Follow the Leader

April 1, 2023
Two industry experts share their approach to developing leadership skills and implementing effective strategies.

He may have only been 3 years old at the time, but Russ Hotchkiss vividly remembers his first lemonade stand.

“I learned at a very early age I could go out and … buy Country Time lemonade for a dollar that would make 50 glasses of lemonade,” Hotchkiss says. “I could sell each of those for a dime. So that would turn a dollar into five, and that bought a lot of Tootsie Pops.”

For Hotchkiss, this memory represents more than just a childhood venture. It was the start of something bigger. Fast-forward to today and Hotchkiss is the president and CEO of All Tune and Lube Total Car Care based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In some ways, that lemonade stand can be seen as the unofficial beginning of his journey as a take-charge leader.

For Victory Lane Quick Oil Change president and CEO Justin Cialella, quick lube leadership took shape thanks in part to a previous career in the insurance field. He learned from other established leaders at his company and formed strategies that went on to make a lasting impact on Victory Lane, which has 36 franchise locations across seven states nationwide.

“I was able to learn and model a lot of my leadership behaviors after what they taught me and (I) emulated them,” Cialella says.

Hotchkiss and Cialella each spoke with NOLN about their own journeys to leadership and how they keep the momentum going.

Start Strong

Hotchkiss and Cialella have both carved their own respective paths to get to where they are today, but something that has benefited both men in their careers has been the presence of strong leaders in their lives.

Hotchkiss got introduced to entrepreneurship early in life, and that introduction went well beyond a lemonade stand. His father had an automotive repair shop when Hotchkiss was growing up, which gave him perspective on running a business in the industry.

“My dad was a mechanic when I was born. I can remember turning the first wrench when I was three in a garage behind our house in Waterloo, Iowa. So, it stemmed from that,” Hotchkiss says. “I can remember pumping gas, changing tires (and) fixing tires, things like that, before I was even 10.”

Hotchkiss can point to some non-industry related life experiences that set him up for success as well. He excelled in sports throughout high school, acting as captain for several of his teams. He even set a record for 400-meter low hurdles that stood undefeated for 20 years.

Hotchkiss has pursued each new experience with determination. Once he finished high school, he carried that dedication onto becoming a Navy Diver. After he graduated from the Navy, he had his sights set on his next big adventure.

“I always knew I’d own my own business of something someday,” Hotchkiss says. “I just never knew what that would be until I actually got out of the Navy and got into the real workforce.”

He was able to make that longtime goal a reality when he bought his first company in 2001. Since that time, he has opened two other businesses including All Tune and Lube Total Car Care.

As for Cialella, he traces some of his leadership inspiration back to the career he spent working in insurance. Before getting into preventative maintenance, he was a self-described “car guy” but he had not directly worked in the industry.

His insurance career allowed him to witness leadership examples that he took into his own approach with Victory Lane, which he and his wife Lauren purchased in 2014 from the original owners Derrick and Jane Oxender. Cialella says he practices leadership from the bottom up, exactly how it was done at his previous employer.

“Every single executive at my former company... started pretty much at an entry level [and] moved up (and) moved cross-functionally,” Cialella says.

The idea of knowing a business structure from top to bottom stuck with him, as did the approach taken by his former boss. His boss was able to identify the needs of the workplace through his own involvement and integration efforts within the team.

“My boss, who was the president of the claims department, would come into our office and he’d be sitting in a cubicle somewhere,” Cialella says. “He wouldn’t be sitting in an executive suite; he wouldn’t be sitting in an office on the phone. He was sitting in a cubicle out on the floor with all these other representatives.”

Upon observing these strategies, Cialella has applied a similar take to his own leadership at Victory Lane. He takes time to understand how each job and element within the business structure work as cogs in the machine’s overall success. He doesn’t want to miss any details that he would not be able to see if he stayed in his own silo at the executive level.

“I really tried to figure out what was going on from the very bottom of the organization all the way through because you can’t lead an organization if you don’t understand how it works and what nuances the people that are working for you are dealing with every single day that make their jobs harder or could make it easier,” Cialella says.

Apply the Skills

Transferable skills are valuable in this industry. Hotchkiss and Cialella have both applied their skillsets in effective ways.

Over the course of his professional career, Hotchkiss has worked within multiple industries. He utilizes what he learned to instill a well-rounded mindset into his All Tune team that keeps the goal of success at the forefront.

“I try to put it in my employee’s hands. I’ll give them the tools to be successful. Whether they use them or not is up to them,” Hotchkiss says. “If they don’t use them and they’re not successful, I’m not afraid to say, ‘Hey this just isn’t for you.’”

Hotchkiss looks at his employees as partners because he says they all have the same end goal of providing for themselves and their families. He says by showing them how making the business money makes the employees money in return, they can see the importance of a strong cyclical relationship.

“They have to run each of their positions like it (is) their own business,” Hotchkiss says. “Our service advisors, our managers and even our techs get paid a base salary or a percentage of whatever they produce, whichever is greater.”

In this respect, Hotchkiss describes his team members as “profit centers within profit centers” because this structure allows for All Tune employees to have independence over their own success.

“So, if you don’t want to work and you want to fiddle with your thumbs and get paid the base salary … then you do,” Hotchkiss says. “If you want to produce, the more you produce, the more you get paid. The more certifications they have, the more they’ll get paid.”

In addition, this structure promotes follow through. Hotchkiss wants his employees to see the value in sticking with the work and putting in the effort.

“So many people are taught that it's OK to quit, and my dad said to me once you quit, you'll never quit quitting,” Hotchkiss says. “... the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Why don’t you water your own lawn?”

Cialella sees leadership as a continuous learning process. He has taken what he learned along the way and implemented it, but he hasn’t closed the door to improvement. Ensuring that his feet are on the ground at Victory Lane locations allows him to see the full picture.

“It’s a constant game of learning. You can’t learn from our corporate offices here, we learn very little (when we’re) looking through reports and what have you,” Cialella says. “The truth into what’s going on in our business is really in the stores and in our locations.”

Cialella makes a conscious effort to be where the action is, and where he claims the greatest opportunities to learn can be found.

“You will find me more often than not in in stores, under cars changing oil (and) counting inventory...because I’m trying to understand (and I’m) trying to put myself in the shoes of the manager (and) in the shoes of the tech and then I learn from that,” Cialella says.

The transition from the corporate insurance world to the automotive aftermarket was another learning experience for Cialella, but it also served as a test of his transferrable skills. Cialella says one significant change that he noticed was the makeup of the workforce itself.

The automotive industry attracts a younger and more diverse group than he had previously seen in the corporate sector. Cialella says it was important to him that he understood the best way to relate to these employees and how he could best support and manage them.

“We implemented a lot of technology and process improvements here,” Cialella says. “We use an online app to do scheduling so that every employee can have the schedules on their phones, they can make changes, they can request time off (and) they can change their shifts. We found that works a lot better than hanging a paper schedule on the wall like it’s circa 1990.”

Meeting his employees where they are and recognizing their distinct needs has proven to be an effective strategy for Cialella. It allows his business to stay current and keeps his team productive.

“Your presence there, being there (and) being in the business, leading your employees and teaching your employees...being that example is really, in my opinion, one of the keys to success,” Cialella says.

Aim for More

A crucial component of leadership is the ability to remain flexible. The automotive world has been in a near constant state of change throughout recent years, and that is not slowing down anytime soon. Keeping things status quo may not cut it, and leaders need to be able to persevere despite any challenges or changes they may face.

Hotchkiss is no stranger to this kind of attitude. He points to one memory from his life that involved a game of high school football that resulted in him changing his perspective. Hotchkiss says he had played the best game of his life. Despite his team’s efforts, they lost the game. He was emotional and exhausted, but the support of his mother made all the difference.

“Her only words out of her mouth were ‘You can do anything you put your mind to,’” Hotchkiss says. “That’s all she said, and then she hugged me.”

The memory sticks with Hotchkiss and serves as a reminder to never give up. His mother, who has sadly died since the time of that conversation, offered him words of encouragement that still influence him to this day.

It’s an approach that he tries to take when parenting his own young son, and he sees its impact in a professional environment as well. Overall, Hotchkiss believes that all leaders can benefit from this idea of continuous improvement.

“They’ve got to work on themselves,” Hotchkiss says. “They think because they’re the boss, that’s the way it has to be or should be. But they don’t work on themselves.”

Hotchkiss says doing this type of internal reflection can offer insight into the elements of a leadership approach that may need work.

“If they can’t look at themselves in the mirror and see the faults, then they’re in trouble,” Hotchkiss says.

In a similar vein, Cialella says taking inventory of an organization’s structure by looking at it objectively is a surefire way to identify any outstanding needs.

Staying in line with Cialella’s previous description of leadership as a constant game of keeping oneself educated, seeking out the changes that need to be made—instead of shying away from them —becomes a key step toward learning and growing.

“You have to sometimes take a step back and look at your look at your organization, whether it's your shop or your company or whatever,” Cialella says. “You need to have that perspective [to] almost look from the outside in so that you can see things.”

From Cialella’s perspective, it is about more than being a good leader. It is about continuing with that leadership to effect positive change. Cialella says it will make a significant difference in the long run.

“You hear a lot of people say, ‘You need to set an example.’ I think you need to be the example. You need to live it,” Cialella says. “If you show up to your business and you’re in and out in one hour and then your employees never see you, I will almost guarantee that business is not doing as well as it could be.”   

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