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Oil-change shop: a small business done right

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By Juergen Kneifel
When Dean Curry decided to purchase a foundering Meineke/Econo Lube franchise in south Everett 18 months ago, he had great hopes for a successful small business.
Curry realized that the combination of a great location and excellent customer service could propel this company forward. And hiring the right front-counter manager was at the top of his to-do list.
That's where store manager Bryan Waldo stepped in. Waldo came on board a year ago and things are certainly moving in the right direction.
"Our sales year-over-year for January increased threefold," Waldo said.
He's quick to credit his staff, as they've stepped up to provide service that sets this business apart.
Retaining customers is critical in this type of an enterprise. You can't build a successful enterprise on one-time transactions.
While approximately 75 percent of their business is performing oil changes, the customer retention for the shop is very high. More than 60 percent of the customers return and many new customers are the result of referrals. That's the greatest compliment for any small-business owner.
I talked with Waldo to find out what's working for this company. Waldo, much like Curry, is a lifelong car enthusiast. He started working on cars when he was in high school and held jobs with a range of automotive businesses, from tire stores to specialty shops working on hot rods. He knows cars. More importantly, he knows people.
When asked what makes for a successful front-counter manager, he noted that it's crucial to be a good listener and remain cool under pressure.
"Customers have made a special trip to your shop, and even without an appointment, you need to be very sensitive to their needs and be ready to offer what things you are able to do for them," he said.
Located on Highway 99 where roughly 60,000 cars pass by on a daily basis, it's easy to see how a $19.95 basic oil change will entice drivers to pull in and take care of this simple maintenance. At that price point, why would anyone choose to do their own oil change?
You've probably seen auto technicians dancing around as human billboards to attract attention and bring in customers at some of the competing oil-service locations.
Waldo chuckled and said, "We have those signs in the back, but we've never had to use them. It seems like our guys stay busy with the oil changes. And we're a full-service shop with plenty of work beyond."
Waldo handles customers with great care. Never making unrealistic promises or setting too high a bar, he shared, "It's better to under-promise and over-deliver."
On a recent Saturday, it was clear several customers would need to wait an hour or longer. Waldo offered options to schedule a time or perhaps leave the car for service.
The price for an oil change is quite competitive. Beyond this, Waldo offers a promotional punch card that rewards regulars with a free oil change after every four purchased. "I get about five of these punch cards redeemed every week by our customers," said Waldo.
"The bottom line for me is that we need to deliver on quality and service. If you don't have good service, then it doesn't matter what type of punch-card program you have. They (the customers) aren't coming back," Waldo said.
There are six technicians at the shop and the business is expanding. They'll be hiring at least one additional technician soon. The relationship between Curry and Waldo has been a tremendous fit -- so much so that Waldo will be taking on a role as minority partner in the business.
Another sign that this enterprise is doing things well: The owners plan to seek another location in the area, with the intent of replicating what has to this point become a very successful business model.

Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to
Story tags » Small businessAutomotive



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