What does a fast food restaurant have in common with a fast lube? Not much, and while the differences between the two are glaringly obvious, operating a popular fast food franchise and spending time in the food service industry is exactly where Ricky Brooks, current CEO of Alabama-based Express Oil Change and Service Center, began his career. “In 1976, I was, at age 23, the youngest franchisee that Sonic Drive-In restaurants had ever had to that point,” Brooks said. “I operated those restaurants for five or six years. I did well, sold them and then went into the financial services industry for 15 years.”
From 1981 to 1996, a time period he calls relevant to his entry into the fast lube business, Brooks worked on investments and insurance for many high-net-worth clients. In the middle of this crucial 15-year period that he collaborated with a client who would help alter the course of his career. “In 1987, I was approached to raise the capital for an individual looking to build and develop three Express Oil Change franchises,” Brooks said. “There were probably 11 or 12 stores in the chain. When I did the due diligence on Express Oil Change, I really liked the concept. It had the same type of volume and margins as the restaurant business that I’d been involved with and it was a very good business model.”
After Brooks completed the due diligence, the developer decided that he could no longer move forward with his investment in the three Express Oil Change franchises. Although Brooks had just been introduced to the industry, he decided to jump in with both feet. “For personal reasons, he decided he couldn’t do it, so I purchased the lot from him that he had already bought and went into the Express Oil Change business,” Brooks said.
For Brooks, the attraction to the fast lube business was directly related to the experience he gained as a restaurant franchisee and the sharp contrasts between the two industries. Brooks got into the fast lube business for a couple of key reasons. One of these reasons is the significantly better hours of operation. “We’re open six days a week, closed on Sundays, and we’re open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily,” Brooks said. “In the restaurant business, you must have a maximum number of people working a minimum number of hours. In the fast lube business, we build an elite team of all full-time career employees, and the hours of operation are more conducive to a quality family life for everyone involved.” Armed with solid reasons, and both franchise and financial knowledge, Brooks went into business with his partner, Joe Watson. Brooks was directly responsible for obtaining investments, acquiring the real estate and overseeing the building of the facilities for the project. “I was supposed to get everything done, and my partner would operate them,” Brooks said. “Originally, I only anticipated doing two or three in Birmingham.”
The duo opened their first Express Oil Change store in April 1988, and business continued booming, much to the surprise of Brooks and Watson. “They were more successful than we anticipated. My partner who had been involved with me at the time was working at an insurance agency, left an 11-year career. We started developing Express Oil Change franchises,” Brooks said. In 1995, Brooks and Watson had successfully built 11 more locations, giving them 14 stores at that time. “That was 14 of the 48 stores in the chain. The founder had 11, and seven other franchise groups had the other 23. We bought the founder out in March 1996 and immediately owned 25 of the 48 Express Oil Change stores,” Brooks said.
Since then, Brooks has helped develop an additional 150 units. Today, there are 88 corporate stores and 111 franchise units in operation, and there seems to be even more exciting changes on the horizon for Brooks and his Express Oil empire. “Earlier this year, we acquired a chain of tire dealers called Tire Engineers, which has seven stores,” Brooks said. “They’ve been in business more than 60 years and are a high-quality business with a great reputation. The culture of Tire Engineers and their values are completely aligned with the Express Oil core values and company culture.”
The Tire Engineers acquisition will enable Express Oil Change and Service Center to develop a high-quality tire dealership and provide added value for their customer base, while continuing to offer a fast oil change and complete mechanical services. “Express Oil Change has always been unique to the industry,” Brooks said. “We have always had dedicated oil change bays with a pit or basement under them, and we have always had dedicated service bays with lifts and diagnostic equipment to provide high-quality maintenance and repair on a mechanical basis. It’s what we call convenient automotive mechanical work. We do brakes, air conditioners, shocks and struts. The Tire Engineer acquisition will enable us to add a third leg and accomplish what no one in the industry has been able to do. We will be providing the true one-stop shop.”
The acquisition of Tire Engineers has also set in motion the co-branding of a number of existing stores, along with plans for an Express Oil Change and Tire Engineers supercenter, which will include new waiting rooms and service writing facilities, along with new service bays and on-site tire storage. “We will be able to provide customers with not only a 10-minute oil change and mechanical service, but also same-day tire sales and service under one roof,” Brooks said. “I think that adding co-branding opportunities and developing in the tire industry will enable us to be an even more valuable service provider for our customers.” It’s a partnership that is already producing measurable results. “We’ve always sold a few tires on a convenience basis, but our customers are responding very well to the co-branding between Express Oil Change and Service Center and Tire Engineers. We are having excellent results so far,” Brooks said. “Our customers are voting with their hard-earned dollars and are rewarding us by doing business with us.”
Express Oil Change will also be updating all their stores in the corporate operations. “We’ll be doing a facelift in the corporate operations at a rate of 6-10 stores a month and conclude at the end of June 2014, when we have a facelift on 100 percent of our stores,” Brooks said. Just as positive things are up ahead for Brooks and Express Oil Change, Brooks foresees fair weather for the fast lube industry as a whole. “For 25 years, I have been very bullish on the automotive maintenance industry,” Brooks said. “We are a very valuable, needed service for the consumer. As an industry, we are very recession resistant, especially when we are providing a one-stop automotive maintenance center.”