Professional Carwashing & Detailing

2006 Lube Industry Leaders Review

October 11, 2010

It’s an expanding, consolidating world
By Bruce A. Scruton, Managing Editor

For a relatively young industry, the oil change / quick lube business is still rapidly growing.

A federal government study, based on the U.S. Census taken six years ago, reports 8,000 lube shops around the country. However, Steve Christie, executive director of the American Oil Change Association said there’s about 10,000 shops now.

Those, he notes, are strictly those shops which provide maintenance services, but not repair services. Add in the dealerships, muffler and brake shops and independent garages, and there’s lots of oil being changed.

This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing® takes a look at just a handful of the people who are changing that oil, from a man who a quarter-century ago got out of the kitchen and into a pit, to a second-generation car-care expert.

Christie, who has been executive director for the past 13 years, says the growth seems to be leveling off a bit, yet there’s still changes afoot.

“There’s definitely consolidation,” he notes as many shop owners are becoming franchisees or branding themselves, but “the number of owners is remaining the same and the same number of locations.”

He also notes about 70 percent of those owners have just one store, averaging two to three bays and with an average gross of $300,000 to $500,000 a year.

About 30 percent, he notes, also have a carwash on the same property.

“We continue to see people open single shops,” he noted, “And about an equal number of franchised operations.”

Who says you can’t go home
Steve Allison runs a successful chain of lube stores in and around Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but keeps one far away store close to his heart.
By Kate Carr, Associate Editor

For the most part, Steve Allison’s seven Shell Rapid Lube locations are strung along 30 miles of the South Carolina coastline.

But 3,000 miles away, in Portland, OR, an eighth store in Allison’s collection struggles to keep pace with the more successful South Carolina sites. Allison admits his efforts there might be in vain, but for him it is less about money and more about sentiment.

This is the site that gave him his first job in the quick lube business, nearly 20 years ago. Back then it was an Oil Can Henry’s location and Allison was just another guy in the pits, changing oil and checking tire pressure.

A greasy history
“My mom told me to go get a job when I was in high school,” Allison explained. “So I went and got one at the local Oil Can Henry’s.”

This humble beginning on the West Coast would launch Allison on a fast-track career path in the lube industry. In 1989, he traded his Oil Can Henry’s technician’s uniform for a Jiffy Lube manager’s tie. A few years later, Allison left the Portland Jiffy Lube stores he was managing to pursue a career at ISI, one of the lube software manufacturers.

“That was right when they [ISI] sold over 1,000 systems to Jiffy Lube. I’d fly out of Portland to a different location each week and train people on how to use the ISI computer system, and I would install their computer in their store for them,” he explained.

In 1993, ISI sent Allison to Surfside Beach, SC, for a routine computer installation at a quick lube owned by Jeff Ciuba. Allison immediately fell in love with the beachside locale and the golf courses.

The next year Ciuba was building a new location in North Myrtle Beach, SC, and made Allison an offer he couldn’t pass up — manage this second location and he would offer Allison an opportunity to purchase 50 percent of the business within a year. In just six months, Allison was an equal partner.

The company continued to build new stores and in 1999, Allison bought Ciuba’s remaining share of the company.

Today Allison oversees the daily operations of the seven East Coast stores. His experienced eye is responsible for much of the business’s success — after all; he has played the role of each and every one of his employees, from lube technician to manager, as well as positions on the manufacturing and supplier side, and also as Board Member and Secretary-Treasurer of the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA).

“I think it’s important [to be a part of the AOCA] because this industry has been very good to me, my family, and my employees,” Allison said. “It’s nice to be able to give something back.”

From coast to coast
As closely as Allison supervises his seven-store chain on the East Coast, he watches one store with an even more attentive eye. The Oil Can Henry’s site that kick-started his career is now a Texaco Xpress Lube, a faraway sister to his Myrtle Beach Shell Rapid Lube locations.

The site, which he purchased last year, is an indication of his commitment to his Oregon roots. Every few months, he takes the trip out to inspect the shop and visit with family and friends.

“I’m from Oregon and my wife’s from Oregon, so we get to go back and see family and friends. It has sentimental value,” he said.

Allison sometimes regrets the shop does not do as well as he had hoped, but still sees the significance of connecting to his past.

“It just doesn’t do the numbers that it used to do (when Allison managed the location in 1991),” he explained. “We’re battling a lot of things, like being closed for a couple years and local competition. My goal was to grow that market. After all, that is where the grandmas and grandpas are for our three kids.”

For now, Allison will concentrate on his South Carolina market, where he has carried over the sentimental value he sees in Portland. At all of his locations, the emphasis is placed on the women and children that help make up his customer base.

“All our marketing, all of everything we do, is geared towards women and children,” Allison stated. “We have free popcorn and ice cold Shell Rapid Lube bottled water for our customers. “We have “Lubie” dolls (the store’s mascot – a drop of oil) and coloring books and crayons for the kids. I just think if you can get to the heart of the kids, then you’ve got it.”

Allison’s last tip for success? Be good to your employees.

“If you take good care of your employees, they will take good care of your customers,” he said, “And customers are what pays the bills.”

Like father, like son
Johnny Alto’s father prodded him into the automotive business at the age of 10; he hasn’t stopped yet.
By Kate Carr, Associate Editor

Johnny Alto is a tough man to get a hold of. At press time, he was busy breaking sales records at his fast lube and covering for a sick tech, so it’s no wonder it took over two weeks to arrange an interview via e-mail.

But then again, finding Johnny Alto when it’s not a busy week seems impossible. He’s been busy since the age of 10, when he first started working at his family’s Chevron station. From that point on, it’s been a non-stop roller coaster adventure in the automotive industry.

By middle school he was doing oil changes and a few years later helped his father open a fast lube while attending college — a 60-mile commute Alto contends was well worth it.

Even today, there’s no time to rest on his laurels. The Alto family, including his wife and two children, is operating three separate profit centers in Oregon, as well as two ancillary businesses he and his wife run on their own.

It’s easy to see where Alto got his drive and determination. His father has been cutting the same ambitious path since before Alto’s birth in 1975.

A father and son
“My father has taught me everything I know about serving customers and running a successful business,” Alto told Professional Carwashing & Detailing® in an e-mail.

From employee training to stocking the lube business, serving customers quickly to maintaining a clean facility, Johnny Alto said his father, John, has shown him how to do it all.

“Although we have our differences from time-to-time, I work side-by-side with my mother and father,” Alto said.

The family’s Chevron station, which his father purchased in 1973, serviced a town of only 1,500, had three gas pumps, a two-bay garage and an office.

“One of the first jobs I was given besides pumping gas was studding snow tires,” Alto recalled. “I must have been about 12 or 13. I was so excited to get to do something ‘important’ I couldn't wait.”

Alto’s role at the service station grew until he left to attend Oregon State University. In 1998, Alto’s senior year, his father decided to close the service center and open a fast lube.

“My father had some serious doubts about the viability of the auto repair industry in the future,” Alto said. “There were very few quick lubes in our area in 1997. We would be one of the first. We dug out the basement of our repair shop and concrete was poured to make our pit. After about one year the shop was opened for business.”

Alto spent his senior year splitting time between college and the lube, a 60-mile commute he did a few times a week. In the end, the decision was well worth it. The family renovated its gravel pit, used for storing towing vehicles, into an exterior-only carwash in 1993, and business at both sites is impressive.

An active role
Since 1999, Alto has served as general operations manager for the carwash, lube and gas station. Despite his managerial duties, most days Alto can be found wearing his lube uniform, working on vehicles in the bays and conversing with customers in the lobby.

Alto is truly a hands-on owner and said his greatest satisfaction derives from helping his customers.

“I am able to give them that extra attention to detail, or a special favor for them, that an absentee-owner could never have the opportunity to do,” Alto said.

Alto is also very involved in the automotive industry community. Sue Ackley, former president of the Automotive Oil Changers Association (AOCA), said she often reads Alto’s posts on the AOCA Talk message board.

“I see him on AOCA Talk all the time,” Ackley said. “He really is good at knowing what to do and how to fix it.”

“In fact, I just read an e-mail, just a few minutes ago, from Johnny Alto about a problem with a Volkswagen Passat,” she added. “He’s always willing to help everybody.”

Alto said he gets a lot out of giving advice to other operators and the AOCA Talk board is like a family. “Everyone is always willing to look out for others and help each other through day-to-day issues and problems which arise in this business,” Alto said.

“I can't tell you how many times operators have been saved from bogus damage claims, or averted disasters on certain vehicles due to the knowledge and help from others on the board,” he continued.

“I can tell you in this business that you usually learn from the school of hard-knocks, but with a great group on folks on the bulletin board it can really reduce learning the ‘hard way.’ It is a great resource to bounce ideas off of.”

Another community
Alto also stays active in his own community – Sherwood, OR.

The town with a population of 1,500 in 1975 now has over 18,000 and is still growing. In the 1990’s, Sherwood was one of the fastest growing small towns in the United States.

Alto remains a dedicated member of this growing community.

“I think this really helps with customer loyalty. We are involved with the community and regularly give donations and sponsor local events, school sports teams and our local YMCA,” Alto said.

For all that Alto has given the community; he said they have gotten back tenfold.

“We have pictures of the kids’ sports teams we have sponsored over the years covering most of our walls in the lube shop waiting room. Some of those kids are now our customers,” Alto said.

Together with wife, Tammy, Alto also owns and operates a commercial fishing boat, and Tammy runs a home-based business selling electronic age-verification machines, a business started by Alto’s father.

With raising their two children, the couple has their hands full, so Alto says plans for expansion are slim to none at this point.

“Heck, sometimes I even go work in the pit to relax and for a little change of scenery,” Alto said. “So in a nutshell, we’re not intending to expand anytime soon.”

Employees certified in greatness
According to Alto, his greatest asset in business is his staff.

“I have a few techs that have worked here six to seven years,” Alto said. “My newest person has been here for two years.”

In an industry known for its high-rate of turnover, this is impressive to say the least. Alto’s secret for keeping a good staff is to pay above the industry average and use a simple bonus program based on net monthly sales.

“I know I will not keep quality employees who care about their job paying burger-flipper wages,” he said. “We are working on lots of $40,000-plus vehicles. I don’t want someone with little or no experience touching them.”

Alto’s techs start out as courtesy techs, doing vacuuming and tires. Once he feels comfortable with the employee performing those tasks, he gets them in AOCA programs to certify them and get them in the pits.

“I would encourage all AOCA members to get their techs certified,” Alto said. “Having taken several of my employees through the training over the past eight years I believe it really does help to provide our customers with a well-rounded professional technician to service their vehicle.”

Driven to be the best
Bev Cavinder is the dynamic force behind Oil’ N’ Go, Valparaiso, IN.
By Todd Horneck, News Editor

Bev Cavinder has been featured in Professional Carwashing and Detailing® magazine frequently over the years. In 2003 alone, she was named Lube Person of the Year and nominated for the Dream Team. So it’s only natural that she takes her place in the 2006 Lube Industry Leaders Review.

Humble beginnings
Cavinder has been the manager of the Valparaiso, IN, Oil’ N’ Go, for over 15 years, and the Crown Point, IN, Oil’ N’ Go, for over nine years. When she first began her career in the lube industry her mechanical skills were limited, but what she lacked in mechanics, she made up for in her ability to deal with people.

Of course what Cavinder didn’t know about cars, she learned. She enrolled herself in automotive training courses and picked up the rest from her employees.

“I hired kids for the business and told them they could teach me about cars, and I would teach them about managing and customer service,” she said.“In the end, I doubled our numbers in two years and tripled them in three.”

As far as Cavinder is concerned, she’s living proof that it’s not what you know about cars that matters, it’s what you know about people.

According to Cavinder, every week they pull in between $21,000 and $25,000 in sales; over $1 million dollars a year. Not too shabby for a woman who started out with no knowledge of the automotive or lube industry.

Making changes
Since she started working with Oil’ N’ Go in 1991 she’s offered a range of new amenities to her customers, the most recent being a pick-up and delivery service.

“It’s really been an amazing thing. People call me and I go to their work and pick up their car — they just love it,” she said. “I think it’s something the lube industry should do more of.”

Cavinder first began offering the service four years ago. According to her, it’s the easiest way to gain new customers and keep repeat clients.

Every three months she calls her customers and tells them they need a change. After she offers to pick up their car, for the most part, it’s an instant sale.

“Whenever I have a slow day I look at my pick-up and delivery list and give them a call,” she said.

Her team is the business
According to Cavinder, it’s the people she works with that have made the business such a success. Then again, Cavinder isn’t your run-of-the-mill employer. While other companies might rush out and hire an employee, she takes her time.

She admits she has high standards and as far is she’s concerned, high standards pay off. To her, it’s important to find employees with goals in life besides a career in the oil and lube industry.

People that are always looking forward are usually more motivated and will have a lot more to offer the company. Presently, she has four to five members on her team who are starting work on their master’s degree.

“I’ve always hired a lot of kids between 16 and 17 and worked after school,” she said. “A lot of them have stayed with me over the years, others have gone on. I feel like I’ve raised 400 sons.”

Cavinder isn’t ashamed to admit she gets attached to her staff. The affection and loyalty she’s shown to her “kids,” has solidified the relationship between everyone in the company — thus improving business all around.

To her, it’s all about the right chemistry. Everything in the business depends on your motivated crew and how they treat the customers,” she said.

Driven to be the best
Cavinder attributes her success in the lube industry to her constant drive to always be part of the best. From the beginning, her father instilled a positive work ethic in her, one that has stayed with her throughout her life.

“He always made us want to do the best job that we could,” she said. “I always wanted to be part of the best. I don’t want to be part of something that’s mediocre.”

Looking at Oil’ N’ Go, it’s plain to see that mediocre is probably the last word a person would use to describe the business.

A model of success
Rhonda and Steve Dryfhout’s fast lube has looks, personality and class; look out Miss America – here comes Lakewood Lube & Oil.
By Kate Carr, Associate Editor

Welcome to Holland, MI. Population 35,000, thirty miles from Grand Rapids, MI, and home to two-and-a-half million tourists a year.

It’s also home to Lakewood Lube & Oil, a small fast lube site making big waves in this town near Lake Michigan. Owners Rhonda and Steve Dryfhout attribute their 2-bay site’s success to a winning combination of looks, personality and class.

A pageant winning lube
Rhonda Dryfhout said her shop depends on its landscaping and cleanliness to set it apart from the oversaturated market.

“It’s a nice looking location, it’s not your typical fast lube,” Dryfhout said. “We have an appealing lobby and well kept landscaping.”

Her lube also relies on a courteous and friendly staff. Including employees who have been with the site longer than the Dryfhout’s have been owners. The manager, Jon Jarvis, will be celebrating his eleventh year in the business this September.

Amy Naab, a hood tech, surprises some folks unaccustomed to seeing a woman with a pressure gauge.

When the Dryfhout’s bought the lube in March of 1999, Naab was celebrating her second year with the lube. In 2006, she will celebrate ten years of greeting regular customers with a smile and fast, friendly service.

A thirsty owner
Another secret to Lakewood’s success is Rhonda Dryfhout’s thirst for knowledge. Several of Dryfhouts technicians have completed the AOCA Online Tech Acadamy and her manager has completed the AOCA’s manager course.

Everyday she checks her e-mail for replies to AOCA Talk threads.

AOCA Talk is a message board forum set-up by the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA). Dryfhout said the networking is invaluable to her as an owner, and to the lube.

“It’s huge. You’re tipped off on issues that come up with new or older vehicles. Or you get experience from other lube owners as far as warranty claims, employee issues and marketing ideas” Dryfhout said.

Dryfhout also sought out more knowledge on operating the quick lube at this year’s AOCA Owner’s Seminar, held in Dallas, and at the AOCA Convention held in San Diego this spring.

They have given her some ideas for innovative changes at the lube, although she’s not too quick to give away all her trade secrets.

“I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag quite yet with the tough local competition,’ she said.

But still, the lube has already put some of her ideas to action, using voicemail reminders and offering wireless internet for its customers.

But if you really want to know, Dryfhout said it’s all in the great customer service, friendly employees, and having a top-notch manager who really knows the business.

Climbing out of the hole he dug
After 80-hour workweeks as a pizza shop manager, Derrick Oxender found “a better way.’’
By Bruce A. Scruton, Managing Editor

It was early 1980 and 23-year-old Derrick Oxender had made it to manager of the local pizza shop. “But here I was, working 80 hours a week. I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a better way,’ ” he recalled.

Then, while visiting with his wife Jane’s parents, her father pointed out a story in the Wall Street Journal. It told of a new concept coming to car care —quick, easy, drive-through oil changes.

“Within a month or so, her parents’ neighbor had found us a place,” said Oxender. “It was going to be a little two-bay. But it had no pits so we started to dig them by hand.”

Five days into the digging, and about 80 percent done, his mother-in-law happened by. “She called this guy who came in with a backhoe. He finished the digging,” he said. “I guess she knew we were serious.”

“We started that first deal with a rented building and a handshake,” Oxender said of that first Ann Arbor, MI outlet which has grown into the Victory Lane Quick Oil Change chain.

Oxender need only look at his arm to remember Sept. 2, 1980, the day his pediatrician drove in for the first oil change. “Of course, he didn’t know I was running the place and I didn’t know you were supposed to change the filter on his kind of car from above. I was down there (in the pit), determined to get that filter off and burned my arm on the catalytic converter. Still got the scar.

We did nine cars that first day and never really looked back,” he said.

By 1986, Derrick and Jane had three shops. “She was running one and I was going between the other two. We wanted more, but didn’t want to just hire a manager to run them. We wanted someone who was invested,” he explained.

So they turned to another Ann Arbor institution, a leader in franchising – Domino’s.

“We talked to the attorneys for Domino’s. They helped get us going,’’ he said. “We still use them now.”

Now Victory Lane has 44 shops, 39 of them franchised operations. Jane, who has helped nurture the growth, oversees the company’s marketing, operations, training and franchise support operations.

Derrick, in addition to running the real estate end of the business, also is on the road, helping oversee the five company-owned stores and visiting franchisee shops. Victory Lane also has agreements on the books for as many as 80 more stores in Maine, Tennessee, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Those new stores will be under what Oxender calls “a master franchise.” The new owners will be running a handful of the stores, but will also franchise out other shops in those territories.

“But they will all still have to come here for training,” he notes. Each of the managers, owners and franchisees is required to take two weeks of training at corporate headquarters.

Morning sessions are taken up with bookwork while afternoons are spent in actual shops.

“We get them live with customers,” Oxender said. “And they get down in the pits, too.”

Further information about Victory Lane Quick Oil Change can be found at