Equipping a Business Expansion: Advice From the Equipment Makers

March 1, 2018
Fast lube operators looking to increase the bottom line may consider adding some basic services and even think about more ambitious services. The move from fast lube to total car care could be one that increases revenue, but to do so shops will need the right equipment to do the job right.

There is the old saying that "Rome wasn't built in a day," and for many business owners, it is sound advice that growth can take time. Fast lube operators looking to increase the bottom line may consider adding some basic services like tire rotations and even think about more ambitious services such as brakes, diagnostics or alignments.

The move from fast lube to total car care could be one that increases revenue, but to do so shops will need the right equipment to do the job right.

Do The Homework First

The sage advice that equipment suppliers offered was to take a moment to think about your needs before ordering anything.

"I would say, do your homework and make sure whatever equipment you do decide to add won't interrupt your day-to-day business during the installation process but that it will fit into the services you already offer," said John Fanning, president of Unilube Systems. "This is a conversation that I have all the time with operators. Research is crucial, as expanding the services offered is not a small investment."

Don't take the "if I build it they will come" approach, either.

"First, look at the surrounding competitors to see not only what types of services are being offered, but also what you can offer to the community," said Daniel Bemiss, Marketing director at Autel.

"When you look at expanding the business, make sure you can differentiate yourself from everyone else, but stick with what you can do better," suggested Kelly Lykins, president of Devon. "This can often come down to simple stuff like having the right lifts and handles to change fluids. And stay true to speed and agility."

Small Steps are Often Better

Even if there seems to be an opportunity for growth, starting small is often the better course. For one thing, simply making sure the shop can handle the expansion should be considered.

"From what I understand, shop size is their biggest obstacle. So, operators first need to decide which new shop equipment will best fit their space; then, they will decide how accessible the shop needs to be with the space filled to new capacity," Bemiss explained.

Experts say to avoid moving away from your core business services.

"You should always start small with a new service," Fanning suggested. "When the big tire rotation field came out about 20 years ago, a lot of people were asking about lifts and how these can be added and integrated into the pits. But even then, I would always say don't modify all the pits. Do a single lane, and start on a smaller scale. If you are making money, you reinvest. Don't change without testing first."

Equipment Options to Fit Your Needs

One option for shops looking to expand to tire rotation and other tire services would be the Devon Blazer 9000 Lube Lift, which is designed to easily convert a conventional oil change pit into a tire rotation service bay. In addition, the company's Flodynamics or Advantage service machines can help those looking to make a transition over time to a total auto care center.

"You can buy a machine like the one we offer and test whether the business is there," Devon's Lykins explained. "Our products are made for adding services and ensuring those can be done quickly. One benefit of a lift like this is that you don't have to put a ton of money or effort into infrastructure. You can add it and see how the business grows."

Any expansion from quick lube to a total auto care model is going to not only require additional room, but will also potentially require a different flow.

"Space is a huge factor when converting from a limited-service model (lube stop or tire shop) to a full-service bay," said Maxwell Glassburg of BendPak. "Especially because you're going to need several pieces of equipment in addition to what lifts your customers' cars.

"A basic full-service shop will need, at minimum: a frame-engaging car lift, an alignment lift, a wheel aligner, a wheel balancer, a tire changer and a brake lathe," Glassburg said. "Those conversion costs can add up, so if space is a concern, the best place to start is a mid-rise, frame-engaging, open-center lift. This lift style offers at least twice the overhead clearance of a low-rise lift, eliminates the side-posts of a two-post lift - thus saving space - and works with or without a pit. Eventually, you'll want to invest in a full two-post lift with at least a 10,000-pound capacity to handle larger vehicles."

Glassburg recommended BendPak's MDS-6LP mid-rise lift, which can allow a shop to immediately add a basic tire service.

"We offer an assortment of alignment lifts," Glassburg noted. "The XR-12000A is an incredibly useful 12,000-pound capacity scissor lift that won't take up space."

Herkules Equipment Corporation also offers a range of lifts that provide flexibility to a shop that is adding new services. The VLA03 (formerly known as the T200) is a portable lift that has a small footprint, but can lift up to 10,000 pounds.

"It is like adding a bay, but also can be moved easily, so at the end of the day, the floor can be washed down," said Kevin Prost, vice president at Herkules Equipment Corporation. "This is a good way for those shops that want to get away from pits, but it is designed so it can straddle a pit, as well. "With the VLA03, the tech can do other jobs, too. It allows a tech to sit on a stool and get the tires free, or even do some brake work. This allows the shop owner to be a bit more creative."

Other options from Herkules include the K900P, another portable lift that offers a 6,000-pound lift capability and can raise a car 29 inches off the ground; and the L1200P, which also provides portability with a 6,000-pound capacity and ability to raise the car up to 36 inches.

  "We think the price points on these lifts are pretty good, and, with the new services, can pay for themselves in a few months," Prost added. "The real beauty is that it is designed for tire rotation, but if the business isn't there you aren't stuck with something you can't use for other services. These open up the world of possibilities, and you don't have to expand too fast."

For shops looking to add more technical diagnostic services, Autel offers its TS608 complete service tool.

"It is our best value option for this type of shop looking to upgrade their basic service to a complete service business model," noted Bemiss. "Depending on how many new services the shop is looking to provide, we also have larger bi-directional diagnostic tools for module coding and activations for parts replacement."

No matter the equipment, the success of your business will largely depend on return business and positive customer relations.

"Higher-quality equipment will keep your techs happier and more efficient, which will translate to greater customer satisfaction," Glassburg said. "Cover the basics. If there's a need for engine and transmission repairs in your area, or other specialty services outside the realm of basic wheel, tire, brake and oil change services, try to expand into those fields."

In the end, expansion may largely be dependent on cash liquidity. The advice from suppliers is to not become overextended by trying to grow too fast. Add services that will most likely see immediate results.

"If you only do oil changes and want to take the next logical step, go for tire/wheel equipment," Glassburg said. "Even a simple low-rise or mid-rise lift will make that possible, and an open-center design can be flush-mounted right over your pit. Next, you can start expanding into alignments and/or brakes. Make sure you have the ability to service light-duty trucks and SUVs, and hire certified technicians who can perform engine diagnostics and basic parts replacements/repairs."

Perhaps the best place to start is with what you have in your shop already.

"Your equipment is probably very versatile," Glassburg noted. "If you can get a vehicle 20-inches plus in the air, you can immediately add basic tire/wheel equipment. Bottom line: set an expansion plan, and stick to it. Think in terms of months and years, not overnight success."