Starting From Scratch
For Melissa Vail, quick lube wasn’t a natural progression. It wasn’t even in the plan just a few years ago.
Working in the insurance industry for 17 years, Vail is the first one to admit that she didn’t know the first thing about working in automotive maintenance.
“I had no mechanical skills whatsoever,” she says. “It was so new to me. I didn’t know a thing about oil at the time.”
So when Vail’s husband, Richie, decided he wanted to start a quick lube shop in Jonesboro, La., back in October 2019, she didn’t think much about the role she might play at that store.
Vail’s husband worked off-shore on an oil rig when they first opened their quick lube. The two chose to become franchisees with VP Racing Fastlube, attracted to the low upfront capital requirements to start up, and it allowed Richie the flexibility to work his one-month-on/one-month-off schedule. Vail was supportive throughout the process as the shop was under construction, but she says she was more than comfortable just playing a supplementary role.
“This was all him. When he worked off-shore, I was here trying to get it built, trying to get everything. He would be off a month then on a month. I was here helping through that process, but we weren't sure what was going to happen. We didn’t know if we’d need his income from his other job or if this would support itself.”
That, however, was before COVID hit.
Called into Action
Vail’s day to day was quickly upended. COVID hit in early 2020. Richie was laid off from his oil job. He hustled to find another full-time position to make up for the loss of income. All of which thrust Vail into a new role at the lube shop—from supporting to being one of the shop’s leaders during an unprecedentedly difficult time.
“At that time I was here at the store helping every day, but now that he had to go out and get a regular full-time job that didn’t allow him to be here every other month, it really fell in my lap,” Vail says. “That’s when it really set in, and it was kind of scary. If something went awry, he couldn’t help walk me through it.”
A small town of fewer than 5,000 people, Jonesboro didn’t have many options for full service auto care, and Richie wanted to change that when he first opened VP Racing Fastlube. In addition to providing quick lube maintenance, the shop also provides full-service auto care and tires.
Though that meant the shop would attract more customers throughout the region, it also meant a steeper learning curve for Vail. Richie comes in as much as he can to help out, but with his other full-time job, he’s only at the shop about once a week. That means most of the day-to-day operations fall to Vail and her team.
“We’re such a small town and there aren’t as many places around, so we’ve taken on tires as well as oil change. I had to learn everything,” she says. “I didn’t know what filter went on this car or that one, which wipers go where. I didn’t know the difference between a full synthetic and synthetic blend. Trying to keep up with all the new cars coming in and make sure we had everything in the shop was difficult.”
Jack of All Trades
Vail says she’s never been one to shrink from a challenge, and instead of nervously fretting what could have happened to the store in the middle of the pandemic, she dove in head-first to help lead the company through it.
Once again quick to deflect credit, she says she felt like it was really the only option.
“For one thing, it’s our life savings. We have about $750,000 invested in this place. It’s got to work!” Vail laughs. “That’s my greatest motivation: to not lose everything.”
Though her official position title with the company is co-owner, Vail does just about everything possible at the shop. Whether it’s organizing inventory, managing registers up front, giving quotes, making sure her crew has everything they need, getting out into a bay and checking tires, vacuuming the interior or changing oil, Vail says she’s more than happy to take on whatever task needs to be done.
She’s even helped the shop secure more than two dozen fleet accounts with local law enforcement, EMS and public safety agencies, loggers and other businesses.
Though the shop had seen increased sales and car count in every month between the start of the pandemic and last summer since Vail took on a more significant role, she’s quick to give credit to her team.
“Luckily for me, I’ve got Richie, who’s been in the industry for 20 years. And thank goodness we have such a great crew,” she says. “I had to learn everything, because I didn’t know anything. I had good people that could hold my hand. I also wasn’t afraid to ask questions.”
Richie says the team can only take so much credit for how well Vail has done in her expanded role as day-to-day leader of the shop.
“She has learned very quickly how things operate, and she also takes very good care of her employees,” her husband, Richie, says. “She is a very valuable player in our team that always goes above and beyond, and always up for a new challenge.”
According to her husband and several customers he’s talked to, though, Vail’s calling card is her customer service.
Vail says it’s just a natural part of who she is.
“People like a great personality when they come in, someone that smiles and asks them how their day is going. I think that’s the major part of it,” she says. “Some people don’t have that on a regular basis and will tell me that I’ve made their day just by asking how their day was, and it’s just a small piece that doesn’t take time out of my day. People really respond well to that.”
“Customer service is very important, and it makes me happy to know that other people are happy. It makes them want to come back if you have good customer service.”
That also extends to her employees. The pandemic has radically shifted the job market, and now more than ever it’s tough to find and retain good employees. The quick lube industry in particular can be grueling work most days.
Vail says that’s all the more reason to be a positive and outgoing presence in her employees’ lives, to help them get through a tough day and, more pragmatically, to make them more likely to stick around.
“I’m good to my employees. I cook for them, I go get them pizza because if that keeps them happy, I’m all in. I’ll do stuff like that and think of them because I appreciate the job that they do, and that’s a way that I can show them that I appreciate them on a daily basis.”
Just Getting Started
Like most other businesses, VP Racing Fastlube still faces an uphill battle against supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and other obstacles. Most days are still a challenge for Vail as well, but now almost two years in, she says she’s more invested in the company than she ever has been.
In the almost two years she’s spent managing the shop, Vail says she’s proud of the strides she’s made in quick lube, both in terms of the success her shop has seen and how she has grown personally in the industry.
“I’ve come a long ways from nothing,” she says. “I’ve grown tremendously and can now successfully manage the shop.”
Even now, though, she is still quick to deflect credit and focus on how she can get better. When asked to grade herself on a scale of 1 to 10, she gave herself a 9.
How can she get that final point?
“I don’t know,” she laughs, “I just know that I still have room to get better.”
That motivation to always improve has expanded into serving her team and her community, and two years later, she’s still all-in.
“You never know what you’ll experience throughout the day, and even now … you’re just hoping that something will come in to keep the flow going. It has been a lot, and I was so overwhelmed at first,” she says. “I’ve got a great crew and that gives me peace of mind, knowing that if something goes wrong we’ve got people who can do something about that. I’m just blessed.”