How One Operator’s Local Focus Turned Around an Old Shop

Nov. 1, 2019

When Lee Christianson acquired an independent shop, there was a lot of cleanup work to do. He did that and more on the way to a successful business.

Running a quick lube in a small town means that you could be the only game in town, so you’d better be doing it right.

When Lee Christianson took over and rebranded a shop in Huron, S.D. (population 13,118), he had his work cut out for him.

“The people that owned it previous to me kind of— they didn't know what they were doing,” Christianson says. “It took a long time to bring everybody back.”

Christianson had to take a look at all the factors that make or break a business—his customers, his shop space, his services, his inventory and more. And he had to find out how to tweak all those pieces to maximize the shop’s potential.

Ten years later, and Lee’s Rapid Lube is flourishing. Central to all the changes he made was that they were all customer-focused.

“I've been in retail pretty much since I was 17 years old,” he says. “I think what it basically boils down to generate better car counts and better business is just taking care of your customers. The word of mouth is key, and just being totally up front and honest with everybody.”

The Problem

Christianson said that the shop was a mess when he took over. That was the most apparent issue.

The waiting area hadn’t been updated. The tools weren’t organized. The lower bays had puddles everywhere with cardboard Band-Aids covering them up.

“It was water and oil on the floor in pools everywhere,” he says. “It was just greasy.”

The shop also had a large menu of services and oil. So much so that it was a burden to both Christianson and his customers.

“When I took over here, they had more brands of oil here than Wal-Mart had on the shelves,” he says.

Right away, there was a lot of work that needed to be done while he ran the shop by himself for the first week. When he was able to hire some employees, he had to train them on the fly. And from there, Christianson kept making small changes that led to big differences.

SHOP: Lee's Rapid Lube   LOCATION: Huron, S.D.   OWNER: Lee Christianson  STAFF SIZE: 1 owner, 2 part-time AVERAGE DAILY CAR COUNT: 34 TICKET AVERAGE: $75

The Solutions

1. Clean first

The first job was a top-to-bottom cleaning of the entire building.

The move toward a cleaner, more organized shop space set Lee’s Rapid Lube in the right direction, not to mention a safer work environment.

The challenge was to keep it that way. Christianson values that, and he says that he found shop employees who feel the same. Customers notice that.

“My guys who work for me, they take a lot of pride in what they do,” he says. “This shop is in really good shape. And I think people notice that.”

The state of the shop areas necessitated priority. As time passed, he was able to remodel the customer waiting area.

2. Simplify the menu

Another one of the first steps Christianson took was to reduce the number of oils he offered. He looked at what his customers needed and reduced his stock down to a few brands.

“I kind of simplified the menu, so to speak,” he says. “People were coming in, and we had two different menu boards and they were just looking at it like they couldn't digest this.”

He now describes his oil offerings as “good, better and best.” The simpler format resonates with his customers and promotes speedy transactions.

The change that took longer to implement and made a bigger difference wasn’t in his oil menu, but in the service menu.

The shop offered coolant flushes, transmission flushes and other things that customers rarely requested. And for some of the jobs, Christianson was the only one with the training to perform them while he figured out what worked best.

“When we first started off, we tried to do everything,” he says. “I had to find what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work. And at the time, I was the only one who knew how to work the machines.”

He says that he ultimately felt that customers typically didn’t go for transmission and coolant flushes as preventative measures. Christianson says they were more “out of sight, out of mind” if nothing was wrong with those systems at the time.

And for a shop his size, it wasn’t an effective use of time when a customer did request one of those extra services.

“I just have a two-bay shop, and we get pretty backed up,” he says. “But I can't tie up one guy and a bay to do a $100 service.”

For Lee’s Rapid Lube, it was more efficient to cut those services. He’s found success with a pared-down menu of oil changes, some retail items and headlight restorations

“If we aren’t busy,” he says.

3. Spread word-of-mouth

Person-to-person advertising is valuable for any small business. But for Christianson, it’s his main pipeline to customers.

“I don’t do any advertising, and I'm not on social media,” he says. “And I don't need to.”

While Christianson simplified his menu, he’s still responsive to what his customers need. If they are looking for a high-mileage oil, or a particular viscosity grade, he’s able to accommodate that. But it involves more than just listing it on the menu.

The same strategy applies to his retail items, like wipers.

“That’s what your conversation with your customer is supposed to do,” he says.

It’s cliche to say that it’s his key to good business, but Christianson stands by that. The additional things that customer need come out during their conversations. 

The funny thing is that if he’s doing that right during the first few visits, then those service conversations don’t even need to take place after a while.

“I would say that 60 to 70 percent of them are repeat customers,” he says. “They don't even say everything. They already know what they’re going to do.”

4. Grow your base

Once Christianson cleaned up his shop, focused his service menu and earned a group of repeat customers, it was finally time to grow his customer base.

The key is knowing your customer base. For Lee’s Rapid Lube, a part of that was to carry more diesel engine oils than most shops do.

Huron sits in a rural, agricultural area. And lots of those residents have diesel trucks to do the work that they need. Lots of them end up in Christianson’s shop for service.

“We average 33 cars per day,” he says. “I would say that five of them are diesels.”

That’s higher than average. Just about five percent of a typical quick lube shop’s customer vehicles are diesels, according to the NOLN 2018 Operator Survey.

Christianson stocks a couple different brands of diesel engine oils at 15W-40 and 0W-40 for the newer models, he says.

He also looked to target an underserved population in the area. A lot of residents in the area are Karen, which is an ethnolinguistic group primarily from areas in Myanmar and Thailand. Many work at the nearby Jack Link’s factory in Alpena, just 20 miles down the road.

A lot of those workers don’t speak English, so Christianson put up a service menu in the Karen language. He also went to the local high school to hire teens from Karen families. That helped make the experience better for those customers.

They make up as much as one-fifth of his business today.

“Now that they know they can bring their car here, that kind of just spread like fire,” Christianson says. “If we didn’t have those customers, we wouldn't be doing nearly as well as we are doing.”