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Steve Sanner, President of Jiffy Lube of Indiana: “To create a fantastic work culture, you should pro-actively problem solve with an Open Door Policy”

…Proactive problem solving with an Open Door Policy. We encourage everyone in management to have regular, one-on-one meetings with people two levels below them. A District Manager will meet with hourly associates. Our C.O.O. meets with the store managers. I meet with the District Managers. The point of this is to reduce the miscommunication or […]


…Proactive problem solving with an Open Door Policy. We encourage everyone in management to have regular, one-on-one meetings with people two levels below them. A District Manager will meet with hourly associates. Our C.O.O. meets with the store managers. I meet with the District Managers. The point of this is to reduce the miscommunication or lack of communication as we go up and down the ladder of responsibility in the company. The days of following a strict chain of command aren’t working like they used to. We have to reach beyond our direct reports, which helps us see issues as they begin to fester, when there is still time to correct them. Setting the culture that we EXPECT our people to communicate with us any time they are upset or struggling has helped us reduce turnover and made our folks feel empowered.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Sanner, President and Owner of Jiffy Lube of Indiana. Sanner has been the President of Hoosier Automotive Group since 1985. He currently leads 48 Jiffy Lube stores, four MightyAuto Parts franchises, six Tuffy Auto Repair shops and an award-winning Growing People through Work program. In addition to technical training, Jiffy Lube also provides life skills development such as credit counseling and financial management education through our unique training program. Steve is a father to four children and serves as the Vice Chair for the Indiana Sports Corp. He and his wife Jennifer live in Indianapolis.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I graduated from Penn State in 1983, I espoused the theory that, “If you have a brain, you can make a good living anywhere, so why not start somewhere beautiful?” This caused me to join a couple friends in Fort Lauderdale and start a company called “Exclusive Gourmet Foods, Inc,” which specialized in frozen foods. A longtime family friend became a mentor as we worked to make the business grow. After two years, we decided to merge with another wholesaler and I decided to move on.

My mentor then approached me about a business he was considering investing in, a company called Jiffy Lube. I told him I had changed my own oil once and the filter had fallen off. He explained the opportunity and gave me two weeks to decide. The Florida rights were already sold, as were the rights to my hometown of Philadelphia. The best opportunity was in Indiana. The nearest person I knew to Indiana lived in Pittsburgh. I waited until the last day before summoning the courage to take the leap. At the age of 25, I packed up my old Subaru wagon and headed to Indianapolis with the goal of building 100 Jiffy Lubes.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

While we were looking for our first few locations in Indianapolis, we got a call from the owner of a nine-store chain called “10 Minute Oil Change” based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They had been negotiating to sell their stores to Valvoline, but the deal had become a little murky. He reached out to us with a challenge: “If you guys can get me $1,000,000 by Friday, you can steal this deal from Valvoline.” We called Bill Whelcher, the President of Pennzoil, and explained the opportunity. He simply asked, “How long will it take you to pay me back?” We told him to give us 90 days to get bank financing in place. He then sent his private jet from Houston to Fort Wayne with a check for $1,000,000. We signed nothing. We had never even met Mr. Whelcher! We paid him back in 75 days.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have some very exciting initiatives underway right now. We are really focusing on what we want our legacy to be. We laugh that we hope we weren’t put on this planet just to make sure that cars in Indiana are properly lubricated. The two programs I am most proud about right now are our “Growing People Through Work” initiative and our “Every Part Matters” Public Art partnership.

The “Growing People Through Work” initiative is all about helping our employees and team members live better lives. We teach life skills, financial literacy, healthy eating habits, ways to set measurable goals and to develop positive attitudes.

Lonnie Hinkle, COO of Jiffy Lube of Indiana, is a living example of how the GPTW program can change lives. He started at Jiffy Lube with a part-time job vacuuming cars, moving up through the ranks to become manager and eventually COO and company partner. He credits Jiffy Lube with paying off his student loans, helping him buy his first home — and even helping him lose 125 pounds!

The award-winning program represents our deep commitment to helping improve the lives of our employees and their families. Some of the program highlights include:

  • $5,000 loans for managers who are first time home buyers to use as a down payment
  • Tuition reimbursement and college scholarships for employees’ children
  • Seminars with experts, designed to coach employees on financial literacy, health and wellness, and attitude/pride-in-work
  • A Jiffy Lube Cares Fund that has provided more than $250,000 in no-interest loans to employees for emergency situations

Another example: Derek Davis is a father of two boys, including a four-year-old with special needs. Derek and his fiancé had been searching for a second car, something that would be safe and reliable as they drove their son to therapy and other appointments. They knew it would be a big expense. Derek says the GPTW program helped him get the car his family needed and allowed him to finance it with no-interest installments from his paycheck. He says the coaching he received from the program even helped him afford Christmas presents for his boys.

Again, these are just a few examples. You don’t always hear about resources like this, especially in the auto maintenance industry, but these personal stories are inspiring, not only for employees, but hopefully for other business leaders out there.

The “Every Part Matters” Public Art partnership is all about embracing our local arts community by commissioning artists to paint murals on the sides of our buildings. We currently have nine murals finished, with five more coming by the summer.

“Every Part Matters” was created with a goal to embrace the arts and give back to the community. Most people wouldn’t expect to see public art at a place where you get your oil changed, but this project has transformed the exterior walls at nine Jiffy Lube buildings into beautiful, colorful displays. We recently selected five local artists to help expand this project in 2019.

Internally, we’ve been surprised to discover plenty of artistic talent amongst our own staff. Our employees are now showing off their talents through sketches, vehicle graphics and tattoo designs. We are planning museum tours and art classes designed to help our people further develop their artistic skills Overall, it’s an exciting time to be part of a project like this, as it takes on a life of its own, positively impacting our business, improving our communities and exciting our people

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I am always disappointed reading stats like that. I’m an old school guy who believes 10% of life is what happens to you and 90% of life is how you deal with it. One of my best friends just passed away after battling ALS for 19 incredible years. He never whined and never viewed himself as a victim. His mantra was “It is what it is. We deal with it.” Not simply “it is what it is,” as that is defeatist and victimizing. By adding “We deal with it,” it becomes empowering. Too many people seem to think it is normal to be unhappy. My guess is that this stems from a devilish concoction of social media, divisive politics and the breakdown of the American family. Whatever is causing it requires a “snap out of it” slap across the collective face of America. This is a great country, full of great people from amazingly rich and diverse cultures that we should be celebrating. The American Dream is alive and well.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Unhappy workers are a cancer on the entire company. Everyone has a choice to make every single day. You can choose to do a good job. The more often you choose to be great, the “luckier” your co-workers will think you are, but it has NOTHING to do with luck. As the owner, my job is to pay attention to the choices our folks make every day and to reward those who consistently choose to be great.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Clear communication and agreement on what doing a great job looks like. We call ourselves “a budget-driven company.” Every week and every month, we have budgets that can earn our team members bonus dollars when achieved. If you’re not hitting budgets, you cannot kid yourself into believing you are doing a good job. Results matter. As Yoda once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
  2. Great performances should earn special considerations. Being open 72 hours a week, there are a lot of ways for our employees to get their 40 hours every week. It makes it possible to give someone up to six days off in a row without using any vacation time. We can give three and four day weekends. We can use the flexibility of our scheduling to reward those who are performing at the highest levels for us. This makes the top performers appreciative, while also providing incentives for everyone to step up their own performance.
  3. Pay attention to what is happening outside of work. While the job duties never change, the amount of stress our people are carrying impacts their ability to do the job well. We can’t lower our expectations, but we can help alleviate stress. Our “Jiffy Lube Cares” program provides interest free loans to anyone in need. We fund the program with voluntary donations from our staff. Since we began this program in 2014, we have donated nearly $35,000 into the fund and we just passed the $250,000 mark in loans given out to our people. We have had a handful of bad debts, but hundreds of loans have been paid back in full, allowing us to loan the money out again to the next person in need. We have also provided “grants” from this fund that did not need to be repaid, in one case covering the cost for the funeral of the nine year old son of an assistant manager who died of the flu. Our people LOVE the way this program demonstrates how much we care about each other.
  4. Proactive problem solving with an Open Door Policy. We encourage everyone in management to have regular, one-on-one meetings with people two levels below them. A District Manager will meet with hourly associates. Our C.O.O. meets with the store managers. I meet with the District Managers. The point of this is to reduce the miscommunication or lack of communication as we go up and down the ladder of responsibility in the company. The days of following a strict chain of command aren’t working like they used to. We have to reach beyond our direct reports, which helps us see issues as they begin to fester, when there is still time to correct them. Setting the culture that we EXPECT our people to communicate with us any time they are upset or struggling has helped us reduce turnover and made our folks feel empowered.
  5. Have fun making money. This is one of our founding principles. While no job is fun all the time, our mission is to enjoy ourselves at work. We provide necessary services to keep people away from expensive repairs. Our “guests” are usually in a decent frame of mind when they arrive and it shouldn’t be hard to keep them that way. Quick, convenient, pleasant and professional. A lot of funny things happen at a Jiffy Lube, starting with the long list of animals, dead and alive, that we see when we raise the hood of a car. Cats, rats, snakes and raccoons are the most common. Sharing these stories creates a fun atmosphere of camaraderie, while maintaining our focus on the business side.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Wow. Too tough a question for an oil changer! 😉 As a father of four highly educated and exceptional children, I worry about the nation’s lack of traditional work ethic. Some people look to change companies and positions for no reason other than wanting to try something different. But when I start to complain about a lack of loyalty, I realize that far too many workers have never seen loyalty. With sky high divorce rates, companies laying workers off, closing down, moving overseas, etc., concepts like loyalty, dedication, sacrifice, and delayed gratification are of little interest to too many members of the workforce today. I’m not sure how to correct that, but I think it might start with mandatory workfare of some sort. With all the advances in technology, there are ways for virtually all Americans to contribute in some kind of meaningful way. Minimum wages should be lowered for those under 18, with limited hours per week, to encourage employers to give kids a chance to learn how to work. At the same time, minimum wages should be raised for adults who need to be able to take care of themselves.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’m a tough love advocate with a softer, gentler side once I have made my point. I hate excuse-makers and I don’t listen to complaints unless they come with proposed solutions. I always have an open door and I love to brainstorm ways to improve our business and ourselves. I relish debate and disagreement, but once we make a decision on a direction to take, I have zero patience for second-guessing. It needs to be full steam ahead, everyone rowing in the same direction. I believe in the inherent goodness of people and in the reality that we’re all capable of far more than most of us will ever actually achieve. I judge myself, and everyone around me, by the results we produce, not by how hard we tried. And I will never give up.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My main partner, Jay Greenfield, has been a tremendous source of knowledge, perspective and support since 1985. We’re very different, as his training is in finance and mine is in marketing. We often disagree, but we talk through it and we find our way. I joke that without me, he would have failed, and that without him, I would have failed even faster!!! There could not be a better partner. Interestingly, Jay was not the mentor I described earlier. In fact, I did not even meet Jay before we were already partners. Jack Niggeman was our common bond. Jack was my mentor in Florida and Jack was a partner with Jay in several entities in Philadelphia before they decided to buy a Jiffy Lube franchise, with me moving to Indianapolis to run it. I first met Jay when he was in Indiana to look at potential sites with our original banker. We decided to pretend that we knew each other well that day. We still laugh about that.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope that our Growing People Through Work program will be our lasting legacy (see details above). I’m passionate about wanting everyone who works at Jiffy Lube to strive hard to reach their full potential. I want them to all be better because of the time they spend with us. We tell our people that the three most important skills they will learn at Jiffy Lube have nothing to do with cars. Show up on time. Follow the rules. Work well with others. If they master these three things, the sky is the limit for them. We also talk about being proud of yourself, to do the right thing when no one is watching and to go to bed every night knowing you took a few more steps down the right path. As those lessons seep through to our people, the world, or at least THEIR world — it all gets a little brighter.

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

My tombstone will include my guiding principle in life — “Find A Way To Say YES!!!” When you make it known that you will work very hard to find a way to say yes, doors open and good things happen. Both in business and in private life, being committed to saying yes whenever humanly possible has allowed me to live a life that I couldn’t have imagined when I graduated from high school 41 years ago. Even better, seeing how my children have adopted this mantra has made me proud. Sometimes the right answer is “no,” but that should never be the first answer.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

If I were king of the world, and I wanted to really shake things up, I would encourage everyone to avoid having children until they turned 30. Okay, at least 27. And by “encourage”, I mean maybe offering a cash bonus of $50k or something truly significant. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, but there is no doubt in my mind that we would all be better off if young men and women got themselves educated, got a job, saved some money, had some fun, did some traveling, found a potential life partner and only THEN began having children. I would never punish anyone who chose a different path, but I would certainly reward what I believe to be a better path, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Being a parent is hard enough when you are emotionally and financially stable and in a loving relationship. Unprepared parents can be drag on the nation, but even worse, they too often sacrifice their own potential for greatness.


About the Author:

Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges.

If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE

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