The Indy Shop Survival Guide
What it takes to launch, manage and maintain an independent quick lube brand
How many quick lube businesses start in a bar? Probably more than you might think.
Take Justin Strickland for example. Years ago, he and a buddy were tossing around business ideas, and Strickland had experience in the quick lube industry. He thought it was time to strike it out on his own. Perhaps wise for the setting, Strickland committed it to writing.
“I took a piece of paper from the bar and started writing it out,” he says.
Starting out in 2012, an early stretch of low car counts led Strickland to think he’d made a mistake. As it turned out, he hadn’t. Counts grew and all these years later, his North Carolina-based independent quick lube business is a thriving multi-state network called Strickland Brothers 10 Minute Oil Change.
Eric Galindo’s rise as an independent operator has been more rapid. Though he spent years in a leadership position in a Texas chain of 32 shops, it wasn’t until March 2019 that he brought his own business to market. A second shop opened in May. A third in June. A fourth in July and a Fifth in November.
And so it went. Galindo’s Oil Change Express now has more than five Locations in the San Antonio area, and he’s loving the independent business climate.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s scary, but it’s very rewarding,” he says. “I take it very seriously. I have a lot of employees counting on me, and I'm going to make sure we don’t fail.”
Both operators are navigating the waters of independent shop ownership. Competition with national brands, lack of corporate support and strong local ties make these businesses both rewarding and tough to run. But they’ve risen to their challenges, and car counts are rising. These two wouldn’t have it any other way.
This month, NOLN celebrates the “little guy” brands of the industry and takes a hard look at what’s needed in a survival kit to make it as an indy shop in 2020 and beyond.
Only the strong survive. It takes dedication and discipline, especially in those early years, to get things up to speed.
One of the benefits of a franchise system is that corporate support is in place to lend a hand in training, marketing, brand awareness and other aspects. For independent operators, this is all on them. Among those duties is bookkeeping.
“When you’re an independent operator, you’re not looking for a $150,000 CFO,” Strickland says. “But unfortunately, you’re competing with people who are.”
To combat this, Strickland took QuickBooks classes after hours early in his business to get a crash course in accounting. He devoured business books and read industry magazines. He was at the shops well before opening and well after closing, making sure everything was in order. He spent his Sundays updating the books.
While working on keeping the internal structure sound, there needs to be an external presence as well to get shops off the ground. Marketing is a common part of franchise corporate support, and it can be a time-consuming effort for independent operators, particularly those who aren’t ready to spend big on third-party marketers.
“I’m managing my online presence, so it’s a lot of work. A lot of stuff we do ourselves,” Galindo says.
Through a lot of research, Galindo says he was able to find an outside company to send out mailers at a good cost. It’s all about finding the right balance between doing it yourself and getting returns on services that require a bit of overhead.
The key factor that underpins all of this is internal strength. Independent operators have a special drive to succeed.
“A lot of it is really internal battles within myself,” Galindo says. “Impatiently, I want to be as big as we were with Express Lube. So as an operator, I have to swallow my pride and gain company awareness and exposure. Really capitalize with customer service when cars bless our shops. That’s vital.”
It’s smart to face tough conditions alongside good partners. Just as it’s not advisable to hike in the wilderness alone, it’s just as foolish to go into business without a great team.
Galindo was the operations director for a local San Antonio chain for years until it sold to a bigger company. That’s when he decided to strike out on his own, and he attributes his quick success to the team he brought with him.
“It’s all about people,” he says. “Actually, probably about 95 percent of my whole (current) staff used to work for me. It’s just been a blessing in terms of culture and training and things like that.”
Galindo is finishing a Ph.D. in organizational leadership, and he says that one thing that’s been reinforced in his studies is the importance of culture. It’s one thing to have crew members who know each other and get along. It’s another to foster an environment for continual growth.
He implements bonus plans and competitive compensation to begin that strategy.
“Take care of your people, and they’ll take care of you,” he says. “They will take care of the customer and take care of your business.”
This becomes doubly important among top company lieutenants. That person who was mulling over business ideas with Strickland at a bar years ago? That’s Mark, who is now Strickland’s vice president of operations.
Strickland also says that Will, one of his area managers, was someone in his organization who always pushed for growth and helped light a fire. Having institutional knowledge on the team is incredibly useful, he says.
“You can't put a value on those guys and their efforts to grow this company and be a part of something greater than themselves,” he says. “And now as we sit here with 115 employees.”
Survival depends on keeping a cool head, especially in tough situations. If you’re running an independent quick lube, you really have to know more than just servicing a vehicle. Vendors, markets, equipment purchasing and every other intricacy falls under your purview.
One of the most crucial decisions is developing your pricing structure.
Strickland knew he wanted to change that model. As he worked his way up in the industry, he says that certain pricing structures didn’t jibe with him. One of them was having a big-city cost of service implemented in more rural areas.
“I also didn’t agree with large ticket averages,” he says. “There was a real big push on ticket averages over customer count. And it wasn’t the same shared value. I understand the importance of it, but ultimately I feel like it’s the customer’s vehicle. Our job is to educate the customer.”
Galindo focused on the details in his business, not taking any quoted price for granted to get the edge for his business. Here are his keys to a business jumpstart:
“Really focusing on cost of goods, labor,” he says. “Negotiating good leases and utilizing market advertising and repeat customer programs.”
If you launch a franchised shop, chances are that the company already has a training system in place. For independent operators, that’s not immediately available.
Strickland knew this was an important aspect, and he met the challenge in two ways. First, he worked to develop a system that’s simple enough for quick deployment.
“The goal there is to be able to train your staff to be up to speed as soon as possible,” he says. “By having easy, trainable, scalable business models, you can accomplish that goal much easier.”
With the process in place, he worked closely with a learning management system company to script his own training program. He developed training for all positions at the company, which is easier said than done.
“We quickly learned that this is tough,” he says. “But that’s exactly how we did it and that’s how we’ve done it do date.”
Once employees are trained up and working in the system, Galindo says that the key to longevity lies in giving them a roadmap to success. This can be a challenge in the quick lube world, where you have some part-timers and short-term employees.
Galindo looks for people who are interested in cars—even in mechanical work—and lets them know that the quick lube environment is a great learning space.
“The guys who don’t know if they’re going to be quick lube technicians or mechanics, I always keep it in my back pocket that this is a good jumping off point,” he says. “They’re working with all makes and models.”
Survival means knowing where to take your business. And to set your operation up for the long haul, it pays to sow content within your ranks.
Galindo knows this as a big part of building a shop culture. To promote the “buddy system” mentioned above, he makes time to know his people on a personal level. From managers to entry-level employees, he’s there to point the compass in the right direction.
“One thing I do is I'm in the stores every day,” he says. “I meet and talk to every technician, every employee that I have. I know them by their first name.”
He says that’s something that keeps his employees around longer. Galindo wants customers to feel the cohesion among his team when they walk into one of his shops.
Leading the way for a business also means having a strong moral compass.
“If you don't agree on the core values of the business, that’s where it kinda tugs at me personally,” Strickland says. “We wanted to develop our own core values to build our business around, and that is the best part. I look forward to Mondays. And I think that if you ask our staff in the office, I think most of them would tell you the same thing.”
This can also be a tough assignment for independent operators. It takes energy and drive, which Galindo and Strickland show when they describe their operations.
When it’s working correctly, operators see their businesses grow. But on a more personal, shop culture level, they see their employees growing in their own lives. Strickland and Galindo both pointed to this as a measure of success.
“It was mainly culture,” Galindo says. “Taking care of our people more. Taking care of their families more. Giving them an opportunity to progress, make some money and take care of themselves.”
Wilderness survivalists know that you have to be prepared for what’s out there before venturing out. The same is true for the quick lube market, where new shops are popping up all the time.
One of Galindo’s keys to a successful independent operation is studying up on the competition. Find ways to set yourself apart, offer something different and attract customers to your brand.
“It’s super important to know who you’re up against and what they do and what they lack and to capitalize on that,” he says.
Industry experience is helpful in this department, whether it’s among your staff or within yourself. Having worked as operations director for Express Lube, Galindo managed a successful local chain with a big reach.
Strickland says that his exposure to lots of different brands helped him put together his own system. He started with Express Oil Change and Tire Engineers and later became a district sales and operations manager for a Jiffy Lube franchise. That’s where he learned a lot on the business side.
By the time he started the Strickland Brothers brand, he was ready to take on the big names.
“For us, we just felt like we had something to prove,” he says. “We wanted to prove that we could compete with the biggest out there, even though we didn't have the same amount of money, the same resources at the time. That we could go out and compete with these larger businesses.”
Galindo was the same way. When it was time to start Oil Change Express, he wasn’t nervous about going into markets with big names close by. He knows San Antonio well.
“I think that’s a good thing if you’ve been in the business for a while and you know your demographics well, that’s a great thing,” he says.
Risk and reward is always going to be a balancing equation for independent operators. Those who succeed come out a little on the side of the latter, but the journey can feel like venturing into the unknown.
Looking back, Strickland says he got through the uphill climb by capitalizing on every learning experience.
“When I started Tater Bugs, I was 24 years old and trying to learn the ins and outs of business,” he says. “Not having the guidance of a franchise was a 24/7, 365 love and learn. You get an education whether you go to college or not.”
That’s also kind of the rush of being an independent operator. You’re in control of your map, your compass, your team and every other factor. When you’re confident in those abilities, then the value of being an independent brand starts to present itself.
“Not being held by a certain brand, not paying any franchise premiums,” Galindo says. “Having the ability to adjust however I see fit. Whether that’s marketing, or product or vendors.”
Galindo concedes that for newer operators, a franchise might be the right fit to get off the ground quickly. But there’s a certain set of skills—a certain guide for survival—to being an independent operator.
The bottom line is that when you’re facing the unknown, you have to rely on the thing you know best.
“If I’m going to bet on somebody,” Galindo says, “I’m going to bet on myself.”