This story is the first of two parts.
COLUMBUS, Ga.—It is said that great things can start with just a spark—and so it is with "Changing Oil, Changing Lives."
The fundraising event started out as a simple solution to a conundrum about which charity—or charities—Epperly Tire & Auto Centers should support. From its humble roots, Changing Oil, Changing Lives could now go nationwide.
About three years ago Epperly Tire Owner David Epperly faced a dilemma that many dealers have: How to choose a worthy local charity to support among the dozens in the community. His idea: Why not support them all? Thus was born the Changing Oil, Changing Lives program.
About each month, the dealership selects a charity to receive a day's worth of oil change proceeds. It chose the third Wednesday of the month, because it is the slowest, and promotes the charity fundraiser on its signage. The selected charity of the month also is expected to promote the event among its supporters to draw in more customers, and thus, more donations.
With an oil change averaging about $37, a Changing Oil, Changing Lives event can generate about $1,500, on average, for the charity. The side benefit of the program is that some of those charities' appreciative supporters have returned for other services.
Mr. Epperly said the program definitely helped his business by bringing in new customers, but he was quick to add, "Of course, we don't do it for that. But the residual is you wind up with customers that come in and say, 'I'm part of this particular organization' or 'I support this particular organization. And we came out last month for your charity event, and we're here to support you.' You hear it over and over again from customers."
"I think what it is, too, is people see the heart behind it and they relate to it and they want to give someone who is giving back to the community, as well," added his daughter, Lindsey Epperly, who is the dealership's marketing coordinator and oversees the promotion of the events. "Especially if it's a charity that's near and dear to them, I think they are more likely to show their support to someone that is showing their support for that charity."
The dealership has hosted events for all types of local charities, from the local chapters of the Alzheimer's Association and Ronald McDonald House to a pet rescue group.
Recently the Epperly Tire idea caught the attention of its parts supplier, Mighty Auto Parts, which bestowed on Mr. Epperly its inaugural "Mightiest of the Mighty" award for volunteerism and charitable work.
The distributor liked Mr. Epperly's idea so much that it has become a participating sponsor of the newly registered Changing Oil, Changing Lives non-profit program. Mighty also decided to spearhead a nationwide test rollout of the program for its dealership customers who are interested in running events in their own markets.
Mr. Epperly said he literally woke up one day with the idea in his head.
He founded Epperly Tires in 2009 after operating for 20 years a multi-outlet Tire Pros dealership with a partner. The Goodyear tire dealership has grown to three stores in Columbus and a fourth is set to open nearby, across the state line in Alabama. So back in mid-2011, with his dealership expanding in the community, he said he wanted to help a local charity, in addition to supporting the local schools and Boy Scouts.
"I had met with my marketing team and we talked about several charities. I think when a business gets to a point their community has made them successful, then it's time to start giving back, and so that's the kind of conversation that we had. And we tried to come up with one particular charity and I liked all of them. It was a tough decision to come up with one charity because I don't have personal ties to any one of them like some people do,..." Mr. Epperly said.
"I guess I dreamt about it.... It's kind of a funny story. I woke up one morning and I told my wife and daughter, 'You know, I think I got a way to give to all of them. And this way we can sponsor a charity per month, and I don't have to pick a particular charity to give to,'" he said.
"The reason we do it on the slowest day is so that we can do more oil changes for the charity. If we did it on one of our Saturdays, we'd be limited on how many oil changes we could actually take in," he said.
"So if the charity goes out and promotes it within their organization, then we have time for extra customers to come in and get their oil changed,..." Mr. Epperly said. "If (the charities) don't promote it correctly or we don't promote it correctly, then that can be a slow day, too. We can end up giving them a check for $1,000 or $3,000 (depending on how many customers the charity brings in.)
"We always promote (the event) to our customers and fans, but not everyone is going to get an oil change once a month," Ms. Epperly said. "But if a charity is promoting it to their supporters and their volunteers and people that are involved with them, then they reach a larger audience that are able to come in, and hold off until it's their day to get an oil change. We found that works really well when they go out and promote it, too."
The dealership conducts an interview process to confirm the legitimacy of the local charity and verify what the funds will be used for and whom they will benefit. Sometimes the charities approach the dealership, and sometimes Ms. Epperly approaches them.
The dealership sets up tables at each of the three stores, and the charity's volunteers will staff the tables and interact with the customers who come in.
Epperly Tires found that the charities benefit from this personal contact in the stores, as opposed to just having brochures sitting on a table. The customers can see the passion of the volunteers and talk to them about the local activities of the charity and learn more about their cause, Ms. Epperly said.
"One, people learn more about their charity and, two, we've even had people that weren't getting an oil change that would just come up and say, 'What's the price of an oil change? I want to donate to this charity.'"
During one event, the dealership hosted an animal rescue group that brought a few puppies to the stores and ended up coordinating some adoptions. "People would come in for an oil change and have no idea they would be walking away with a dog," Ms. Epperly joked.
And, she added, "We really found that the staff and employees really look forward to it. We have these sandwich boards and every month they write on it what the next charity is coming up.
"They get into it and some will draw pictures on the board and do the logos. We found they really, really enjoy it. It's kind of a way to raise morale, as well. It brings out something good for them and they feel good about it," Ms. Epperly said.
For more information, visit http://epperlytire.com/changing-oil-changing-lives or contact Mr. Epperly at [email protected]
In the second part of this story—in the Nov. 11 print issue of Tire Business—a Mighty Auto Parts executive provides reasons why the company decided to do a test rollout of the "Changing Oil, Changing Lives" program.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127.