Operator of the Year: Sue Ackley of Oil Change Plus

Dec. 1, 2019

For the first time, NOLN is proud to announce its first two-time Operator of the Year: Sue Ackley.

This story about Sue Ackley begins with Lynn Barteau.

Barteau started as an assistant manager at Oil Change Plus nearly 11 years ago, and she’s now the district manager.

A trying time during that career came 2015, when her then-husband suffered a stroke. He was always the one at home with the kids, so after the initial shock passed, she began thinking about logistics. How would she pay bills? Who would take care of the family?

“I was freaking out, because I didn’t know what to do,” Barteau says. “He was a stay-at-home dad. So that completely changed my world.”

Though she was the family’s primary worker, that event made her work secondary in her life. Barteau called Ackley, the owner of the Oil Change Plus shops in the St. Louis, Mo., area. Ackley’s response was a simple gesture that made a big difference.

“She made sure that I knew that I was going to be OK,” Barteau says. “Take what time you need. If you want to come to work to take your mind off it, come to work and get your mind off it. But don’t overload yourself.”

As a manager, Barteau was keenly aware of her vacation time, how much was left and how long she’d have to take it. But she says that Ackley assured her that it wasn’t about vacation time. During a hard time, Barteau knew that her way to support the family would remain in place.

“It was a life changer,” she says. “That could have gone either way.”

It’s that continued leadership, dedication and involvement that earned Ackey the 2019 Operator of the Year award—her second from National Oil and Lube News.

SHOP: Oil Change Plus   LOCATION: Florissant, Mo.  OWNER/S: Sue Ackley  SIZE: 1,500 square feet STAFF SIZE: 7 AVERAGE CAR COUNT: 25-30 ANNUAL REVENUE: $650,000

Personal Touch

Barteau and others who know Ackley say that she’s a keen businesswoman who’s involved in her enterprise.

That doesn’t just go for Oil Change Plus, but it’s also true for the industry. As she and her husband got into the quick lube game in 1995, she immediately set her sights on contributing to the larger quick lube world. 

Actually, it was a bit before. 

She says that the first shop opened that summer, and by that time she’d already attended her first Automotive Oil Change Association meeting the previous April.

Ackley would be the first female president of the AOCA, serving in that role from 2004 to 2006. She says those extra duties could be time-consuming, but she felt it was important to help the overall industry thrive.

“I think you don't take a job like that unless you're willing to help everybody in the organization,” Ackley says. “Because you have a business, but you don't have a whole lot of time to devote to your own business.”

Ackley is the archetypal go-getter. She’s a member of the 99s, an international organization of female pilots, which gave her a magazine mention upon her appointment to the Texaco Lubricants Board of Directors in 1997. Ackley used to fly a twin-engine plane to college for football season. Her parents felt that a car was dangerous.

Barteau says you’ll find Ackley getting after it in her shops, too. She might be found doing customer service, working as a hood tech and occasionally in the lower bay.

Paving the Road

Like a lot of operators just starting out, Ackley had to hit the ground running in 1995.

“It was a big challenge for me,” she says. “But I Jumped right in. When we opened, I was working 60, 70 hours per week until we could make sure that everybody that was there could do without me.”

Getting the right people in place to make keep things running was one of those early challenges. Ackley says that within the first month, she got a call from her shop manager, who said that one of their main techs quit.

So Ackley was back at the shop, handling customers and doing whatever was needed. She’d gotten into the business without the hands-on experience as a quick lube technician. And while some business owners might stick to the business side of things, she says that the experience made her focus on learning the ropes.

“After that, I decided that, you know what? This girl needs to learn how to learn how to do transmission flushes, radiator coolant, find all the air filters, do everything that i could learn on a car,” she says. “And I've done that.”

Now it’s not uncommon to see Ackley at her shops over one or both weekend days. She says her managers sometimes scratch their heads when she asks them where they’d like her to work. One day it might be handling customers. The next, it might be working as a hood tech.

“She will get in there,” Barteau says. “She will get dirty with everybody else. She is an amazing saleswoman.”

Barteau says that Ackley’s presence in the shop isn’t micromanagement. It’s involvement that’s helped grow the business. When they decided to seek a new wiper to feature in their retail displays, Barteau says that Ackley drove with two different brands on her windshield for six months before deciding on one of them for the store.

Ackley says that this approach was a no-brainer.

“I believe an owner should know everything about their business,” she says. “I know people who only run their business from a balance sheet. If you don't know what your customers are like, and you don't know what they want, how do you transform that into your people and your business?”

Changing the Game

Ackley was working for a computer consulting firm before getting into the quick lube industry. And even then, she initially took a part-time job at a jeweler while watching over the shop.

But the business proved to be busy, and she moved into it full time. It was a new business, and one almost entirely male.
She learned during childhood that she wouldn’t be swayed by those gender norms. She says that her mother was a strong woman who also was not apprehensive about seizing an opportunity.

“I had a mother that was fabulous,” Ackley says. “She did things that most women didn’t do. She brought me up saying, ‘You can do anything you want if you want to do it.’”

Oil Change Plus started as Texaco Xpress Lube shops. When the company changed ownership, Sue Ackley decided to strike it out on her own and go unbranded. She felt her brand had become strong enough with her customers.

Smart Selling

It was mentioned that Ackley could often be found in her shops during the weekends. That’s because for 12 years, she had another day job selling products for Energy Petroleum, a local oil products distributor.

Not only did that work dovetail nicely with Oil Change Plus, but it was another insight into the industry.

“I loved my job. I loved selling oil,” she says. “Because I treated people that I sold oil to just like I treated customers in my own shops.”

She said she often met with new clients who were opening repair shops, and they’d have their eyes set on a big bulk tank to fill once and use for a long time.

As a sales representative, Ackley would talk them down from that.

“Start out with drums, and then go to smaller tanks and then bigger tanks,” she says. “Why do you want to take all of your cost of goods and sink it into oil? They always appreciated that, because as they grew, they stayed with me.”

That was the manifestation of Ackley’s customer service strategy. Though she’s in the quick lube business, she was playing the long game to win customers.

True Service

Ackley says she’s in a position to not just give a handout, but to make a big difference in someone’s life. She says that she’s been fortunate in her life, and in return she has charged herself with giving a piece of that to others.

“I just think that people need to give back,” she says. “I think that when you are blessed with many things in life, if you remember this and you give back to people that have less than you do, it makes you feel good.”

That factored heavily into her 2001 award for Operator of the Year. This was just months after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, and that fall Ackley was looking to donate in some way. She socked away some revenue from vehicle services and car washes and soon had around $5,000 saved, according to that 2001 NOLN article.

Instead of sending that money off to New York, Ackley’s daughter brought up the Pierce family in St. Louis. Deanna Pierce’s husband, a firefighter named Brad Pierce, had died of a heart attack. He was just 27. In honor of the firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center, Ackley helped to set up a college fund for the Pierces’ young children. 

The act was featured in the 2001 NOLN story. Even now, Ackley looks back on it and wonders how the Pierce children are doing now.

“That was probably one of my favorite stories,” she says.

Beyond Sales

Ackley has been known to approve service on an IOU basis on occasion— sometimes against Barteau’s financial judgment, she jokes.

“She’s never had anybody screw her over on that,” Barteau says, “because I think she reads people well.”\

Other times it’s more than an IOU.

Ackely remembers one customer who came into the shop years ago. She was a single, pregnant woman who came in for an oil change. The techs learned that she was in a tough financial spot at the time, and she was calculating how much service she could afford.

Ackley wasn’t at the shop, but she got a call from her shop manager.

“She calls me on the phone and says, ‘I have this girl here. Can we give her a discount?’” Ackley says.

Ackley gave the OK to service the woman’s car free of charge. Then she got in touch with her daughter, who’d just had a child the previous year, and had some of the baby clothes and things sent over to the shop for the woman.

Her shop manager was surprised.

“She goes, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Ackley says. “And I said, ‘And give her $50 out of the drawer.’”

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