Operator of the Year: Eric Frankenberger

Sept. 14, 2022

The 2022 award winner shows how the right leader can bring a brand and an industry forward.

In 1993, Eric Frankenberger was at college in San Diego, California. He needed a job, and a friend said that there was a pretty good environment changing oil over at Oil Changers. 

Just like that, Frankenberger was washing windows and filling tires in the bay for a company that he’d eventually lead. Frankenberger tried other lines of work, but it wasn’t long before he came back to Oil Changers.

“I like what we do. It was a cool place and I saw an opportunity and ran with it,” he says. “So 29 years later, here I am. It’s been a good run for sure.”

Quite a run it has been. Frankenberger worked through the managerial ranks, helping to bring the Oil Changers brand into what it is today—a nationally growing quick lube business. Just four years ago, Oil Changers had a few dozen locations. Earlier this year, the brand reached 100 units. He has also become a big part of the industry’s association, the Automotive Oil Change Association.

Frankenberger has given a lot to quick maintenance. And when a major injury threatened to sideline him, the industry and the Oil Changers company had his back. Through the journey, Frankenberger credits company founder Larry Read for setting the tone professionally, personally, and as a leader.

“He really created what I’d say is a family environment for us as an organization that I take to heart and really think is an important part of us as we continue to grow into the future,” Frankenberger says.

It is indeed a bright future thanks to Frankenberger and his colleagues. Given his team focus, it’s only fitting that Frankenberger shares an anniversary award with his mentor, Read, who was the 1992 Operator of the Year.

Thirty years later, it’s time to congratulate Frankenberger as the 2022 NOLN Operator of the Year.

Thrown Off Track

Frankenberger wasn’t airing tires in the bays for long. He worked his way up to become a store manager in Poway, California. In his off time, he loved to race dirt bikes.

In 1998, he went over the handlebars practicing for the upcoming racing season.

“I lost it and the bike just kind of crushed me. It shattered L3 (vertebrae). I still today have brackets and the rods going from L2 to L4,” he says. “I’ve got partial paralysis down the right side of my body, waist down.”

A serious injury requires serious rehabilitation. Laid up in the hospital for six months, it was unclear what his mobility would be in the future. Some professionals told him he might not walk again after a nine-hour reconstructive surgery.

Work was not the primary concern at the time, but his shop was without its manager for a total of eight months. Facing the prospect of using a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he thought he might take opportunities to learn a different trade or go into a different line of work. He says the company offered those training options.

Oil Changers kept him on the payroll so he could pay bills during that time. Frankenberger says Larry Read reached out early to wish him well and offer support.

“He took care of me during a time that was pretty dark for me,” Frankenberger says. “And as I started coming out of it, I definitely wanted to repay and give my thanks.”

He worked as best he could with a walker, and later a cane. Eventually, he regained enough mobility to continue his career track at Oil Changers. 

The icing on the cake: Frankenberger walked down the aisle to get married in August of that year, roughly eight months after the crash.

The Read Effect

Eric Frankenberger, president at Oil Changers and 2022 Operator of the Year, credits a lot of his professional success to company founder Larry Read. 

“I learned a lot about the business side, things like P and L management, best practices, people-first organization,” Frankenberger says.

He says he took to heart the six Ps from Read: prior planning prevents piss poor performance. Make a plan and execute. Frankenberger says Read was tough with vendors and had a lot of talent as a businessman, but he wasn’t confined to a corner office. He’d be out, mixing it up with new hires all the time.

“He would dress with the best but also roll up his sleeves and shake hands with a new hire and spend time with them,” Frankenberger says. “Just really not separating himself from all the team members, but also being very business savvy.”

It was about finding the appropriate leadership style for different arenas.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without him,” he says.

A Changing Industry

Frankenberger’s experience through his injury demonstrated how much of an impact colleagues and company leaders can have on the lives of employees. The Oil Changers Family mindset was a part of the secret sauce back in 1998, and today it’s the subject of many progressive business operation playbooks.

Frankenberger managed operations for the entire Oil Changers network leading up to his taking over as company president in 2010, and he says he hopes to maintain that team-first ethos. Since taking over that position, he says that his perspective has changed as the industry evolves. But the fundamentals remain.

“I can guarantee with 100-percent confidence that the people who are successful have the right teams, and that’s what it is,” he says. “Because there’s no business plan that outweighs teams.”

Employees who have been with Oil Changers for 20 years get a special watch, and Frankenberger has given out quite a few of those. Employees who hit the 30-year mark get a ring. That goes for acquired shops that started under a different brand. Experience is experience, according to Frankenberger.

As a leader, Frankenberger says he’s a bit entrepreneurial, but he’s a lot like an engineer—his dad worked in that profession. He’s a tinkerer at the edges to see which changing variables can make for a more efficient machine. 

“I think we’re always looking for ways to improve what we’re doing and get better,” he says. “This industry, I love it. Cars are always changing. Things are always in that state.”

When Frankenberger started in the shops, carbureted vehicles came in with those big, donut-shaped air filters under the hood. Now shops are carrying ultra-low viscosity oils of multiple varieties to protect high-efficiency, modern engines. 

That state of change plays into Frankenberger’s engineer outlook. A period of change offers a chance for improvement.

“You’ve got to be looking at it and be a little of an engineer to make sure that you’re staying up with it,” Frankenberger says.

A Growing Family

Frankenberger really worked to hone his leadership and industry ties after taking over as company president. But in 2018, the company really hit a growth spurt. 

At the time, Oil Changers was at 34 locations. Trivest Partners led a recapitalization of Oil Changers that included growth funding. The growth that followed was swift, and it included the addition of the first new construction in the Oil Changers network in 20 years. In 2021, Greenbriar Equity Group acquired Oil Changers and the trajectory continued.

“We reached 100 stores in four years,” Frankenberger says. “I think the next 100 stores are going to come unbelievably fast. We’ll be at 200 stores probably by the end of next year, the way things are looking now.”

Through it all, the Oil Changers family remains a strong component—the concept of creating memories that Larry Read taught years ago. That includes team baseball outings, picnics, and other events. One thing Read taught Frankenberger is that money doesn’t last as long as memories.

“We do things to create memories, not just for the team members but for their kids and family members,” Frankenberger says. “So 20 years from now, they look back and remember those events when we took the time to really treat them.”

Where Frankenberger was once working on building strong teams at a store level, he now finds himself building the support service and admin teams to support massive growth. It’s a challenge that Frankenberger is ready to take on.

“Even though it’s been 30 years, we’re kind of still at the beginning of the story, from my perspective,” he says. “I think we have a lot of runway ahead of us, not just on mergers and acquisitions, but on new builds as well.”

Teryl Jackson Photography
Courtesy of Glenn Ables
Illustration 158628704 © Woodhouse84 | Dreamstime.com
Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez
Rebecca Sampson, Enchantment Photography
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