Operator of the Year: Jason Berry

Sept. 1, 2021
The industry is in good hands with this young quick lube owner.

When Jason Berry was younger, he helped his father out in his metal fabrication business. One of their contracts was with the local quick lube to fabricate the underground bulk tanks.

Berry’s duties included getting into those tanks and doing some of the finer welding work. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was putting the finishing welds on tanks that would become his own.

“Both of my stores still have the same oil tanks that, chances are, I laid in them as a kid because I was smaller,” Berry says.

Re-telling that story, he says that it’s crazy how life happens sometimes. While that is a pretty remarkable connection to his lube shops, Berry had close ties to the quick maintenance industry all along. Those ties, and the relationships therein, helped him become the operator that he is today.

But that experience alone isn’t enough to succeed in this business. The quick maintenance industry is going through a lot of change, and Berry is the type of young operator who is the example of a bright future. He pays careful attention to his employees’ needs, and his devout faith helps to guide him toward a customer service culture that’s always thoughtful, truly wishing a good day for every visitor.

All the while, Berry’s shops have seen car counts and premium oil sales grow, and he’s received unprecedented corporate customer satisfaction scores. He’s a strong ambassador for the Havoline brand, and he’s also got the full endorsement of the former operators, with whom he remains close.

It was hard to get the 2021 NOLN Operator of the Year to brag about his leadership. Berry knows this—it’s embedded in his style.

“I just try to stay humble to it,” he says. “I’ve seen too many people get the big head and kind of let it go, so I just keep my nose on the grindstone. The days that we knock it out of the park and do 110 cars, I don't let it get to me. I keep my people excited about it.”

Becoming an Operator

After college, Berry sold insurance for five years. It was a good career, but he knew he’d be happier running his own business.

In addition to actually working on the shops’ construction in his younger years, Berry was close with the couple who started the lube shops in Cullman and Hartselle, Ala. Gary and Tammy Sandlin started the ninth Texaco lube shop in the country, and it later became Havoline xpress Lube.

The Sandins knew about Berry’s character. Tammy Sandin says that when her father was in the hospital, Berry would come by with his own grandparents every day to provide some company.

When the Sandlins started thinking about selling their business, Berry was at the top of the list. How much did the Sandins trust Berry? If you’re familiar with Alabama college football rivalries, this will provide some insight:

“To know that we’re big [University of] Alabama fans and Jason’s a big Auburn [University] fan, that tells you a lot,” Sandin says.

The timing worked out well. In 2019, The Sandins were ready to part with the Hartselle location, and Berry had been interested in taking over the business. In February of that year, Berry purchased the Hartselle shop. Two years later, in early 2021, he bought the busy Cullman store.

Berry says that the Sandins have continued to be there for him for advice and guidance.

“They’ve been excellent mentors to me along the way,” he says.

Quick Success

It’s not like Berry got into a struggling operation, but he was able to improve some key KPIs after taking over. At the Hartselle store, he says car counts were at an average of 48 daily in 2019. Through 2020, he got to 64. Partway through 2021, he says he has been at an average of 70 at the location.

“My goal coming in was 10 cars per day (improvement), but that was realistically five years down the road,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to do what it did.”

The Cullman location is bigger than Hartselle and has been traditionally strong; he says that it averages 95 cars daily.

Part of what makes Berry the 2021 Operator of the Year is the overwhelming support that he received from Chevron’s automotive installed sales and marketing team. Though he’s a smaller operator in Alabama, he caught attention as a rising star in the franchise system. Five different people at Chevron nominated him as a great ambassador for the brand and for the quick lube industry.

One of those nominators was Dave Schletewitz, auto installed marketing manager for Chevron. He says that as Havoline started a pilot customer satisfaction study program, Berry’s operations stood out.

The pilot program included a mystery shopper element, in which a customer would go through a service and then report the experience later. The second element is more of a visual review of the facility, its cleanliness, and its curb appeal.

Schletewitz says that Berry had the highest customer satisfaction score in the pilot relative to other participants. That included a 94.2 percent score in the customer satisfaction element and a 99 percent in the “image audit” visual report.

“Scoring over 90 percent in a customer satisfaction mystery shop, for an extended period of time, is extremely challenging to achieve which says a lot about Berry and his team,” Schletewitz says.

In addition, he says that Berry’s attributes as an effective business leader serve him well in those business metrics, showing how that hard work can translate into employee and customer retention. He says that Berry has a high level of humility, respect, appreciation and really treats his employees well.

Faith and Community Spirit

Berry says that a strong Christian faith has led him to success and guides him to be a humble, hardworking leader. He says that it wasn’t a question for him to separate that from his business.

“I’m at my stores every day. Both locations, I make an appearance,” he says. “The first and foremost thing is that I've always been a faith-driven guy.”

That’s led him to build ties in the community and among his staff—sometimes in unexpected ways. Berry says that he had a manager in Hartselle who helped him start a Bible study session. That was just fine with Berry, whose grandfather was a preacher. They held it once per month at the shop, and they had some staff and friends participate.

Eventually, someone suggested that they videotape the sessions. Berry obliged, but a technological slip-up caused the event to become more popular.

“Long story short, I accidentally went live on our Facebook page,” he says. “And it took off like wildfire. Now people are tuning into it, we have customers who show up.”

The sessions have continued ever since, every first Saturday at Hartselle and third Saturday at Cullman, live in person and now live on Facebook.

“I don’t know what better team-building event you can have,” Berry says. “Some of them are getting up on their off day and doing it at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

Staying Humble

One thing that impressed Sandlin the most was how Berry operated shortly after he bought the business. The Sandlins had some experienced, strong employees in place that contributed to the company’s success. Some new operators might have looked to trim costs and start fresh. Sandlin found that Berry saw them as assets, not overhead.

“Jason never batted an eye,” Sandlin says. “He never thought about cutting anything. And for a young guy coming in, that speaks volumes.”

Naturally, Berry is less forthcoming to talk about all the things he’s doing well. But that suits his personality. He says that he wants his employees to say that he’s doing well but to feel inside like he always needs to improve.

He does attribute a lot of his success to the close attention he pays to the operation and the people in it. He jumped quickly to remodel the shops’ office spaces and upgrade what he could. Employees would show up to find their company owner re-flooring the store by himself.

“I've just always been that way,” Berry says. “The hardest thing for me is that I'm such a hands-on guy. Hartselle, when I just had it alone, I was handling everything from the business side and still being hands-on every day.”

He found it hard to delegate to managers and become a two-shop operator, but he also found other ways to be present and connect with the business. What motivates him is more than the success he gains for himself. He tries to look at the biggest possible impact.

“What drives me are those 25 or 26 people,” Berry says of his staff. “Not only do I think about those 25 or 26, I think about the babies, the wives, the husbands. That’s what drives me.”