Franchise Spotlight: Express Oil Change & Tire Engineers

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“I asked if they would be willing to hire me as the lowest level technician,” said Robley Bates, owner and operator of Express Oil Change and Service Center in Richmond, Virginia. “I said, ‘After eight-to-10 weeks of training, I’ll get back to you and let you know if I can do this.’”

Bates, an investment banker at the time, had been helping the Express Oil Change corporate group with some financial advisory work.

 “I was really just looking at the numbers and financials and the different shops they had on the corporate side,” Bates said. “I thought, ‘This is a really good business. I wonder why no one has opened one in Virginia?’”

So after a move to Birmingham, Alabama, the headquarters of Express Oil Change and Tire Engineers and three months of changing oil in the pit, Bates decided to take the plunge and opened his shop in 2013.

“The shop has performed very well,” he said. “Prior to banking, I was in the Marine Corps for eight years. I think that helped with customers coming in, wanting to support a veteran-owned business, but also the model works well.”

Bates’ operation is true to the Express Oil Change model — a 10-minute oil change with a service center on the other side of the shop.

“It does state inspections, brakes, tune-ups and tires,” Bates said. “It’s a true one-stop shop.”

It’s something that Bates — as well Express Oil Change — takes great pride in.

“The model of doing quick oil change and auto repair makes us convenient for the customer,” said Don Larose, senior vice president of franchise development at Express Oil Change. “That’s a big opportunity for us. Customers might need brakes, but they haven’t had them serviced, or their tires are getting bald, but they haven’t had them replaced. We are really taking more advantage of that.”

In recent years, the franchise has placed significant emphasis on the tire submarket, purchasing Tire Engineers and launching a rebrand of their existing locations.

“This past year, we finished converting all our company stores to Express Oil Change and Tire Engineers,” Larose said. “Some of our franchisees have started the process of making that change, as well. We just want to make sure everyone is fully versed in tires, so we can build credibility with our customers regarding the tire business.”

But tires and fast oil changes aren’t the only items on the list of Express Oil proficiencies. They’ve managed to set themselves apart by the company culture they have created.

“In the franchising world in general, you’re either all corporate or you’re majority-franchise owned and 10 percent is owned by the corporate entity,” Bates said. “In the case of Express Oil, I think having 50 percent of the stores owned by corporate allows them to try new things, roll out different programs and see if it works in a test bed of their own stores. When they think they’ve got the chemistry right, they let the franchisees know what they plan on doing. We’re a close-knit group of people.”

In addition to a close-knit, accessible company culture, Express Oil Change franchisees reap another significant benefit: purchase power.

“We aren’t owned by an oil company,” Larose said. “We put out our bid for oil suppliers every five years, and that ends up getting us the very best price, which leaves more money in our franchisees’ bottom line.”

And if there is one thing Express Oil is not it’s a middleman.

“[The franchisees] don’t buy the oil from us or give us a percentage,” Larose said. “All of our franchisees get their bulk oil delivered to their stores at the exact price as any of our company stores. That’s true no matter where in the country they are. We really try to help them get the lowest possible cost to operate.”

That purchase power also extends into the tires side of the business.

“Separate from Express Oil Change and Tire Engineer stores, we corporately own another 35 tire stores,” Larose said. “It gives us more purchasing power with tires, and it gives our franchisees better prices and rebates.”

According to Bates, it’s a rarity in the franchise world.

“From what I learned during my time in banking, franchisors don’t always pass on those nice costs to the franchisees,” he said. “The same thing applies to marketing. Anything they get a good price on, they’ll pass on to us.”

One of the greatest benefits of franchising is the promotional support that often comes from the franchisor. If you have someone to help you promote your business, it frees you up to do what you do best — serve your customers.

“Express Oil offers standard things like banners, and any sort of marketing materials they’re going to put out through corporate, they offer to the franchisees, as well,” Bates said. “If customers want to sign up for it, we have an email program that sends out reminders and coupons. We’ve made some pretty good strides in reaching out to the customer over the Internet.”

And one not-so-standard marketing initiative proves Express Oil has found a way to harness the media to work for them. Consumers see hundreds of marketing messages a day, yet only remember two or three. The trick is to be one of those select few. Express Oil’s answer? Hit the customer with their message while they’re already thinking about preventive maintenance and put their message in-bay.

“Express Oil started in-store media where, as the customer sits in their car, there’s a little screen in each bay that will show the different services Express Oil offers,” Bates said. “They can see on the screen that we do tires or can do state inspections or brakes. We’ve had a couple of people say they didn’t know we offered that, and they’ve been coming into the shop for a year and a half.”

If you’ve been thinking about making the switch from an independent store owner to a franchisee, the first necessary step is to do your due diligence and research the franchise. Visit Express Oil Change’s website, and they have all the information you need to make an informed decision about becoming an Express Oil franchisee. And if someone wants to become a franchisee and they’re analyzing the various opportunities, the biggest question to answer is what it’s going to cost to get into the business.

“We’ve got startup costs broken down in detail and how much money you’ll need to borrow,” Larose said. “We also publish historical sales and expense averages, labor costs, cost of goods, operation costs and the bottom line cash before debt over the course of five or six years.”

Express Oil Change also invites interested parties to their Alabama headquarters to meet the key executives in the company, including the people who will help them find a location, design the store and who will help them market their new venture.

“When they leave, they’ll have a sense of who we are and what we’re about,” Larose said.

Seeing the financials and talking to corporate are crucial steps, but in this business, we all know word of mouth is everything. That’s why Express Oil recommends talking to their existing franchisees as part of the information-gathering process.

“It’s one of the most important steps,” Larose said. “We give them a list of franchisees and their contact information so they can call as many as they want and ask questions about us, their experience, if they’re making money and if they’re happy. It gives them a chance to validate the information we have provided.”

Chances are, most of them will respond in agreement with Robley Bates, “I have nothing but good things to say about being a franchisee with Express Oil Change.”

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