Meineke melds car care expertise with customer service excellence.
If you’re trying to find your grandfather’s repair shop, Daniel Rivera has directions.
In fact, the newly-installed president of Meineke Car Care Centers revels in the progress made since the early days in Houston, where the brand’s namesake – Sam Meineke – began his operation with a single store, a single product line and a simple, authentic business concept: Provide quality products and workmanship at a fair price and fix folks’ vehicles correctly, the first time.
The business plan remains intact 44 years later, though nearly everything else has changed.
“It started very much in exhaust, above 90 percent of the business,” Rivera said. “Back in those days, exhaust was made out of aluminum, it rusted, cars needed to have it fixed fairly frequently, or let’s just say a lot more frequently than today. So that was the business, you could open up a two- to four-bay shop, just hang exhaust all day long and there was plenty of work there.
“It was a very good business, a solid business and it grew pretty fast.”
Roots spread both from Meineke’s initial Houston operation and from the northeastern base established by a business partner in the New York/Philadelphia corridor. Even now, though the entire roster includes 928 locations in the United States and Canada – in addition to international shops in Mexico, Panama, China and through the Caribbean – clusters remain around the home bases.
Mexico is the biggest market outside the U.S. and Canada, with 21 locations.
And in today’s operations, Rivera said, exhaust is no longer a mainstay. The predominant lines of Meineke’s 2015 business are brakes, followed by fluid and filters (oil changes, etc.) and then by exhaust work, which was changed dramatically by the advent of corrosion-resistant stainless-steel mufflers and now comprises roughly 14 percent of total Meineke functions.
“Once that technology shift happened,” Rivera said, “you just don’t have exhaust rusting the way it did before and you have a pretty steep decline from that point forward. There’s still some work there, the work have shifted to catalytic converters and things like that, but it’s really the advent of stainless-steel mufflers that was the lynchpin for the decline.”
The company shifted its headquarters operation from Houston to Charlotte in the mid-1980s, and all domestic and international locations except one are now operated by franchisees.
That ratio reflects a distinct corporate mindset, Rivera said, that franchisees in a system are better served if the franchisor makes a clear choice about which operational path it plans to take.
“We just believe it’s a different business model and you kind of have to pick a business model and run with it,” he said. “There’s a certain infrastructure and a certain organizational readiness that it takes to run corporate stores. It’s not more or less difficult than franchising, it’s just different. We think that we’re very good franchisors. That’s kind of our bread and butter, so that’s what we stick to.”
Many franchise locations have been with the system for many years and are in their second generation of ownership, while others are new construction, so there’s no hard and fast size specifications across the system. Lobby sizes and interior colors are the most often varying elements from one to the next, but Rivera said the work done and guest services provided are uniform.
The roster-wide manual – called “The Meineke Way” – establishes standards on everything from the way arriving customers should be greeted to how to pursue follow-up appointments. And, because most Meineke locations are in traditional retail settings, Rivera said the other side of the corporate transformation has been aligning experiences with ones that typical 21st century consumers expect.
As it turns out, modern experiences warrant modern partnerships, too.
Meineke works with AutoNet TV to provide waiting-room programming to educate and entertain customers, while a deal with Chat 247 Live has resulted in both optimized lead capture on the company website, as well as a chat button which instantly links prospects with sales team members.
The Aftersoft Network’s VAST system has allowed franchisees to run reports and enhance efficiency in pricing, inventory control, employee compensation and sales trends.
Car maintenance tips from Chevron, the company’s leading oil provider, are included on the Meineke website as well. Also, Mudlick Mail is a provider of consumer information and direct mail marketing, while Full Slate is a go-to provider of online appointment scheduling functions.
“In 1972, it was a small location, very transactional business,” Rivera said. “We’re going to sell you a muffler, and that was basically it, and we’ll get you out as quickly as possible, for mutual reasons. Today’s business is very, very different. It’s not transactional. It’s about taking care of your car and keeping you on the road, so you can live your life. And to do that, it’s more than just a transaction.
“It’s car maintenance, it’s follow-up appointments for tires or brakes or oil, or for whatever it is. We’re trying to create an experience that lends itself to repeat business, something that a soccer mom would be comfortable with. It’s clean, it’s got coffee, maybe it’s got somewhere for the kids to play.”
The franchise offering has become a fixture on industry lists, including five consecutive appearances on Entrepreneur magazine’s Franchise 500, where it’s been slotted at Nos. 55, 53, 51, 52 and 53 from 2011 through 2015. It’s also been included each of the last four years on Franchise Direct’s compilation of America’s top global franchises, taking spots 48, 49, 54 and 76 from 2011 through 2014.
Financial requirements include a minimum net worth of $250,000 and $110,000 in available liquid cash. Total investment ranges from $173,450 to $452,405 and includes a $30,000 for a 15-year renewable agreement and an ongoing royalty fee between 3 and 8 percent. Thirty-five percent of all franchisees own multiple units and the typical number of employees per unit is five.
Ninety percent of current franchisees are owner/operators, and veterans can qualify for 50 percent off royalty fees for the first six months of an agreement.
“I think we’ve done a great job through the years of helping people understand that we’re really in the total car care business and we can take care of everything. We do it all,” Rivera said. “We’d like to grow the chain to bigger than it is today, for sure. I think there’s a lot of space in the United States and Canada where we can take care of a lot more customers and build great relationships.
“We really want to build a business that, especially in our industry – and I don’t think our industry does a stellar job of this — really is a customer-first business. People that know how to take care of customers, make them feel good, make them feel good about keeping their car on the road.
“And that will just naturally lead to more customers if we do it right.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Meineke Car Care Centers
WHAT: Franchise-based international automotive repair chain
WHERE: Corporate headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.