May 30, 2014

How Ricky Brooks Took the Wheel at Express Oil Change

About 27 years ago, a client asked Ricky Brooks to help him raise capital to develop several Express Oil Change & Service Center locations.

Ultimately, that client didn’t follow through with his plans. But Brooks liked what he saw in the chain, which at the time had 48 stores, all in Alabama.

So, instead of the client, it was Brooks and business partner Joe Watson who started opening Express locations. By 1996, they had 14 locations and had bought out the company’s founder.

Today, thanks to that fateful client task, Brooks is CEO of the growing oil change and mechanical service provider, with locations in 16 states and plans to have 300 stores within five years.

We recently sat down with Brooks to talk about the growth of Express, its recent acquisition of Birmingham’s Tire Engineers and his business strategy.

On how he got into the food business: Somebody I knew in college talked me into running a Bonanza restaurant. I did pretty well at that, and it enabled me to become a franchisee of Sonic … I was 23, the youngest franchisee they had at that point. We did really well, but you’re just working all the time and I got tired of that.

On a lesson he learned in the food business: What we preach here is the execution of the model. Sonic Drive-In is a great model. Those are, if run correctly, they are cash cows. You can do really well. I learned from Bonanza to execute the model well, because I got no training. I just got a book. (At Sonic), there were 1,300 or 1,400 franchise units and no operating manual. So, myself and two other guys literally wrote Sonic’s first operating manual 25 years after the chain was first started.

On how he got involved with Express: What got me into this business was, someone wanted me to actually raise the money for him to buy three franchises. He decided he couldn’t do it, so my partner and I bought this lot from him and did it.

On what attracted him to the business: I got out of the food business for two reasons. No. 1 is, when you are off, everybody else is working. When you are working, everybody else is off. That doesn’t make for a good social life. Or a good family life. The second thing is, in the food business, your mantra, your MO has to be maximum number of employees, minimum number of hours … In this business, they were exactly the opposite. I saw the same volumes and margins basically, but it was 8 to 6, six days a week. Off at night with your family and on Sunday. And the founder had it different from the rest of the industry, all full-time employees building a career. Trying to build an elite team with a minimum number of people makes for a good family life and all that.

On the company’s growth strategy: We lead the industry in every important operational measurement, so No. 1 is to continue to lead the industry. To grow consistent, high-volume, high-quality units. So it is consistent, steady growth, which we have been able to do. We’ve had more than 10 years of quarterly, same-store sales growth, which given the recession, is really good. It’s just a testament to the model.

On what he looks for in a franchisee: Our profile is generally someone in their 40s or older that has come out of middle management or higher who is looking for a career change.

On the impact of cobranding since the acquisition of Tire Engineers: We’ve done full automotive maintenance for 35 years. Express Oil Change is the best name in the world for getting a quick oil change. It’s the worst name for getting mechanical (service). That’s one of the things Tire Engineers brings to the table. One in four of our customers use us for mechanical, and we’re trying to move that percentage up.

On his strategy for change management: Anything we do, we want to do it with excellence. Any change we would have to do would be to improve the model. Our goal and No. 1 focus is being successful at the individual store level. That may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of franchise owners don’t operate their own units real well. Our chain leads the industry and our corporate stores lead the chain. We have a successful model that is working. There is not change because something is broken. We are making changes to improve the model.

On his favorite thing about the industry: We are very highly recession-resistant – not proof, resistant. We are excellent operators, but one of the reasons we have had the quarterly same store sales growth for more than 10 years is that we are in a recession-resistant business. We are not going away from the internal combustion engine. People thought hybrids were going to take over the world 10 years ago. But there are less than 2 million registered out of 250 million cars.

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