Soon after graduating from high school in the late 1970s, Dwayne Walker applied for a job at a warehouse belonging to a company headquartered near his home in the foothills of North Carolina. He declined the ensuing offer of $2.90 per hour, minimum wage at the time, knowing he could do better by joining the automotive transmission business his father, Chester, started decades earlier.
Chester became an entrepreneur by happenstance in the 1950s, having become frustrated with local mechanics who couldn’t fix the transmission in his Ford. He gave it a try, found he had a knack for the task, and was soon rebuilding transmissions when not working in a local furniture factory.
“When people found out Daddy could do the work, it became a part-time job,” Dwayne says.
Chester gave up factory work in 1965 and turned to rebuilding transmissions full-time, working out of a shop adjacent to the home where he and his wife raised four children.
Finding a mechanic with the skillset to rebuild the transmission in the family sedan has long been a challenge, even in rural areas where capable mechanics are often plentiful. Modern automatic transmissions are complex mechanisms, with lots of gears and moving parts synchronizing with each other and with other components in a car’s drivetrain.
Chester, however, carved a niche as a transmission specialist, someone who could be counted on to produce reliable work. The business flourished over the decades. Word of mouth is a valuable tool in a rural area where neighbors and family members share information. That was true even 50 years ago, before cellphones, Facebook and other social media tools revolutionized the way we communicate.
This is relevant because of the ample anecdotal evidence, backed up by a fair amount of data, indicating that businesses requiring skilled labor are facing a shortage of workers. The construction and automotive industries are said to be hard hit. Talk to a few home builders and mechanics and you’ll hear a common theme: Young people don’t want to do the work of plumbers, electricians, brick masons or mechanics.
There are a multitude of reasons why teenagers and twentysomethings are not entering the blue collar workforce. For decades educators and parents have emphasized the need for a college degree, hailing a diploma from a four-year college as a magic elixir offering wealth and happiness.
That mindset, and easy access to funding from the federal government, have helped to drive up the cost of attending college, leaving an entire generation of young people saddled with debt, many without a degree to show for their efforts. Those facts have been politicized recently, hence the free college and elimination of student debt that some presidential candidates propose.
Therefore, the path of Chester, and later, Dwayne, toward becoming successful businessmen is particularly relevant to today’s society. In fact, their story offers a lesson on how to succeed as owner of a small business as well as how to find success in life, where learning and adapting are ongoing processes. Ultimately, theirs is a tale of finding the right skills to match the talent of the individual.
By the time he was eight years old, Dwayne was helping out around his father’s shop, washing parts, operating a floor jack, and performing the low-skill work suited for a youngster. It proved to be quite the learning experience for someone who recalls being an “average” student. He says he could rebuild a transmission before he reached high school.
With what he calls stubbornness and common sense, Dwayne adapted and did everything he had to do in order to maintain his place in a fast-changing world. In the early 1980s, when electronic systems and computerized technology began to change the automotive industry, Dwayne was forced to develop new skills.
“It became a whole new breed of transmission then,” he recalls. “The old 350s and 400s have been around since the 1960s. I could rebuild one of those when I was 12-years-old. When electronics changed cars in the ‘80s, that was our biggest learning curve.”
He joined the Automatic Transmission Service Group (ATSG) to keep up with the changes. “I started going to classes in Charlotte one weekend or two each year in the fall,” Dwayne recalls. “ATSG conducts seminars, classes and workshops to keep everyone up with all the new technology.”
ATSG also offers technical support for members, something the Walkers have found to be especially helpful over the years as passenger cars have continually evolved.
Dwayne’s younger brother, David, a licensed pilot who owns his own single-engine plane, joined the business in the 1990s after working several years in the banking industry, and their father eventually turned Walker Transmission over to them.
The Walkers early on understood the value of advertising their business, supplementing word-of-mouth endorsements with Yellow Page ads. That evolved into a website and, eventually, a Walker Transmission billboard alongside a busy stretch of highway 15 minutes from their shop. Their billboard slogan—We give a shift—draws the attention of passersby.
The business draws customers from throughout western North Carolina and employs two others full-time. One has been with the Walker brothers for 15 years, the other for eight.
Dwayne has two grown children and both earned an associate’s degree at a local community college. His daughter followed family tradition as an entrepreneur and is three years into an online business that designs and prints custom decals. His son is a police officer in Charlotte.
What advice would Dwayne offer to a young person looking to make his or her way in the world?
“Be a plumber,” he says without hesitation. “Transmission work is a tough way to make a living nowadays. You have to be electronically inclined as well as mechanically inclined. It takes both. The days of just switching out (parts) are over.”
Larry Cothren is a former newspaper and magazine editor who currently teaches marketing at the high school level.