zoning laws. I’ve passed by it many times beforehand and scarcely gave it a notice. How can a shop survive in a residential area? How do the neighbours tolerate the commotion? Is it a retiree, fixing cars at a slow pace?
Fleeting first impressions are often mistaken. A good second look tells more to the story. The cars that crowd around this small, tidy shop are all gleaming late-model imported cars. We are not talking about Kia or Toyota models here. BMW’s, Jaguars, Mercedes are stuffed cheek by jowl.
Running Toronto Automatic Transmission is Bob Maderic. He’s a second-generation owner of this business, taking over from his dad, Joseph, in 1993. Joseph started the business in 1961, not long after arriving in Canada from his native Croatia, just as automatic transmissions started becoming more available.
“My dad started working for the first guy to open a transmission shop in Canada, John Jerbic at Annex Motors,” said Maderic. “He was one of the first people to work on automatic transmissions in Canada.”
Although automatic transmissions were developed in the 1930s, the depression and World War II delayed their mass introduction. The company was started east of downtown Toronto, on Berkley Street, near the intersection of King and Parliament.
The company moved from this industrial area to its new location in 2010. It was not just a big move in location, but also in downsizing. “We had seven bays on Berkley Street,” said Maderic. “We have four now.” For some people, cutting your bays in half would signal a business failure. For Maderic, it was a deliberate move and liberation. “I wanted to slow the pace down. I did not want to have to take on every single job,” he said. He doesn’t do fleet vehicles or trucks like he used to when he was in the city. “I like it better this way. It is definitely better.” Maderic said he makes more now because of the higher overheads in the city.
The shop is small, about 2,000 square feet. Back in 1926 it used to be a blacksmith shop. It was a service shop when Maderic bought it. “I fixed it up and put an office onto it,” he said. There are four employees besides him and most have been working at Toronto Automatic Transmission for well over a decade. The manager, Matthew Portelli, came to the shop 13 years ago as an apprentice. He likes the atmosphere, “It is pretty tight. We are like a family here.” Working on these high end imports is a large part of his job satisfaction. “It is a little more complicated and gets your brain thinking. You want to fix cars that not everybody else can fix,” he said.
Maderic was keen on specializing on imported cars. He noted that until the 1980s, most cars on the road were North American. “It was probably in the late 80s or early 90s, when we started to do more and more imported cars,” he said. “We wanted to specialize in the import section. It was a bit more interesting than the domestic.” He said originally it was not a conscious decision. “It came our way. We came and fell into it.”
Because of the specialization, Maderic is never wont for work. “We never really had a recession. It has been pretty good we have always been busy. Back in the 80s we had a bit of a recession where we slowed down a bit but still kept going,” he said.
Technology gallops forward
Toronto Automatic Transmission has been in the forefront of automatic transmission service since these gearboxes started appearing on Canadian streets. It is no wonder than that keeping up with technology is paramount in this shop’s line of work. “We go through seminars organized through our suppliers (King-O-Matic, AutoStan, Matech BTA and Eurowa), they all have seminars,” said Maderic. “Most of the seminars are on the weekends, or on a Saturday, so it does not take up a lot of time.” The transmissions that come into his shop are not the ubiquitous three speed slush boxes of yore. “It used to be four on the floor standards or three speed automatics,” he said.
“Now we have, five or six speed automatics and we have a Mercedes that has a seven speed transmission that we are working on.” New CVT transmissions are also showing up at the shop. “It is very complicated and very expensive too. Parts for a CVT transmission are about three times more than for a regular transmission. That’s because they are new and it is a question of supply and demand. There are not a lot of them out there.”
Most of their business comes from referrals. Being in the business for such a long time Toronto Automatic Transmission has built up a stellar reputation.
“A lot of import garages, small garages, will send us vehicles. Ninety per cent of our business comes from referrals,” he said. “It’s all about customer service. We always look after the customer. There have been cases where we have given a year warranty on a particular job and a customer comes in and it has been a year and six months, I won’t turn my back on that customer. I will take care of it. They don’t forget that. You have to go above and beyond, even if a customer comes in within two years. I won’t charge them the full price. There is always good will. You have to look after the client.”
This policy applies equally to dealers coming in or individual clients. He said that come backs are very infrequent because he uses OEM or better parts. “Sometime you do get a faulty part though. We don’t make the parts, obviously. Whether you get a bad spring or a bad torque converter – things happen.”
He has a good relationship with dealers and other garages and does a lot of work for them. A bulk of their work comes from private warranties that people purchase on their high-end cars. “The warranty companies will come to us because we will be less expensive than the dealerships.”
Proper diagnosis is crucial for their business he intones. “With a manual transmission you see a broken gear you know that’s it. With hydraulics it is more complicated. We’ve had cases where other garages have removed the transmission and brought it to us. We can’t see anything wrong with it. They did not properly diagnose the problem because it ended up being a computer issue, something external to the transmission. We took it apart for no reason.” When a car comes in they want to replicate the issue to make certain what work needs to be carried out. “We get the whole vehicle. We also try to diagnose it, to find the problem before we do anything to the transmission,” Maderic said. “You can’t just work on the transmission. You will be working blind. Half the battle is diagnosing the problem.”