Nuts & Bolts: Tyler transmission shop stays in the family

Published on Sunday, 23 February 2014 22:16 - Written by CASEY MURPHY cmurphy@tylerpaper.com

Diane Hawkins grew up in her father’s business, Dunn Transmissions.

As a child, she started picking up around the place, filling coke machines, working in the parts department and tearing down transmissions to give to the builders.

“I think mechanical aptitude is genetic in my family,” said Ms. Hawkins, who still works there with several family members. “There are so many people in this family who are really great mechanics.”

Dunn Transmission officially opened for business in 1950, but its founder, Truman Dunn, was working on car transmissions in the 1940s. He was a mechanic at Camp Fannin when he began working on automatic transmissions, Ms. Hawkins said. At the end of World War II, Dunn stayed in Tyler and opened the tiny shop on Erwin Street.

The original building, which consisted of an office that could fit one desk, as well as a tin building with room for three or four cars to be worked on, remains on the business’ campus, which now spans an entire block.

Ms. Hawkins, 48, said since her father, Ewell Dickerson, now deceased, bought the business in 1970, added on bit by bit. They now have about a dozen lifts, including two lifts that can be used for motor homes or buses. They have warehouses and a parts business that supplies their shop, as well as sells parts to other local shops and individuals.

Dunn Transmission specializes in repairing automatic transmissions, but also can do standard transmissions and some general automotive work. They work on all kinds of cars, foreign and domestic.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” she said.

On Tuesday, a school bus and classic car were just two of the vehicles being worked on. She said they love getting classic cars to repair, and they do get a lot of them since there are not too many places to find the right parts. She said her father restored classic cars.

Ms. Hawkins’ father began working in the 1960s for Dunn as a mechanic, when she was a baby.

“I have grown up in this business,” she said.

She recalls a snow storm that knocked out power to their house, so the family parked their motor home inside the warm garage to sleep for the night.

Ewell Dickerson retired but was still going to the business often before he passed away in November. Ms. Hawkins’ cousin, Roscoe Dickerson, 46, is general manager and will be taking over Dunn Transmission.

“It’s great to have someone so invested in the company to continue it on …” she said.

Roscoe and his brother, Chad Dickerson, grew up in the business with Ms. Hawkins. She said they worked there during the summers and officially came on the payroll when they were 16.

Ms. Hawkins made her way to working in the office. She now works part time, taking care of customers, shopping for supplies, maintaining the website and advertising.

When Ms. Hawkins worked on cars, transmissions were all hydraulic. Now that they are all computerized and electronic, they have to use special tools and work in a dust-free room.

“It makes it much more difficult,” she said. “It’s an amazing change.”

Chad Dickerson, 42, a transmission rebuilder, was working on a pump out of a Chevrolet pickup on Tuesday. “I have been here since I was that tall,” he said holding his hand a few feet above the ground.

“It’s been good working with family all these years,” Chad Dickerson said, adding although they work together every day, he and his brother still go hunting and fishing on the weekends.

Chad Dickerson said it takes him about five hours, if everything goes smoothly, to rebuild a transmission.

“But when you work with vehicles, it doesn’t always go smooth,” he said.

Ms. Hawkins said that time doesn’t include taking out the transmission and reinstalling it in a car.

“It’s a long process,” she said.

He can put 1,500 to 1,600 parts together and make it work, Ms. Hawkins added.

Dunn Transmission mostly rebuilds transmissions instead of replaces them with remanufactured transmissions because it’s more economical, but they can do both. There are not a lot of independent businesses that rebuild transmissions in the area; it is mostly done but chains and dealerships, she said.

Dunn Transmission has grown to about 18 employees, including several who have worked there for a long time. Richard Dickerson, Ms. Hawkins uncle and Roscoe’s dad, also has worked at the business for years.

She said her father had 11 siblings and most of them have worked for the business over the years. She also has a cousin-in-law who works in the service office.

Melinda Campbell is parts manager and has worked there for 36 years. Her father also worked for the business.

“She’s an encyclopedia,” Ms. Hawkins said. “She can tell you where anything is located.”

She said she feels like it’s a big family and hopes the employees feel the same.

She said they also have a lot of longtime customers and rely on repeat business.

Ewell Dickerson ran the company on the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

“It’s the way he lived his life,” she said. “We try to run it that way and make sure everyone gets a fair deal and good service.”

Ms. Hawkins said they were honored to receive the Better Business Bureau Serving Central East Texas Award for Excellence.

“It doesn’t get any better than the Better Business Bureau,” she said, adding that they received the BBB Torch Award in 2006.