Constantine Christo Kapothanasis – Costa to friends and family – will tell you that he has no formal public relations or marketing training and no formal sales experience, but he said that he understands how the customer thinks. The 30-year old entrepreneur only first entered the quick lube industry in 2015, and he realized quickly that fast service was going to be the key to his success.
“Time management is my key to success,” Costa said. “I’ve been saying it since 2015, that today’s tools, including mobile apps, make time management all the more accessible. It allows me to have one-on-one interaction with my team, customers and vendors throughout the day.”
Back when he entered the business, Costa was on a very different career track and was working full time at a financial institution in Baltimore. But he saw the potential to not only be his own boss, but to build a successful brand in the process.
“I think it is safe to say, I strive to be successful,” Costa said candidly.
Some people might do one thing and do it well. For Costa, it is about doing as much as you can and still doing it well. That’s exactly what he did when he decided to enter the quick lube industry.
“I determined how I could own a business without putting any money down,” he explained. “This involved part sweat equity and part working with a failing business.”
A business that seemed doomed to fail might have scared off other potential buyers, but Costa saw that it wasn’t the location but rather the business model. Costa thought back to the old adage, “time is money,” and decided to return that location back to its original core service.
“I doubled down on the quick 10-minute oil change service with that location,” Costa noted. “I don’t want to disparage our industry, but what I’ve seen is many shops adding services to draw in customers. They add brake service, tire changes and take on other jobs that mean people now need to schedule an appointment or wait.”
Instead of becoming yet another line of full automotive service centers, he stuck to the core business with Costa Oil – 10 Minute Oil Change.
“Quick lubes were founded on this ‘quick’ service [concept]. In recent years, many operators looked at doing more, and this isn’t always the best move,” Costa said. “I look at this as a ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ That customer who just wants an oil change might not even have a bad experience, but if one of your bays in tied up doing brakes and other tire changes, you’re going to lose customers that want to get in and out.”
This, he added, is about selling customers their time and convenience back — or at least the perception of time.
“Think about how Uber works,” Costa explained. “The idea is that this is somehow more convenient than hailing a cab, but in cities like New York or Chicago a dozen taxis might pass you before your Uber gets there. However, people are in control and think they’re saving time.”
Finding the Right Fit
Costa’s business philosophy is thus not one simply of IQ or intelligence, but builds on what has been called the EQ – emotion quotient – which is the ability to identify, assess and control the emotions of oneself, of others and of groups. With EQ, success is strongly influenced by personal qualities such as perseverance, self-control and skill.
Costa used his EQ to research quick lube locations from Maine to Florida and found a small shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He made an offer for the shop, which included the land, and soon was in the quick lube business.
“It was run as Quick Change Inc. for one year, then I modified it to Quick Change Oil and then it was rebranded under the Costa Oil – 10 Minute Oil Change name,” Costa said.
Now four years later Costa Oils – 10 Minute Oil Change has opened its eighth location, and along the way he has learned the ins and outs of expanding his business.
“Each one is different,” he said. “In the past, I was taking over an existing location, while other times it was a shop that had been closed for a couple of years but the facilities were intact.”
With his latest shop, he opted to build it from scratch.
“That was a new challenge for me. Each time it has built on the last, and at the same time, each market is different,” he added. “This time, the new location is within a concentrated footprint near other locations, so the plan has been to have crossover customers who already know and respect the brand. This is the first time we’re not going to a completely new market.”
Learning From Past Mistakes
One thing Costa admitted you don’t learn in school, even with two masters’ degrees, is that for many small startups, you need to trust your gut but do your research.
“I think with the first store, I did learn from expensive mistakes,” he admitted. “This included just taking a vendor’s word that they were really giving me the best price. It was only when I took over other shops and saw what some independent owners were paying for goods that I realized some of the numbers were not as good as the reps may have made it seem.”
Just as you can’t make the fans in the stands happy with every pitch, Costa also realized that when it comes to running a shop, you can’t make everyone happy all the time.
“At times, we were trying to accommodate the lowest common denominator when it came to customers, and you can’t keep up with what everyone expects,” Costa said. “One size doesn’t fit all. There are those who think you can appeal to everyone. I have a lot of empathy and see things from different perspectives. I have a keen sense of how to see this from different angles, and this has helped the business grow.”
Key to this, too, is understanding your market — what works in Harrisburg won’t necessarily work as well in Pittsburgh.
“Looking at the different markets has me taught me a lot about people too,” Costa added. “I see how people act and work differently, and it is important when addressing the needs of individuals. Still I know at the end of the day, I’m not going to please everyone.”
The same has been true with dealing with others in the quick lube world.
“I got more pushback from some old hats in the industry, but a lot of this could be from the fact that I continued to come up with new ways of doing things,” Costa said. “As a result, there has been a lot of pushback from my not going with industry standards.”
Costa said he was quick to react when he heard other industry pros tell him, “That’s just the way it’s done.”
“I got the sense that the industry has been set in its ways for awhile, and there are certain best practices that are just accepted at face value and not challenged,” he explained. “I got where I am by challenging not only business norms but societal norms, as well.”
Keeping it Personal
Even as Costa Oil – 10 Minute Oil Change continues to grow, Costa has vowed that he’d take the time to know his employees — and not just their names.
“With the technology we have in 2018, there is no reason why I shouldn’t know about my employees’ and their families’ lives,” he explained. “It is very important to me that I have one-on-ones with my customer base as often as possible and that I have a connection with each of the employees. There is simply no reason not to know your employees.
Costa added that he makes sure to regularly connect with his managers — and not just to keep tabs on the business. He makes sure to know what is happening in their lives and offers encouragement and even assistance when needed.
With 30 employees at his shops, he said it pays to take a few minutes each week to make sure they’re all doing well — it is about mutual respect. This is very important as he “inherited” a lot of employees through shop acquisition and that has created challenges, especially, as he is the first to admit, since he does things differently than many other owners.
Here is where it comes back to the notion of EQ over IQ.
“I think ‘coach-ability’ with employees is a big part of this, and empathy from my employees I find very important,” Costa noted. “I think EQ – the emotion quotient – is so much more important than IQ in this industry. EQ is more important than a formal education or advanced degrees.”
As a business leader Costa also understands that there are two very distinct types of employees, and he said that it is important to play into those employees’ respective strengths.
For those on the manager track, Costa makes sure that the business is as transparent as it can be, and helps guide those employees toward their goals. For those others – the ones who may be passing through – he described how he wants to help get them to their career, not just the next job.
“I’ve worked to help place my employees with auto dealers who offer full vehicle servicing,” Costa said. “I know that a lot of these guys don’t want to change oil for the rest of their lives and I want to help make the next thing happen.” S
From Baseball to Quick Lubes
Constantine Christo Kapothanasis is not your ordinary quick lube owner in other ways. Known to family, friends, employees, customers and fans alike as Costa, he’s worn many hats for a man who only recently celebrated his 30th birthday. Among those hats was one for the Panathinaikos AC Baseball Team, which is part of the Greek Baseball League. He previously pitched for the Greek national baseball team in the 2010 European Baseball Championships and again in the 2012 and 2014 events.
Born in America to a family of Greek immigrants, Costa embraced baseball and grew up planning to make it a career.
“When I was playing baseball, that was all I thought I was going to do,” he said. “I have a sort of tunnel vision, and I believe my success comes from this ability to be so focused.”
Even as a kid playing baseball, Costa had an entrepreneurial spirit.
“I was always a merchant of sorts. It began when I was young, selling my grandfather’s homegrown tomatoes. Then later, I would sell used video games to other kids,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if I was selling tires, or running a chain of gas stations. I want to succeed, I want to give a good job to my employees and make the customer happy.”
After moving on from baseball, Costa took the time to earn two masters degrees and then worked at one of the largest asset management firms in the United States. While working at TD Bank, he opted to try his hand at launching a business – and it wasn’t quick lube, at least not yet.
Instead, it was the Maine Bat Company, where he sought to produce handmade custom baseball products. This meant going up against major players, including Rawlings and Louisville Slugger, but that was just part of a bigger vision. It soon led to the Kapothanasis Group, Inc.
When he’s not getting his hands dirty – as he was when he was getting the newest location up and running – Costa uses those hands to throw and catch. Only now, it is a softball.
“Yeah, I play softball when I can, but it is getting a lot harder to do,” Costa admitted. “We did win the championship last year. But I already missed a few games this year.”