Inside a 100-Year-Old Shop

Jan. 1, 2021

How Camargo Transmission has managed to survive not one, but two pandemics, and four generations of leadership.

In the year 1918, many events took place: World War I was well underway, Woodrow Wilson was president at the time, time zones and daylight savings were officially established, the Boston Red Sox beat the Chicago Cubs in the 1918 World Series, and the Spanish flu ravaged the globe, killing at least 50 million people worldwide. 

In July of the same year, William Cockrell opened Camargo Car Repair in Camargo, Ky., right after returning home from serving in the war. During this time, especially in rural Kentucky, a horse and buggy were much more common than a motor vehicle, and auto repair wasn’t as prominent. But Cockrell was onto something, and was well ahead of the competition when Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Chrysler emerged as the “Big Three” in the 1920s and the use of motor vehicles started to boom.

More than 100 years later, Camargo Transmission still stands in Sterling, Ky., just two miles down for the original shop, and in the Cockrell family as a fourth-generation owned and operated shop. Great grandson Justin Cockrell now runs the successful operations, evening earning the 2019 Small Business of the Year awarded by the local Chamber of Commerce. What’s more impressive? What auto repair shop can say they’d been through two pandemics? Camargo can.

With all that he’s learned from his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather before him, he’s still learning and adapting the shop’s practices as it comes.

The Family Tree of Ownership

William Cockrell

Owner: 1918 - 1945

Kenneth D. Cockrell

Owner: 1945 - 1969

Larry Cockrell

Owner: 1969 - 2011

Justin Cockrell

Owner: 2011 -

Branching Out

Starting out in 1918, Camargo was strictly a transmission shop, and his grandfather kept it that way when he took over in 1945, and so did his own father when taking over in 1969. But when Cockrell took over in 2011, he wanted to branch out from just standard transmission services. So, he set the shop up to become completely full service, and has pushed to provide more of these services within the last year. He says the shop went along the lines of what Walmart did with their brand, adding  a grocery section to its stores and providing their own auto repair and tire services. The goal for Cockrell was the same: to make Camargo a one-stop shop. 

“When you’re there, they want you to spend it there,” Cockrell says.

The Numbers Guy

In 2000 at the age of 25, Cockrell came on board the shop to work at the shop. Under his belt, he had a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in business and marketing at Sullivan University and four years of experience in the corporate world. But unlike his ancestors, he came to the shop with no transmission or auto repair experience.

“I’m the only generation that can’t work on transmissions,” Cockrell says. “I’m strictly the numbers guy.”

From the start, Cockrell has worked in the front office, handling the ins and outs of customer service and managing the service from start to finish. Little did he know that his biggest challenge awaited him in 2008. When the recession hit, Cockrell says the shop was struggling and operating paycheck to paycheck.

“Even though I didn’t own it yet, I knew the numbers and I knew what was going on,” he says.

Cockrell learned that the shop, like most of the country at the time, didn’t have their spending under control, especially when it came to the shop’s parts inventory. With the help of his previous business experience and constantly listening to The Dave Ramsey Show podcast episodes on how to control his finances, he quickly learned how to keep it under control and cut back on the shop’s spending by 25 percent. When it came to shop inventory, Cockrell cut back on 80 percent of parts they were holding onto.

“We learned we didn’t need 10 of one part and only needed two,” Cockrell says. “We just reordered the part when we needed it instead of having 10 of them on the shelf.”

Since taking over in 2011, he’s earned his masters of business administration (MBA) and still runs the day-to-day operations. His father, Larry, still works in the shop from time to time, but unlike him and his lineage, he focuses on tracking the numbers and being the face of the business. Instead of doing the services himself, he finds the right people that can do it for him.

Elevating Social Presence

While the business has always relied on word-of-mouth advertising, the shop needed to keep up with the times. After Cockrell took over, he tried to get into the new age of digital marketing, but wasn’t as efficient as he could have been with it, and, in general, wasn’t an expert on the subject.

“Time is a virtue,” he says. “It’s hard to do your own job and then add some.”

Cockrell realized just how effective digital marketing was for business, so he decided to give it the extra attention it needed. Just last July, he decided to delegate the task to Chelsea Mitchell, who focuses solely on marketing, social media, and enhancing the shop’s website. Mitchell uses the main social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—and posts to each platform about two to three times per day. Whether it’s highlighting a team member, hosting a giveaway, or relaying a car care tip, it’s about keeping customers informed and engaged constantly.

Since hiring Mitchell on board, Cockrell says the shop is easily booked out now for a month, and the numbers prove how she’s added value to the shop. In July 2019, the month she was hired on, shop revenue was $66,000 for the month. One year later, shop revenue jumped to $89,000. On top of that, car count went from 85 per day to 116. Cockrell says now, he gets compliments on the shop’s website and social media presence everywhere he goes.

Keep It in the Family

From the start, William Cockrell was committed to always treating people right and doing the best work possible at a fair price, and his great grandson has set out to do the same.

For Cockrell, honesty is No. 1.

“It’s admitting when you’re wrong, which I hate to do, but I think it carries a lot of weight, even if it costs you your pride,” he says.

Many times before, he’s even completed services on his own expense when the mistake had nothing to do with their shop, but it makes the situation better and keeps the shop’s values intact.

The same goes for pricing. Cockrell uses trips to the emergency room as an example, saying he hates how a patient can never know what to expect when they walk in the door. Instead, he wants his pricing platform to be as transparent and fair as possible.

Cockrell uses ALLDATA instead of the books, and uses the program to determine how much a service is worth, whether it takes longer or shorter to complete. Even if a two-hour job takes his guys over four hours to complete, he’s still only going to charge for the two hours. And if the job only takes 1.5 hours versus 2, he’ll still go by ALLDATA’s recommendation.

So, what are the values that have stayed true to Camargo Transmission throughout a century, and continues to live through the shop under Cockrell leadership? Honesty and integrity.

“You’ve got to live by the name of what your predecessors set out for you,” he says.

Looking Ahead

Cockrell is always looking toward the future to keep what his family has cultivated moving forward. The shop’s hashtag, #morethantransmissions, shows just that. While they now offer a bigger variety of services and repairs, they want to keep expanding its services and its digital presence, all while keeping the Cockrell family’s values intact, to turn into a one stop shop for its customers.

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