Grease Monkey franchisee starts anew in his home town

Bill Dalton owned eight Grease Monkey franchises in the Seattle metro area. Today he owns one--a five-month-old, state-of-the-art facility in his home of Montgomery, Texas.

Dalton, who lives in Montgomery, had purchased eight Grease Monkeys in Seattle as an investment, added one more, and ran them for about four and a half years before selling them. He also owned a Grease Monkey franchise territory in Arizona, but traded that for the territory he now has in Montgomery County.

Yes, he was commuting 2,500 miles to Seattle, once a month for a week at a time for those four and a half years. During his week in Seattle, he would review the prior month's sales, visit all the stores, meet with all the managers, and set criteria for the upcoming month. Once back in Texas, he left the operations to his managers, but he was in touch with them every day.

The Seattle units, at about 10 years old, were relatively mature, with a solid cash flow when he bought them. "They were fine, but I'd reached the point where I'd taken them to the level I could without moving to Seattle," he says. He closed one in 2005, sold another in 2006, and sold the remaining six in 2007.

Last October, he opened a new Grease Monkey in Montgomery. One key difference: In Seattle he leased the land; in Montgomery he owns it--with enough room to spare to build a car wash next door.

Real estate in Texas was more affordable than in Arizona, he says. And for an owner of a small business, the tax and regulatory environment was much better than in the Northwest. "If I wanted to start a new store from scratch in Washington, by the time I bought the land and went through all the hearings, it could take three to five years to open."

In his new unit in Montgomery, customers can sit in a comfortable waiting room and watch their car being serviced. With a lot of help from his college-aged son, who built the system from scratch, Dalton has installed two cameras in each of his four bays, one above for the hood cavity and one below for the undercarriage. A 42-inch flat-screen TV divided into 8 quadrants (2 per bay) allows customers to see the work as it occurs, live and in color.

"Ours is a business of trust," says Dalton. "In the automotive environment trust is hard to come by, unfortunately." Customers at a quick lube facility often wonder if they're getting what they paid for, he says. With the cameras in place, that's not a question. And just in case, "Everything we do is recorded."

"I'm sure someone else is doing it somewhere in the country, but I don't know who it would be," says Dalton. And as the word gets out about the cameras (and the comfortable waiting area), customers who may never have patronized a quick lube are starting to come in.

Dalton, who also can watch from home on his computer, really does get the big picture�"through eight additional cameras at the site. "Everything that happens in the facility is live remote at my home office."

Montgomery, about an hour northwest of Houston, is one of the fastest-growing areas in Texas, says Dalton. It's also a popular getaway spot for Houstonians, with Lake Conroe about 10 minutes east.

"We're a high-end area, a resort area, dealing with some very expensive vehicles," he says. Customers were accustomed to going to the dealer for even minor service, but who doesn't like to save money if they can feel confident in the service provided?

But there's a lot more to attracting customers than price, says Dalton. "It's not about cheapest, especially when you're in the service business."

A quick lube franchise is no different than any other business, he says. "The whole key is customer service. It's the only big variable in revenue." There is another key factor, of course: hiring great employees.

Before buying the Grease Monkey units in Seattle, Dalton, now in his early 50s, spent about 20 years in the automotive aftermarket business. He was senior vice president of an automotive aftermarket parts company on the West Coast, but when the company was sold he was out of a job. After that he was a vice president at Pennzoil, but lost that job too when the company was sold to Shell.

After being "kicked twice," he vowed, "If anyone's going to fire me, it'll be my customers." That's when he bought the Grease Monkey units in Seattle and entered the world of franchising.

"I could not have accomplished what I did had I not lined up with a good solid franchisor," he says. "I get great marketing and training support from them and have no qualms about paying royalties on a monthly basis. It's significant, but it's worthwhile."

After five years as a franchisee and area developer, Dalton says he could probably do it himself today. "But would I be as successful? I doubt it," he says.

"I'm kind of the atypical guy," says Dalton. Looking back, he says that he did it backwards, buying a handful of franchises to start--and then trying to run it from 2,500 miles away. "You get to a point where you can only take it so far without being there," he says. And he wasn't about to move from his home town.

Today, he says, "I just want to play with the customers." In business terms, that translates to going in a few days a week and meeting everyone he can in the fast-growing area of about 45,000.

He's signed up for a minimum of three units, but for now is content to work out the kinks at his five-month-old facility, build the adjacent car wash, and shop patiently for that "Main on Main" location for his next site.

"I want to be comfortable with the first one, get the car wash up and running, and understand the dynamics of the ramp-up time. We haven't gotten there yet," he says. "Once I understand that the next ones will be easier."

Published: March 13th, 2008

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