“If I get to be more of a legend, I’ll be so old I won’t be able to talk,” joked Scotti Lee, industry pioneer and National Oil and Lube News (NOLN) contributor, as he settled in to reflect on his career. Still being a fairly new fish in this pond, I had only heard stories about life before drive-up quick lubes and how they sprung onto the market. I was excited to finally be able to meet the men that everybody else spoke of and hear about the fledgling beginnings, big successes and the rapid rise of the quick oil change industry.
The Ancient Egyptians didn’t pull their chariots in for an oil change, and pioneers went to the blacksmith shop to get their wagon wheels serviced. Case in point being, this industry isn’t very old but it has come leaps and bounds since it’s origination, due to the hard work, dedication and determination of many and the vision of a select few. As we embark on a new year, we wanted to go back and look at the beginning of the fast lube industry with two pioneering men who’ve been there for it all.
“I was engineering mass transit systems throughout the world,” Lee said. “I was constantly traveling. Anyone who travels a lot knows how much fun it isn’t living out of a suitcase 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When my wife, Marsha, and I had kids, I realized I was seeing them grow in spurts. I’d be gone two or three weeks in Europe, and then I’d be home for a week before I’d be off to Canada or somewhere out west. It was getting old, so when I traveled around the United States, I always kept my eye open for businesses I may want to get into. I kept seeing businesses called fast lubes pop up. Being a farm boy, I thought, ‘I’m mechanical and can fix things.’ Before I knew it, I had a business partner, and we’d built our first fast lube here in New Castle, Delaware.”
While Lee was traveling the world keeping his eyes peeled for the next big business, Joe Haggard, an industry legend in his own right and NOLN contributor, was doing the same as he worked selling automotive shop equipment throughout Florida.
“I got into the business because I was writing an article for a local automotive paper. I wanted to write about the perfect business. As I went around selling equipment, I started asking what the good and bad aspects were about each business. I sold to body shops, service stations and dealerships, as well as anyone else in auto repair,” Haggard said. “The biggest problem had been finding qualified mechanics. The more research I did, the more I realized that a drive-thru oil change facility would be the perfect business.”
In 1978, Haggard began building his first lube shop, Pro-Lube.
“When we started construction, I didn’t know there were any other fast lubes in the country. I just had this idea to start a business that specialized in one job and wouldn’t require training. I thought every 19 year old would know how to change oil, so I didn’t train anyone. That soon proved to be a mistake,” Haggard said.
With grandiose plans inspired by a musical motion picture, Haggard threw a big party to kick everything off and opened the bay doors.
“I had seen a musical movie called, ‘Carwash,’” Haggard said. “In the movie, everyone was doing their jobs to music. I had visions of Pro-Lube being like that. When I opened the bays, I expected it to be like opening a curtain and cars would be lining the street. Instead, our doors rolled up on opening day and there was nothing but sunlight. I quickly found out not everyone I’d hired knew how to change oil. I had to close back up, do a full week of solid training and reopen.”
After navigating their way through the first few weeks of business, Pro-Lube’s customer base grew rapidly from 15 vehicles per day to 45 per day. One year later, Haggard and his team of now well-trained employees were servicing an average of 70 cars per weekday and 85 to 90 vehicles on any given Saturday.
“I got in at the perfect time, because there wasn’t any competition. We were the only drive-thru oil change in the county. Of course, having the only show in town, the money was rolling in. We had a bank loan for the first location and all the other locations we paid for with straight profit,” Haggard said. “Our pricing structure started out at one price for all cars. It basically covered whatever the customer needed and cost $20 including sales tax. The idea was to be as efficient as possible, and the logic behind keeping the price at an even $20 was to make bookkeeping as easy as possible. Generally, everyone had a $20 bill in his or her billfold, too. However, that only lasted for a while. We had to start charging for Mercedes and some diesels that took 11 to 12 quarts of oil. Wiper blades, breathers and PCV valves made their way onto the service menu, and we created some package deals for vehicles needing four-wheel and transmission services. After about two years, our big profit items were the package deals, and our ticket averages were around $30.”
How has Haggard’s pricing philosophy developed since then, and how can you implement it? Have the mentality that you’re the best and embrace it.
“We were sort of cocky. We thought we did the best job in town, so we began bumping our prices up. People continued to come, so we raised prices again. They kept coming, so we tried to set a price where it all evened out. What we discovered was there is a price range that customers will accept,” Haggard said. “There is always a market for Rolex watches. If you’re the best, they’re going to come. Often, operators think, ‘If I raise the price 50 cents, I’m going to run off a customer.’ That isn’t true, and mathematically, an extra 50 cents makes a world of difference to the bottom line. Be the best in town, and charge an appropriate price.”
Being that the industry was so new, operators like Lee and Haggard had a difficult time finding information and further training for their newfound business ventures. While it was a roadblock, it was only a matter of time before the entrepreneurs did something about it.
“The problem we all had back then was that there were no mentors or places we could go to get further information or education,” Lee said. “The big guys on the block weren’t going to give out their information to mom-and-pops that were potential competitors. You had to teach and train yourself. Soon after, that’s when Steve Hurt started the National Association of Independent Lubes (NAIL). [NAIL is now the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA.)]”
Without hesitation, both Lee and Haggard responded that they were exceedingly proud of their involvement with NAIL/AOCA, even saying that it may be one of the professional accomplishments they each hold in the highest regard.
“I’m most proud that Steve picked me as one of the guys to go round up other members around the country and help get the organization off the ground,” Haggard said. “After NAIL got started, I have to confess that by the second and third year, everything good I did was someone else’s idea. One of my contacts by the name of Larry Dahl, not only gave me great thoughts on a running a successful business but his leadership philosophy changed my entire outlook. It dramatically enhanced my business relationships and my life. I’ve tried my best to pass that philosophy on.”
Lee commented, “I’m proud that I could help so many people in the industry better their businesses. In turn, bettering their lives.”
Haggard’s Pro-Lube business venture that originally opened with untrained employees had grown to around nine stores and had launched its own training academy, which began taking students in 1988. It didn’t take long for Pro-Lube to collaborate with NAIL and the training school to become a dominant source of knowledge in the industry.
“I remember we had a Styrofoam sign that we put up in place of our Pro-Lube sign. It read, ‘NAIL National Training Center.’ The idea was to give people joining the association nationwide a place where they could go to get industry training,” Haggard said. “We ended up training people from all over the world. We had individuals from Europe and Mexico. Over the years, I would say about 300 of them went on to become stand-out operators. I remember one student, Bev Cavinder, who I was particularly proud of. She came in saying, ‘I don’t know anything about this business.’ A year later, she was giving speeches at the conventions. She ended up being one of the movers and shakers in the business and is a manager at Oil ‘n Go in Valparaiso, Indiana.”
Lee has given much to the education efforts in this industry, as well. He’s written a total of eight published books, all on technical tips. The books cover everything from transmission and differential services to fluids, oils and solutions to problems he and his team have had over the years with different vehicle makes and models.
“It’s taken a lot of research to accumulate all of that information,” Lee said. “I have also written white papers that were penned specifically for the fast lube industry. They include a lot of my assumptions on the direction of this industry.”
Amongst running a successful lube shop, rounding up people for NAIL/AOCA and anything else Lee fancied putting his hands in, he made a point (and still does) to explore why things work the way they do. He’s talked to people, asked questions and has never stopped his inquiring mind from finding out more.
“My favorite part of writing all of the technical things I have was being able to explore and get good information out into the public,” Lee said. “Over the years, I’ve met so many people from the inside, including people who’ve helped design engines, transmissions, differentials and all kinds of other automotive body parts. I’ve been able to call engineers directly and talk to them about why they designed certain things certain ways. The investigation is a big part of why I love it. Learning what the facts are has always interested me.”
It was important to Lee to give operators, particularly those without the resources of large companies or operations, the information they needed to complete a difficult job. His solution came in the form of the AOCA Tech Hotline, a place where technicians could call in and have an instant community of other professionals to brainstorm problems and solutions with.
“I observed that a lot of our people had similar problems. A lot of the mom-and-pops didn’t have people who could help them out if they ran into something,” Lee said. “I wanted to create a community that was easily accessible and would solve that problem.”
Haggard and Lee have since sold their businesses and retired. While they still share some of their insight and knowledge writing for NOLN, they’ve found that once some of the chaos of owning your own business is gone, you begin to miss it.
“When I sold, I expected the buyer to be calling me on Monday morning with a bunch of frantic questions. He never called. Instead of my usual routine of checking things off my mile long to-do list, I found myself sitting at the breakfast table twiddling my thumbs,” Haggard said. “I missed the challenges, problems, fixing things that were broken and making things happen.”
Assuredly, in true legendary fashion, Haggard had some words of wisdom for his younger self and some teachable truths for the rest of us.
“I would’ve bought bigger pieces of real estate and had a carwash/fast lube combination store,” Haggard said. “Other than that, I wouldn’t change much. I’ve been lucky and blessed. I had a tradition that when I went to conventions, I’d always ask people, ‘What are the 10 best things you’ve done?’ and ‘What are the 10 things you wish you hadn’t done?’ This usually happened at the bar at night after normal convention hours. Regardless, I’d leave with 10 of the best ideas and 10 mistakes to avoid from across the country. But, the absolute best advice I could give someone in this industry is to talk to as many people as you can, visit as many places as you can and get as many good ideas as you can. Be careful to not cross the line and start selling stuff just to make money. You serve the customer, so only do things that have the customer’s best interest at heart.”
Legends leave legacies, and these men have definitely done and continue to do so for our industry. At NOLN, we’ve learned from their words of wisdom for years and will continue to for as long as they’ll be benevolent enough to share with us. Think about the legacy you’ll leave and the legends around you. As this business continues to evolve, doing so has proven to be priceless.