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Steve Sanner: “Be thorough in your process”

Share the tent and the credit. The group being led must buy into the vision or the big idea will fail to achieve its potential. This requires thought leaders to work hard to build consensus, create excitement, and push the process beyond all of the inevitable challenges that arise. The more people helping to push […]

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Share the tent and the credit. The group being led must buy into the vision or the big idea will fail to achieve its potential. This requires thought leaders to work hard to build consensus, create excitement, and push the process beyond all of the inevitable challenges that arise. The more people helping to push and the more people who become invested in the result, the better any great vision or idea has of actually being transformative.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Steve Sanner, CEO and Owner of Jiffy Lube of Indiana, operating over 49 locations in the Indianapolis area and around the state of Indiana.

As one of the largest systems of franchised service centers in the industry, Jiffy Lube of Indiana employs nearly 400 Hoosiers and offers all employees and team members the opportunity to pursue a better life. The company’s award-winning “Growing People Through Work” program represents its ongoing commitment to employees and their families by teaching life skills, financial literacy, healthy eating habits, and more. From offering loans for first time home buyers, to health and wellness seminars, Jiffy Lube of Indiana prides themselves on helping their employees reach their highest potential.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Igraduated from Penn State in 1983 with an entrepreneurial mindset and passion. I moved to Fort Lauderdale and partnered with some friends to start a wholesale distribution business called Exclusive Gourmet Foods, Inc. We were much better at generating sales than we were at generating profits, so after 2 years, we merged with another company and I started looking for a new endeavor. An old friend of the family approached me about a potential business he was considering investing in — a company called Jiffy Lube. Having changed my own oil once — incorrectly, I might add — I was hesitant to jump on board. He explained the opportunity and gave me two weeks to decide — I waited until the last day before gaining the courage to make the jump. At age 25, I headed to Indianapolis all by myself to build and operate a chain of Jiffy Lubes. The nearest person I knew to Indiana lived in Pittsburgh, so I really started from scratch in a region where many of the civic leaders went to grade school together. I started making friends and building relationships everywhere I could, met my wife, had 4 wonderful children and have built a very nice life.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I’m not sure what makes anyone an “authority”, although it ultimately has to do with the results one has achieved. If I am an authority, it is because I have been able to combine my life experience with outside-the-box, “devil’s advocate” challenging of the status quo, in order to achieve success in our field. We had some very tough early years in this business, being outnumbered and outspent by great competitors, then surviving the banking crisis, and now working to rebound strongly from the Covid-19 virus. The challenges we have faced have honed our skills and hardened our resolve. I’ve learned a lot from all the mistakes I made along the way. I have had the true luxury of being surrounded by great people who handle the day to day minutia very well, which has allowed me to invest more time in identifying opportunities and attacking them with innovative ideas and creative problem-solving tenacity. Being a thought leader requires you to understand the right questions to ask and to create a work environment in which people feel comfortable sharing their problems and their own ideas for how to solve them. People don’t naturally tell their boss about the things that are NOT going well, at work or at home. Learning to ask those questions, actively listen to the answers, and then work with the person to figure out the best ways to move forward builds the kind of honest, open communication that allows thought leaders to help businesses thrive. Many great ideas come from listening to the experiences of those on the front lines. Adding context to those ideas, flushing them out fully, and working to develop solutions that utilize those ideas can make a leader look like an authority. But many of the most effective thought leaders understand that the best thoughts don’t often come from within.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

We have had so many interesting things happen over the years, but one memory I will hold forever involves the single worst day of my business career. It’s seldom good news when the phone rings at 3:00 am, and December 7, 1995, was no exception. Our newly promoted District Manager for northwest Indiana called to let me know that a wonderful, 19-year-old young man, who he had just trained to take his place as Store Manager at our Michigan City store, had been found shot and killed while sitting at his desk in the store. I rolled over, looked at my wife and said, “How do we handle a murder?” We decided to keep our entire crew away from the store and I woke two of our top people up and asked them to immediately make the 2-hour drive to the store, assess the situation, clean up the office area and share their ideas for how to move forward. I gathered a handful of other leaders and we arrived the next evening to scrub and repaint the entire store to get a fresh start. I talked to community leaders about their needs and then met with the parents to discuss the opportunity for us to raise money in their son’s name and have a new theater in the local Children’s Museum named after Jon Jones. This turned into a wonderful project, as we raised more than enough money and Jon’s family helped build and paint the theater. It was a cathartic experience for all of us. Jon’s memory has never faded (even though the Museum shut down a few years ago). The District Manager who called me that night is now one of our partners and has been a key leader and father figure to all who have followed him.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There was a moment during our toughest years when we had some outside investors show some interest in funding our growth. We had never wanted to dilute our holdings, but we were a bit desperate and decided to have them fly in so we could show them around. We had 5 stores in Fort Wayne at the time, which is 2 hours from my home in Indy. I had obviously spent plenty of time at the stores, but I never really considered that I always visited them in the same order. Picking the potential investors up at the airport meant visiting the stores in a different order. This was long before Google Maps, and I literally got lost three different times while driving these guys to the stores that I was supposed to know inside and out. Twice I had to make U-turns and once I drove down a dead-end street. The lesson is that some things are just not meant to be. I never heard from those guys again, but I am thrilled with how things have turned out without their funding.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is more of a visionary than an operator. Thought leaders gather exhaustive amounts of information to help them develop big ideas and innovative approaches to solving problems. Of course, to be effective, a thought leader has to surround himself or herself with people who can lead and execute the vision. Otherwise, they risk becoming “big talk, little do”, which makes a thought leader very easy to ignore, even ridicule, and then leads to failure, even if the ideas were valid. Thought leaders exist more in the macro world, while typical leaders need to be more focused on micro-level functions to perform processes and achieve shorter-term results. I view influencers as more manipulative, like snake oil salesmen and carnival barkers. They are wannabes, unable to provide true thought leadership and unwilling to dive in and do the focused, driven work of typical leaders.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

It is a luxury to be able to have the time to gather the research and do the deep diving required to become an effective thought leader. I love the challenge of looking into the future and working to see what challenges and opportunities may be heading our way. In our industry, there are several associations and some franchisors who provide thought leadership. For many typical leaders, that is enough. They want or need, to be in the trenches and they enjoy executing their required tasks every day. My enjoyment comes from working to view business from different angles and to question the status quo, which leads to questions like, “Could Jiffy Lube buildings ever become canvasses for public art?” and “How would embracing the local Arts community help us reach our goals for the business?” At times, being a thought leader has yielded great results. At other times, it has wasted both time and money. But, at the end of the day, if we aren’t pushing forward in new and innovative ways, we will never reach our full potential.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Specifics on our business benefitting from solid thought leadership — — As our business grew and prospered, it allowed me time to do more in the realm of thought leadership. My initial vision was that we needed to make Jiffy Lube cool enough that consumers would ignore competitor coupons and offers because they supporting Jiffy Lube meant helping change our community, not just their our. We listed all of the things that made us special but soon realized that most other competitors could make a similar list, as oil changes are a bit of a commodity, without much emotional appeal. Sure, we knew we executed better than others, that we were faster, used higher quality products, added extras like vacuuming and free refills between services…….. but we also realized those things alone were not enough. We decided that consumers to really trust us, they just needed to get to know us and to understand what our goals were. We started by expanding our Growing People Through Work program to let consumers know that everyone they see working at a Jiffy Lube is on a personal path to improve their lives. Teaching financial literacy classes, providing short term, interest-free emergency loans, offering tuition reimbursement and first time home buyer programs, as well as consistent drug testing, encouraging our people to coach youth sports teams or give back to the community in other ways, all of which we promoted on social media and in-store visuals, began to humanize our team members and helped them connect more personally with our customers. We then began the “Every Part Matters” Mural project, paying real artists, real money to turn the walls of our buildings into works of art for the community to appreciate and enjoy. These two initiatives have changed how Jiffy Lube is viewed and have allowed our stores to outperform the bulk of the industry over the past 8 years.

In general, thought leadership should help a business identify trends, risks and opportunities. It can be used periodically to set direction and establish macro-level vision and mission messaging. It can also be used frequently to assess performance and adjust as required.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Be thorough in your process. Every idea has pros, cons and potential unintended consequences. If you don’t fully grasp all of those areas, your end result will not be effective. For example, we started a minority entrepreneurship program in which we sold one of our stores to a minority couple. Corporate Jiffy Lube, our oil distributor and I all agreed to mentor and assist this couple, but we just didn’t have the right structure in place to do that, they had their own ideas, we had other priorities tugging at us, and what started as a potentially game-changing idea fell apart and ended badly for everyone.
  2. Be authentic. My team knows who I am and what my priorities are. They understand that I view every issue through the lens of what is best for our customers. If I ever waver from that, I will lose credibility and our vision will suffer.
  3. Be a Devil’s Advocate. It is essential for any thought leader to challenge every step of their own process. There have been many ideas that sounded fantastic until I started asking tough questions and soliciting feedback from others. Few, if any, transformational ideas ever take hold without serious vetting.
  4. Know your audience. To transform our industry requires us to relate to blue-collar, hard-working, tough-minded auto workers. That requires us to speak and act differently than we would in a corporate boardroom full of Ivy Leaguers.
  5. Share the tent and the credit. The group being led must buy into the vision or the big idea will fail to achieve its potential. This requires thought leaders to work hard to build consensus, create excitement, and push the process beyond all of the inevitable challenges that arise. The more people helping to push and the more people who become invested in the result, the better any great vision or idea has of actually being transformative.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Muneeb Ali is doing an amazing job with BlockStack in taking on the most powerful forces in the information technology world to make the internet a better place for all. Muneeb is humble yet brilliant and has made incredible inroads toward overcoming significant challenges. Muneeb’s fearlessness is an important attribute of any thought leader.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I agree with that. It takes humility to be a truly effective thought leader, and this terminology certainly doesn’t make you sound very humble.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

You have to enjoy the process while understanding that most big ideas will fail. Thought leadership is like drilling for oil or mining for gold. There is a lot you can do to improve your chances of developing an idea that becomes truly transformative, but you are likely to fail often along the way. As Thomas Edison explained, “Every time I failed to make a light bulb it got me closer to making a light bulb that worked.” He failed 6,000 times before he succeeded. You have to accept that reality so that any feelings of burnout are countered by the thought of getting closer to the result you need.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We need to encourage our young people to choose a better path that will change the future for them, and for our society. When you look at issues such as generational poverty, criminal justice, the unskilled workforce and the breakdown of the family, the most common denominator stems from unprepared parenting. I would love to see us find a way to encourage both women and men to postpone starting families until they are positioned better for success. This extra time would allow them to get educated, get a job, save some money, have some fun, travel, find a life partner and THEN start a family. Choices have consequences and the proper role of government is to encourage good choices and discourage bad choices.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Find A Way To Say YES!!! This will be inscribed on my tombstone as it has served me well. The right answer to opportunities is often NO, but everyone should start by working to say YES. Plus, when people know that you are someone will work to say YES, they will keep providing you with additional opportunities. I have a real problem with people who say NO quickly.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to grab a bite with Dominic Kalms, the thought-leading founder of GVNG. From what I understand, Kalms is revolutionizing the world of philanthropy in ways that could make social impact investing accessible to the masses.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/JiffyLubeIndy/
https://twitter.com/jiffylubeindy?lang=en
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