Express Oil Change: A Fan Favorite

BIRMINGHAM, AL | Wednesday, September 01, 2004

With the summer months drawing to a close and fall quickly approaching, we at National Oil & Lube News turn our thoughts to that most American of activities football! In keeping with the theme for our lube of the month articles, we decided to locate a lube operation with close ties to football, and through our efforts we located Express Oil Change, headquartered in the football-crazed state of Alabama. (Although, to set the record straight we must note that famed Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was a Texas Aggie before he joined the Crimson Tide. Whoop!) Not only does Express Oil Change support the college football programs at both the University of Alabama and Auburn University, but the company is also associated with several notable figures from those historic schools. But more on that later. Headquartered in Birmingham, the Express Oil Change chain stretches across the Southeast, with stores in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida. Express Oil’s owners, Ricky Brooks and Joe Watson, take great pride in owning and operating 35 corporate stores and overseeing 115 franchised stores. Express Oil Change traces its history back to the 1970s when its founder, Jim Lunceford, recognized the soaring potential a fast lube operation could possess and opened the first Express Oil Change center in 1979. By the mid-1990s, Lunceford’s idea truly was a triumph, as Express Oil Change dominated the Alabama market with 48 stores, 11 of which were owned by Lunceford. In 1995, Lunceford, in his 70s and ready for retirement, approached Brooks and Watson, the chain’s largest franchisees (who owned 14 stores at the time), with the opportunity to take his place. "Joe and I recognized the tremendous opportunities associated with owning Express Oil Change, and we had great ideas for further expansion. Being the franchisor of Express Oil Change was an opportunity we had always wanted, and fortunately it has been a huge success," Brooks said. A true success, indeed. Since taking over Express Oil Change in 1996, Brooks and Watson have managed to expand the 48-store operation into a 150-store regional giant. With so much on their plate, Brooks and Watson devote their time and efforts to building upon their success. "We feel like owning 35 corporate stores is enough, so we primarily focus our efforts on the franchise division of Express Oil." While Brooks’ efforts may seem quite natural to most, his path toward becoming involved in the fast lube industry was started after being involved in ventures quite foreign to the automotive industry. "For 15 years before becoming involved with the fast lube industry, I was in the investment/insurance business, where I advised clientele about retirement, estate matters, etc.," Brooks said. "Oddly enough, being a part of the investment business is what led me to Express Oil Change." In 1987, Brooks was approached by a man involved in the automotive industry who wanted to build three Express Oil Changes, and needed $500,000 to do so. "I had been a previous customer of Express Oil, but I knew nothing about the fast lube industry as a whole," he said. "So, I researched it and found myself very interested in the potential possibilities it seemed to offer." As luck would have it, Brooks’ client decided against borrowing the sufficient funds needed to build his stores, and informed Brooks that he should do it instead. "I had owned a fast food in the past. Express Oil Change has some great margins without the fast food headaches, so I got with Joe and we decided to go for it. " It was that same investment firm that Brooks ended up selling to become fully involved in Express Oil Change in 1996. With Brooks and Watson, quality goes a lot further than quantity especially where employees are concerned. "We employ the fewest number of employees possible at each store because we believe in building an extraordinarily elite team that delivers optimal customer service and then shares the profits at the end of each month," Brooks said. "We dramatically outperform the market in volume and car counts by 40 percent because of our elite team concept. When everyone is dependent upon each other at all times to have a bigger payoff at the end of every month, the results are tremendous." Brooks said that Express Oil Change has approximately 325 employees in its 35 company-owned stores, with each store servicing an average of over 55 vehicles per day. "Each employee shares in a percentage of the profits, which goes into a pool at the end of each month, and the workers reap the benefits in the form of a monthly bonus. So, the fewer people it takes to correctly get the job done, the bigger the bonus for everyone, because it is split among fewer individuals." Brooks mentioned that the opposite side of this program is the added benefits received by Express Oil’s customers. "We give our customers assurance in knowing not only that their vehicle is well-maintained, but that it’s done in a superior environment where integrity is emphasized in every action. The number one goal is for them to return to us, not raise their ticket average. Our employees are motivated at all times to provide the best service in a timely manner so that that person will come back; they know that repeat customers will provide the volume and car count needed to add to the bonus pool every month. There is a lot of peer pressure on every person involved, but they also work together toward the same goal, which benefits everyone involved," Brooks said. As part of the Express Oil Change standard, Brooks said the basic idea behind the incentive program is to have each technician, manager, etc., be on the same page as the owners, having the same ultimate goal in the end: To provide the best service and thus bring customers back to them by way of trust and reliability. "The biggest thing is, if we say something, we need to follow through. If it says on our front door that we offer 10-minute oil changes, then those cars better be finished in 10 minutes. It is absolutely crucial that we keep our word to our customers, because that builds trust and integrity, which is what we hammer into our employees on a constant basis." When it comes to hiring potential employees to join the Express Oil Change team, Brooks said he prefers character to skills. "We want people who wish to have a career here, not just a job, and that requires integrity, enthusiasm and a good work ethic. We tell every employee here that they can go as far in this company as their ambition allows them to go. If they start out as a hood technician and are capable of getting themselves to management, they can keep on going and become a franchisee. It is all up to them," he said. "We have a very comprehensive system to attract and retain the highest-quality employees." He also said that everyone deserves a fair piece of the business pie, which is done by commitment to quality, not overselling. A unique and convenient aspect of Express Oil Change is their one-stop shopping aspect, a cross-promotion that Brooks says differentiates them from the competition. "We cross-promote our automotive service offerings with the oil change department, because it provides our customers with one-stop shopping convenience. A person can stop in one of our bays to get a 10-minute oil change and then head to our service department to have a mechanic work on their air conditioner, brakes, belts, etc." Brooks said that while they don’t discount their oil changes, they do offer a discount on bundle services, just another way Express Oil Change stays ahead of the fierce competition. "Birmingham has the highest percentage of oil bays to registered vehicles and population of any other medium to large city in the United States, so competition is abundant here." To help combat against such competition, Brooks said he relies on what he most depends upon: the Express Oil Change system. "We believe we can prevail ultimately because of our system. We focus on attaining the best people to provide the best service, and we make a valiant effort to invest in long-term employees who, in turn, invest themselves into the well-being of our customers so they think of us first when they need their oil changed," Brooks said. The uniqueness of Express Oil Change begins on the outside and works its way in. "We put forth a lot of effort to provide a professional look for Express Oil Change long before our customers come inside the building. A major part of that is having landscaped yards, which is accomplished by hiring someone to come into each store every one to two weeks and maintain the yard, flower beds, etc. We want to have a professional look. We’ve tried having our own employees maintain the lawns, but that just doesn’t work. We decided we didn’t want to take away from what they were trying to do inside, so hiring out has worked much better." Brooks says another unique aspect of the Express Oil Change system simply lies in the numbers. "Our one-stop shopping aspect allows us to execute the best system in the marketplace. Based on our numbers and success rate over the past 25 years, we’ve come to really appreciate our system. And it works." Brooks said there are four important goals that he strives for in running a successful business: good work; good service; a very clean, well-organized facility; and professional, well-trained employees. These, he says, are the building blocks behind the Express Oil Change system, and the reason for its continued success. Among others, Brooks said his favorite aspect of being involved with the fast lube industry is being able to help his employees reach their full potential. "I enjoy having the opportunity to grow and help others to grow individually in their character and their financial well-being. We pay substantially above the average pay rate because we want this to be a career for our employees. We want them to stay here and go far within this organization." While Brooks takes great pride in helping others, he said a struggle within this business is finding those who make up the elite teams who have made Express Oil Change what it is today. "You always want to find the very best employees, which can be difficult at times. However, we have been truly fortunate to find tremendous workers who dedicate their efforts toward bettering themselves and this corporation," he said. "Our name is very important to us, and we have managed to hire employees on all different levels who know how to represent what we stand for." While we at NOLN are always interested in the success stories of those with whom we talk, the name behind the facility remains a topic of interest as well. "The founder of Express Oil Change came up with our name. He had been in the automotive industry for 30 years before opening this business, and I think he simply wanted to communicate what he was trying to offer to the public, because most people did not know what a fast oil change place was. Today, our name still best communicates what we do. In addition, we have trademarked Express Service Center to market our services on the mechanical side. We believe the combination of Express Oil Change and Express Service Center best positions us to serve our customers in the automotive market for the future," Brooks said. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, Express Oil Change is also a big football supporter in more ways than one. Included among the company’s many associates are Jay Barker (former quarterback at the University of Alabama), Pat Dye (former head coach at Auburn University) and Kenny "the Snake" Stabler (former quarterback at Alabama who won two Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders). And even though Barker and Dye, in particular, were rivals on the field, they now work together to promote Express Oil Change. "As a part of our team, Jay, Coach Dye and Kenny Stabler have been a way promote the universities in Alabama. We sponsor and have helped both (Auburn and Alabama), because we want to be affiliated with great programs and great people," he said. "Football is definitely a popular sport around here, and we are proud of our teams and want to portray that throughout our business." As far as the future of Express Oil Change is concerned, it is and will remain in opportunistic hands. "We are expanding through franchising in our existing markets, and we’re working on moving into North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas in the future," Brooks said. "Our next major goal is to have 250 stores and expand further into the Southeast."

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Express Oil Change
1880 Southpark Dr.
Birmingham, AL

Phone: (205)397-1178
Fax: (205)940-6025

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