As any entrepreneur knows, surviving the first year of business
is tough. According to recent Small Business Administration (SBA)
figures, over 500,000 companies go out of business in an average
year. While not all of those are failures, that number shows that
running your own business is not an easy task.
Starting a fast lube business has its own unique challenges.
For Leigh Powell of Town & Country Fast Lube in Sand Springs,
OK, those challenges were compounded by the fact that she was a woman
trying to break into the automotive service industry.
Just trying to get started in the business was a major
hurdle for Powell. "I called all of the oil companies,"
she said. "One question I got was 'Are you running it or is your
husband?' while other companies didn't even return my calls."
She did find two companies that showed interest in
her and her desire to open a fast lube. Powell ended up choosing ConocoPhillips
because she found them to be the most helpful and encouraging.
Ups and Downs
The first year has had its ups and downs for Powell.
"The best way to describe the first year is challenging,"
she said. "There are good days and bad days. You panic when no
one is in the bays and you panic when they're lined up."
While finding a female in the fast lube business is
not as rare as it once was, it still can create difficulties. Powell
admits that she often takes things personally and her emotions can
get the best of her.
"I have had days of utter frustration," Powell
said. "Most people are great to work with, but there are some
that don't take a woman seriously."
One source of frustration for Powell has been with
her space oil heater which has never worked properly since it was
installed. There is no one in her area that can repair the unit so
she has had to call the manufacturer directly to get the parts needed
to fix it. After several calls and various replacement parts, Powell
decided she wanted to return the unit and get her money back. That
was easier said than done.
"I tried to return the space oil heater, but no
one would do anything about it," Powell said. "I even talked
to the president of the company, but he said it was our problem."
Learning to Communicate
Another challenge has been with employees. "Working
with young men has been a learning process," Powell admits. "It
has been a real challenge to realize that they're boys and they do
boy things. I have had to work on my communications skills in order
to make them understand what I want them to do."
Powell has even had language classes for her employees
to help with communication. "When I ask them to do something
they don't always take me seriously because, as a woman, my instructions
come out as suggestions rather than demands," she said. "The
classes have helped us to learn to communicate to overcome the age
and gender differences."
As far as competition, there is one other fast lube
across town from Town & Country Fast Lube, but Powell sees Wal-Mart
as her biggest adversary. She believes she can overcome the competition
by providing honest, personalized service that is fast and efficient.
"Wal-Mart may offer a ten minute oil change, but
that is ten minutes from the time they actually pull the vehicle into
the bay," Powell said. "Most of the time it takes about
For customers who contend that an oil change is cheaper
at Wal-Mart, Powell has a clever response. "I tell customers
that Wal-Mart is the most expensive oil change I've ever had,"
she said, pointing out that while the actual oil change is less than
$20, she spent a total of $100 because she shopped in the store while
waiting for her car to be serviced.
One lesson that Powell says she has learned in her
first year of business is that it is alright to charge higher prices
for quality service. Her shop's prices are in-line with those in Tulsa,
which is 15 miles away. She has had to convince herself, her customers
and her employees that the prices are fair.
"I have a tendency to want to give things away,"
Powell said. "We haven't raised prices since we opened even though
we're using more expensive oil. I have had to become OK with charging
the prices for the services we provide because we do what we say we
To combat the price issue, Powell has tried to explain
to both employees and customers why they charge what they do for various
services. She has even shown customers what some of her actual expenses
are in order for them to understand the price structure.
Powell is dedicated to her customers. The reason she
got into the fast lube business was because she herself couldn't find
a decent place to have her oil changed. "I went with a friend
to get an oil change and we were met by a technician whose shirt was
half untucked, had a cigarette hanging in his mouth and nodded at
us rather than actually greeting us," she said. "While waiting
for the service, I noticed mismatched chairs, a TV with foil on the
antenna setting on top of a broken TV and my daughter had to shake
dust off of a stuffed animal in the toy bin. I won't even describe
the bathroom other than to say it was filthy."
On another occasion, Powell took her new Volkswagen
to a national fast lube chain and was dismayed that they could not
service her car because they didn't have the appropriate oil filter.
They told her to bring in the filter and they would change the oil
but she would still have to pay the full price for the oil change.
Those experiences prompted Powell to start her own
fast lube business. She wanted to provide a service that was sorely
needed in her area. "People who get into this business need to
know the reason they're getting into it," she said. "It
cannot be for the money. If you do it for that alone, you'll be crying.
I got into it to provide a service for my customers."
She did have some automotive knowledge. "My Dad
wouldn't let me have a car until I understood how to maintain one,"
Powell said. "Things had obviously changed since I was a shop
foreman at my school in the 1970s, but I had a basic understanding
Goals for the Future
Now that she has been in business for over 18 months,
Powell has definite goals for her business with the biggest one being
able to break even by her company's second anniversary. "I want
to continue growing our customer base," she said. "I want
to continue to improve the level of customer service we provide."
Powell admits that her technicians can get overwhelmed
when they are busy and they can forget the little things like putting
on a fender cover, leaving items out on paperwork or forget to wipe
a hand print off of a hood. "I am trying to get them to focus
on each car and do it right," she said. "It won't cost anything,
but it will reap big rewards."
When asked what advice she would have for others considering
getting into the fast lube business, Powell said, "Have very
deep pockets. You need a minimum of $100,000 for operating capital.
The proformas that you see are not always right."
She also advises that operators create their own way
of doing business. "Don't try and be like everyone else,"
Powell said. "Set prices right and be honest. If you do that,
then you can make it."