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Changing gears with Meineke

Photos courtesy Meineke Car Care

By Shane Vine
When I bought my Meineke Car Care franchise in Oshawa, Ont., it specialized in quick oil changes. I brought my years of experience in the automotive industry—and my love of hockey—to the table and began a process of change, finding new and creative ways to reach out to the community and win larger work orders for higher-margin mechanical repairs.

A love of cars
I was born in Armstrong near Thunder Bay, Ont., but only lived there until I was five years old, at which point my family moved to Bancroft, Ont. I always enjoyed playing hockey as a child. My dad put a rink in our backyard and later, after we moved, I played on the lake. I wanted to be a professional hockey player when I grew up.

I liked baseball and my friends and I used to enjoy racing around on dirt bikes. I also developed a love of cars, but I don’t know where that came from. My father hates cars!

When I was in high school, I thought about becoming a police officer, but my guidance counsellor suggested I follow my love of cars into work within the automotive industry. After graduating, I headed to Toronto to study automotive administration at Centennial College. The coursework was everything I expected it to be and it really helped me get a foot in the door. I went on to work as a car jockey at Parkwood Central Chevrolet Oldsmobile Cadillac, a lube technician for City Buick and an installer for Canadian Tire.

I left the automotive trade for a little while to work for my uncle in his garbage compactor sales business, then returned by joining Snap-On Tools, a franchise system that designs, manufactures and markets automotive shop equipment, products and diagnostic tools. I found my position involved too much sitting around on the job, however, and I felt like I was getting old and fat.

So, I went back into the dealership side of the industry, working as a service advisor at Trillium Pontiac Buick GMC and then at Dean Myers Chevrolet Buick GMC Corvette. Finally, I moved into the car repair and maintenance business as a store manager for an Active Green + Ross franchise.

I bought an existing Meineke franchise in Oshawa, Ont., and reopened it in September 2010.

It was during this time I realized I wanted to run my own garage and my own shop—partly for job security, but also to build a stronger personal relationship with my customers. I didn’t find that was the case at the dealerships, where I just had a job and it was nothing more than that. And a lot of the time, I felt that job was only about going after the customer for the sale. It didn’t help that personnel changes seemed to happen rapidly at the dealerships, with constant new faces moving through the business like there was a revolving door.

Finding the right franchise
By this point, I was living near Whitby, Ont. I looked into franchise opportunities with Active Green + Ross and put in an application, but as it turned out, the Whitby territory was already taken. The franchisee for the area at the time had the right of first refusal.

So, I started to investigate other automotive franchises instead. There was a Meineke store nearby in Pickering, Ont., and as I looked into it and got the lowdown on the system, I fell in love with the brand. All automotive franchises are somewhat similar in terms of their setup for franchisees paying royalties to the franchisor, but Meineke stood out from the crowd for its marketing.

In particular, there was a lot of freedom for franchisees to make their own decisions. That is, I would pay into the corporation, but I could also do marketing on my own. With other franchises, you pay into budgets for national advertising on TV and radio, which didn’t appeal to me.  I wanted to put my marketing budget into local communities.

When I took over the franchise, it was primarily known as a quick lube shop, but I didn’t want my technicians doing oil changes all day.
After I decided to sign on, I visited the franchisor’s head office in Charlotte, N.C., for three weeks of training, which involved learning more about the brand, their software and how best to handle customers. The training session presenters were very American, but still provided good insight I could also apply to the Canadian market. The biggest thing I had to learn about was the software, as it was very different from what I had used in the past at the dealerships and at Active Green + Ross.

The rocky road
I bought an existing Meineke franchise in Oshawa and reopened it in September 2010. The previous owner had only launched it in 2008 and there was still a lot of potential to build local brand awareness.

While the former franchisee had developed a good reputation within the community, it was still a rocky road for me when I started running the business. I kept the existing staff on to help out, but I also tried to do too much of the work myself, from running the front counter to filling out paperwork to performing oil changes to training new employees. I felt I had to get comfortable with all of it.

One of the main challenges was with regard to work orders. As the franchise was previously known as a quick lube shop, not a repair garage, the average work order when I took over was worth only $68. The shop was handling about 20 to 25 cars per day. It was a pattern of too many quick jobs of too little value.

It can be difficult to change how a business is perceived by its customers when you’re the new owner and not the old one, but I always had an idea of how I wanted to grow the franchise. I didn’t want my licensed technicians doing oil changes all day. We had to focus on mechanical repairs. We also brought in an emissions-testing machine to generate additional recurring revenue.

By focusing on mechanical repairs instead of oil changes, our average work order is now more than twice as much as before.
Today, the average work order is more than twice as much as before and we only handle 10 to 15 cars a day. That makes it a lot easier to run the business. Now we have three full-time employees during the week and bring in two part-timers on Saturdays.

Another change was with regard to services from our vendors. The previous franchisee was pulling in auto parts from all across the country. I managed to minimize all of these various business relationships to the point where we now work with just four vendors—Carquest Auto Parts, Chevron Lubricants, PartSource (which is owned by Canadian Tire) and Collins-Warden Automotive Parts—along with the dealerships. Building relationships with this smaller group of companies has helped make it easier to keep my books straight.

This franchise has also been an opportunity to combine my career with that of my wife, Tisa. We met at a Halloween dance back in our college days, when she was studying early childhood education (ECE). That ended up being her focus of most of her career, including time with Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto and running a daycare service in our own home. At the same time, she has always supported my career, such as by helping me with my taxes when I was with Snap-On.

For many years, Tisa was a stay-at-home mom. Once we felt our kids were old enough to handle themselves, I offered her a job at my shop and she accepted. She’s now been here just over two years. We have a strong working relationship. Whenever one of us is bothered by something, the other one helps out.

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