2016 Operator Of The Year: Brian Bouthillette
It has been said there aren’t men like John Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie anymore; that there just aren’t those type of individuals who can come from very modest means and build a thriving business. However, the 2016 National Oil & Lube News Operator of the Year is proof there are such persons of character and determination, who can start from the bottom and create a truly lasting legacy.
Brian Bouthillette may never have buildings named after him, and he likely won’t leave this world with billions of dollars in the bank. Yet, he is the kind of man who has always put in a hard day’s work and put a smile on his customers’ faces in the process. In today’s world where many people are simply out for themselves, this New England native has given back while providing for his family and making a good life for his employees. He is the kind of individual you’d want to work for — which couldn’t always be said about men like Rockefeller or Carnegie.
“Money can come and go, but credibility is hard to gain back if you lose it,” Brian explained. “I took every opportunity I had and ran with it, but I didn’t forget those who got me where I am today. Loyalty and one’s word mean a lot to me. That’s more important than just getting rich.”
This self-professed small-town guy started at the very bottom in the lube industry. With a whole lot of ambition and a little help from his friends, he has worked his way up and currently operates five successful SpeeDee locations.
“Every day that I am in the shops, I’ve always felt that each customer is like my neighbor,” Brian said.“We may not live on the same street, but they are all a part of a community I care deeply for. I live so close to my shops that I often see customers when I am out and about, and I get a chance to talk to them outside of work. I truly love that about my job, and I love getting to know my customers and their families.”
In many ways, Brian’s story could have turned out quite differently, but hard work, determination and playing the cards he was dealt has paid off.
“Brian’s the epitome of perseverance and integrity,” said Brian’s wife Carla. “Dropping out of school at age 16 should’ve probably set him up for a very difficult life, but his determination to turn everything around after his father passed away is really inspiring to me.”
Brian’s story certainly mirrored those notable 19th century entrepreneurs. His parents, while not formally divorced, lived apart. For many teens, that might have been enough of a catalyst for rebellion and to be angry at the world. Instead, Brian entered the workforce at age 13, washing dishes for a restaurant in Attleboro, Massachusetts. By the time he was 16, Brian’s parents were both fighting cancer, and, along with his brother Henry, he stepped up to help — not just for the extra pocket money but because his family depended on them.
“At age 16, I was driving my mother to chemotherapy and then going to work,” Brian said. “I did what I had to do. It was a moment in my life when I had to grow up really fast.”
The Fast Lube Fast Track
Just like those self-made men from a bygone age, Brian quit school, seriously entered the workforce and, in 1990, started down the career path that would take him to much better things. It was not without more than his fair share of hardship along the way, andit was also not the path his family had planned for him.
His father, who succumbed to cancer only a few years later, had told Brian to consider joining the military. For Brian that wasn’t an option, since he wanted to spend as much time as possible with his parents and try to provide for them in the process. He started his employment with SpeeDee at age 17, beginning at the very bottom.
Brian’s career began as a courtesy technician, vacuuming cars, washing windows and setting tire pressure. Interestingly, he opted for this job over a slightly better paying opportunity to work as a janitor.
“It was a difficult time to find a job, and the SpeeDee opportunity was less money per hour but more hours,”Brian said.
Brian’s desire to continue his training and attend Rhode Island Trade Shop School almost ended up setting him back instead of launching him forward.
“After Brian’s father died, he ended up owing his entire tuition to the Rhode Island Trade Shop School,” Carla explained. “This was supposed to be paid when his father died, but they made him sign a paper for graduation, and it transferred the loan to his name.”
Brian was stuck with the student loans for his training, yet unlike many students today who simply want their debt forgiven— for someone else to foot the bill — Brian again rolled up his sleeves, literally.
“Lou Morra, the restaurant owner Brian had worked for from the age of 13 paid off his loan for him, and to pay him back, Brian worked for free,” Carla added. “Even after the loan was paid back, Brian continued to work for free well into his twenties because he appreciated everything he did for him. While he worked there, Morra taught Brian a lot about business, about paying attention to detail in business and the importance of taking care of your employees.”
While Brian worked off his debts, he also saw the value that could come from investing inreal estate.At age 19,when many young people still live with their parents, he opted to buy his first house.The only problem was banks weren’t exactly ready to loan money to someone so young, so Brian turned to Maria Carney, a friend of the family, who offered to hold the mortgage instead. Like clockwork, Brian paid that debt, too. Little did he know, this first foray into real estate would help catapult his career years down the road.
“Brian has always been mature beyond his years, a hard worker and paid great attention to detail.I promoted him to be manager at 21 years old. By then, he already had four years of experience and had worked every job on the floor,” said Ed Mikkelsen, owner of the first SpeeDee shop Brian ever worked at and current franchisor of all of Brian’s shops, as well as all of the SpeeDee Oil Change & Auto Service facilities throughout New England.
Soon, Brian was able to use his investments to further his career in the quick lube industry. By mortgaging that first house he bought when he was still a teenager and using its equity, Brian became the youngest SpeeDee franchisee in the North East region — at 26 years old — when he purchased the Providence location where he had been the manager.
“I had enough confidence in him to finance his first location for him,” Mikkelsen said. “I knew back then he would be a successful owner.”
Even in 1998, Brian showed he had business savvy beyond his years. He could have tried to buy the Providence location sooner but opted to wait for the timing to be right.
“I could have tried to take on the business with a colleague a year earlier; he was willing to be my partner,” Brian explained. “But I know sometimes partnerships don’t work out, so, instead, I took an extra year to save and get equity from the property I had purchased.”
In the end, the extra year was probably a good choice. It allowed Brian to truly be his own boss, and from that one location he has continually expanded— but not before finding a different kind of partner.
It wasn’t long after he bought his first SpeeDee shop that Brian and Carla were married. The two have grown their business and family together.
Ups and Downs
As with any good biographical story, there’s bound to be somebad with the good. In Brian’s case, the economy presented some challenges.
Brian purchased his second shop — located in Cumberland, Rhode Island — in 2003, followed by a third — in Raynham, Massachusetts — in 2007 and the fourth — located in South Attleboro, Massachusetts — in 2011.This steady growth came with a price. Brian was able to move forward despite the economic downturn of 2008, but the market corrections of 2011 were a bit rougher.
“In 2014, he didn’t take a paycheck for two months,” Mikkelsen said. “Instead, he made sure his guys got paid, and he always paid me. That was actually surprising. I knew things were tight, but I didn’t know they were that tight for him.”
Brian’s early education about investing in real estate paid off and paid his bills when times were tough. The income from Brian’s rental properties ensured food was on the table and that his family — as well as his crew — were properly provided for. As a result, in 2016, he was able to purchase his fifth SpeeDee location in his hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts.
“That meant a lot to him, since he grew up there,” Carla said. “It was a little worrisome as the past owner had problems. But Brian has a proven track record.”
Over the years, Brian hasn’t just purchased new locations, but he has also personally overseen the remodeling and renovation ofall of his shops. This includes providing waiting rooms that are modern and clean, offering a pleasant and comfortable place for customers to wait while their vehicles are being serviced. Then, there’s the attention that goes into the bathrooms.
“It might sound funny, but we hear all the time how nice our bathrooms are,” Carla said.“We ensure they are nothing like people would think the bathroom at a quick lube shop would be!”
Brian’s hard work at all of his locations hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Brian’s locations are models of how a SpeeDee should operate,” Mikkelsen said. “They are clean and inviting, provide fast, friendly service and have skilled technicians. Brian has literally grown up in this industry and with SpeeDee. He comes from modest beginnings and worked his way to being a successful multi-store owner and operator. He is one of the few who can successfully operate multiple, profitable locations. He is in his stores every day, he knows his customers by name and he’s always smiling and making a joke. I’ve known him since he was 17 years old. He worked hard since day one and was always on time. In many ways, his ways were almost too good to be a true story.”
Brian was quick to note his accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without his team; especially with five locations, he can’t be everywhere all the time.
“That’s where having a great team of managers and technicians comes in,” Brian said. “Without them, my job would be a lot more difficult, and I couldn’t do it without them. I don’t see that they work for me; we’re in this together.”
Among the team members Brian truly credits is Steven Elderkin, who has been with Brian for more than 23 years.
“He is a longtime employee, manager and friend who is my go-to guy,” Brian said. “It really is comforting to know I have such a loyal and strong team of excellent people behind me, and I’m honored to work with them all.”
Today, Brian is very grateful to the team at SpeeDee, who he said gave him a chance when he truly needed it most.
“Ed Mikkelsen hired me when I was just a kid,” Brian said. “He was an integral part of teaching me the business and promoting me when I was ready. Under his tutelage, I learned so much. His motto was always ‘back to the basics,’ which is a motto I still believe in strongly today and try to instill in all my managers. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel; just get back to basics. Ed has always been a very supportive franchisor, and I truly appreciate all the work he puts in on all of our behalves as franchisees.”
During his 26 years in the SpeeDee system — and being an owner for 16 of them — Brian has been an outstanding franchisee. His shops have won Franchise of the Quarter honors multiple times, and they consistently rank in the top five for Mystery Shop scores. In 2015, Brian was honored as the SpeeDee Franchisee of the Year for the New England Region, and he was recently appointed by his peers as a member of the National Franchise Advisory Council, representing all of the New England franchisees.
When it comes to his success, Brian insisted he gets a lot of help from his partners — especially the relationships he has with some key vendors, such as ExxonMobil, Service Champ, GH Berlin and Sage Microsystems, just to name a few.
“Brian is a tough but fair negotiator,” Mikkelsen said. “He looks at every deal from both sides, realizes business is about long-term relationships and that both sides of a business deal must make a profit.”
“Our loyalty to each other helps us all to be successful,” Brian explained. “You must have a great relationship with those that are there to help, support you and help you grow your business. Our vendors are all here to help support us in our businesses everyday, and I would be remiss to leave them out as a partner to a successful automotive shop.”
Still, Brian’s most important partner has remained the one he returns home to each night.
“My wife has been an amazing partner in business,” Brian said. “The hard work she puts in everyday, both at home and for the business and the support she gives me in all my business ventures is what made it possible for me to expand to five locations. She’s not only my wife and office manager, but she’s also my rock and my biggest cheerleader.”
It’s easy to be a cheerleader when you have a lot to cheer about.
“To me, Brian is a great example of perseverance and determination to succeed when there were many people who told him he wouldn’t amount to much when he was younger,” Carla said. “When I think about everything he has accomplished without so much as a high school diploma, I am very proud.”
Giving Back and Being a Family Man
If being named NOLN’s Operator of the Year were just about running five successful shops and charting your way through good times and bad,Brian would easily be on the short list for the award, but heis also a family man and a man of the community. Brian enjoys playing golf, camping with his family and raising his two children, Breanne and Brian Jr.
“Breanne and Brian Jr. are the light of his world,” Carla said. “He ensures he makes time for his family.”
Brian also givesto numerous charities, never forgetting about his roots.
“It is important for me to give back when I can,” Brian said.
Brian’s Raynham location holds an annual car show that gives the proceeds to the Raynham Fire Department, and all of Brian’s locations hold Toys for Tots drives and support local youth sports teams near theshops. In addition, Brian has also regularly donated to the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in SpeeDee’s name. He also regularly donates and offers support to the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance. Friedreich’s Ataxia is a rare inherited disease that causes nervous system damage and movement problems and is a cause close to the Bouthillette’s hearts because they have a family member afflicted with the disease.
“He puts his time into helping others,” Mikkelsen said. “Brian is truly a role model who started with nothing and gives everything he can. He is successful enough that he could sit back, but he still works every day and has no plans to change.”
All of this would be enough to keep a Rockefeller busy eight days a week, but what little free time Brian hasafter running five locations, managing six rental properties and raising his children, is spent restoring his 1969 Firebird.
“Brian enjoys buying real estate and working on his rental properties,” Carla said. “But working on the car his dad left him is how he unwinds. That car was the last thing his father gave him before he died of cancer when Brian was 18.”
In many ways, the Firebird could be the perfect symbol for Brian’s life. Just as it would be easy to give up on the car, it might have been easy for Brian to give up, too. Instead, he kept pushing forward, and this is why he truly is the Operator of the Year.
“His true passion — more than the car, more than real estate — is the automotive service business,” Carla said. “After our family, it is what gets him up in the morning and brings him home with a smile.”
Somehow, Brian remains low-key about his big heart and his big work ethic.
“I was able to achieve the American dream,” he said. “If I have one piece of advice for others, it is that I never made decisions under a hot head, and everyone from your employees to the customers to anyone on the street, deserves respect.”