At first glance, you might think Tea, South Dakota, with a population of only about 4500, would be a terrible place to open a transmission repair shop. And when Jerry and Mary Ellen Heirigs opened J&M Transmission in 1993, the numbers were even worse: Back then, Tea had fewer than 1000 residents!
But Tea is right on the edge of Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota. And being based just outside the city has some real advantages.
“As a specialty shop, we’re plenty close to Sioux Falls,” explains Jerry. “This is the mid-west; people are used to driving a little farther to get where they’re going. Driving 20 or 30 miles is no big deal.
“And it gives us easy access to open roads where we can test drive a car properly. We’re a mile off the interstate, and if you’re going to rebuild a transmission, you’d better get it up to highway speed to make sure it’s working right.”
In addition, ground prices in Tea are substantially lower than in the Sioux Falls metro area. And, chances are, they’d never have found a property the size they needed for their shop. So, all things considered, choosing a site in Tea might have been one of the smartest decisions they could’ve made.
“I wanted to open my own shop since I started turning wrenches professionally in 1978,” says Jerry. “What type of shop depended on what I was working on at the time.”
Jerry attended the Mitchell Area Vo-Tech School right out of high school. Then he took his first job: “I grew up on a farm — one of seven kids — so I actually started out working on farm equipment for the local Oliver Tractor dealer. At $3.30 an hour, the only way I could afford to work there was if I lived at home. But it was a start.”
Jerry continued working on industrial equipment for about six years. Meanwhile he worked part time for a local Ford dealer, gaining valuable automotive experience.
“Then I went to work for an established transmission shop, and I truly enjoyed it. This was back in the gravy days, when transmission repairs meant 350s, 400s, C4s, and 727s. In that shop you did your own R&R, so I was doing the entire job, from R&R through the rebuild.”
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