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Thursday, Jan 14, 2021
Q and A with Thomas E Wolfe President and CEO of Ziebart
In this exclusive Q&A, we get to learn more about the vehicle appearance and protection services franchise, Ziebart from the brand’s president and CEO, Thomas E. Wolfe.
Franchise Chatter (FC): Can you please share a bit of background on the Ziebart concept – including its founding story and growth up to this point?
Thomas E. Wolfe (TW): Ziebart was founded in 1959, and has grown to be the worldwide leader in detailing, films and protection services, providing complete car care solutions. But, of course, it didn’t start out that way. Ziebart launched as a rust-proofing company, and as we continued to acquire customers our suite of services grew to meet their needs.
Now, Ziebart International Corporation operates over 400 locations, with 1,200 service centers, in 34 countries. As an established automotive enthusiast brand, we have been recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as a Top 500 Franchisor as well as a Top 200 Global Franchise.
Most recently, Ziebart has announced growth in Australia, and the first location is expected to open in Sydney by April 2021. The master agreement calls for continued, strategic growth to reach up to 20 locations throughout the country in the next 10 years.
Even after 60+ years in business, our mission is simple: we aim to provide every customer with that ‘new car’ feeling at an affordable and attainable cost – regardless of the car’s age. Many times, this is done by applying protective elements to the car, which not only helps maintain its appearance but lessens the overall wear and tear on the vehicle.
FC: What makes Ziebart an attractive business opportunity for potential franchisees?
TW: The automotive aftermarket industry is growing, both in recognition and sustainability. The sector is valued at 390 billion as of 2020, and continues to present opportunities to grow as a service company as a result of the tech, automation and adaptability of vehicles.
Ziebart is so much more than a business opportunity for people who love cars. We are a company who values supporting one another and our communities no matter what hardship comes our way. COVID has been tough on our operations, but it’s also shown us and all of our partners how resilient this team is and will continue to be.
In tough times, being a part of a franchise – something bigger than yourself, and a dedicated support team to fall back on – is what has kept many of our shops open worldwide. When one franchisee didn’t have the answer, they could turn to their network of owners, and one of them was bound to share advice that helped with the obstacle or task at hand.
We’ve been in the business for more than 60 years – much of our executive team having been with the brand for decades. For those who are joining our company because they support and admire our mission, there is a great opportunity to work alongside some of the most knowledgeable, respected and innovative minds in the industry. The mentorship and relationships that can be built speak for themselves.
On top of that, the franchisees draw an average unit volume of $1,222,000 and an average return on sales of 20%. Moving forward in light of the pandemic, safety and cleanliness have become even more important to consumers around the world, making the growth opportunity for our brand both necessary and exciting
FC: As an essential service provider, how has the pandemic affected Ziebart?
TW: As with most companies, our response in the wake of the pandemic was one that required quick feet and smart minds. In the height of the pandemic, we turned our attention and efforts toward utilizing our resources and skills to help those fighting on the frontlines.
Many of our locations offered a free wipe down of highly touched areas for all first responder vehicles. First responders could go to their local Ziebart store for an anti-bacterial wipe down on high traffic/touched areas such as door handles, steering wheels, etc. Over the first couple of months of the pandemic, Ziebart serviced more than 5,000 first responder vehicles.
Because of this service, we saw a significant increase in demand for our interior detailing services as vehicle owners began to recognize that their car was the ‘connector’ between their homes and essential places like grocery stores, work, etc., carrying germs in and out of all of these places. We were able to quickly receive confirmation from appropriate federal agencies that Ziebart’s Disinfecting Interior Detailing Service kills coronavirus, including COVID-19, plus 99% of all germs and bacteria.
As the second biggest life investment for many people, and a dependency for so many of life’s day-to-day duties, people want to make sure their vehicles are properly protected. Especially during an economic downturn, consumers are holding on to their vehicles longer, and therefore maintaining the appearance – an important factor in increasing its trade-in value when it comes time to sell.
As an added measure of safety for both our employees and our customers, we recommended contactless-service requirements systemwide. While intuitive, this just meant customers could drop off their cars outside the location, drop their keys in a box, and later pick up their cars without any direct contact with any Ziebart team members.
FC: You mentioned you operate on a ‘change or die mindset’ … how does that relate to your larger culture and how does it contribute to your ongoing success?
TW: When I joined Ziebart in the 1970s, it was a single-service rustproofing model, and we were doing just fine. Thriving, actually. But, after 20 years, we were seeing the industry change while we stood firm executing the service we knew best. At a 1990s company convention, I stood in front of our franchisees and put it all on the line. I said, “Ladies and gentleman, we have to change, or die!”
This is the motto I upheld as I transitioned into the role of president, and helped lead this company into new territory by becoming a multi-service solutions car care provider, boasting a lineup of market-leading appearance and protection services including detailing, paint protection and correction, window tinting, spray-on bed liners, windshield coating, undercoating and more.
What it comes down to is this: you have to be adaptable, fluid. Cars are changing, and customer needs are changing – rapidly. We have built a team that celebrates innovation and upholds that notion whenever a good idea comes around. We’re not a company that files a good idea away for later – because the moment it becomes common knowledge, or accepted, it’s too late. We strive to pioneer change in this industry, and that’s what has kept us comfortable throughout the pandemic and looking ahead to the unknown.
FC: How does Ziebart differentiate itself in the automotive aftermarket space?
TW: On a grandiose level, so many companies tell their employees that they will have the ability to rise in the ranks to a senior leadership level if they put in the work – but often don’t have the track record to prove it.
At Ziebart, every employee is truly treated like family – their ideas are respected, they are compensated well for the work they put in, and they are given opportunities to take on more responsibility should they seek it out. Heading into 2021, we have a year of significant internal milestones ahead – employees who have been with the company coming up on 40 years.
Employees who began at front-of-house as technicians and rust proofers now help manage our teams, or have become business owners themselves. We make it a pillar of our business model to celebrate these milestones and make sure our employees know how much we value and respect the tremendous amount of work they put into our company day-in and day-out to make it so successful.
We have built a business model that allows people to join our team executing a service position, hone their skill, discover their passion, and reach a senior level that is both challenging and rewarding to them simply by putting in the work and living and breathing our values.
FC: What qualities do you look for in a potential franchisee? Which territories are you currently seeking for growth and development?
TW: As a global business, we’re always looking for growth opportunities both domestically and abroad, but we place emphasis on growing through strategic partnerships with core value-oriented individuals. One perk is that Ziebart does not require previous automotive experience – our team has developed a robust training process that will make any individual comfortable with the industry and its many intricacies prior to their opening day.
Many times, our franchisees are people who have worked with Ziebart in the past as either a customer and employee and already have an understanding of the brand and a respect for the work that goes into the final product. Someone who is sales-oriented, interested in the automotive aftermarket industry, and has a desire to grow and lead a team will fit right in with the Ziebart family.
Heading into 2021, we have aggressive growth plans that we’re looking to set in motion. In the United States, we’re looking to grow in the Southwest in states like Texas and Arizona, and Southeast, specifically Florida and Georgia. Internationally, we are developing into Australia and the Netherlands in 2021, and beyond these countries we are looking to further develop our brand across Europe, Africa and Asia, including countries like China, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
FC: What is the typical investment to open a Ziebart franchise?
TW: The cost of opening a Ziebart franchise (franchise fee, plus overall investment costs) ranges from $297,800 to $469,100 with discounts available for Veterans.
FC: What type of support does Ziebart offer franchisees? Has that model been updated as a result of the pandemic?
TW: Ziebart has a built-in team whose biggest and only focus is helping new franchise owners every step of the way – from signing to standing by their side on opening day. From start to finish, it can take anywhere from three to six months to open your Ziebart franchise. Our most intensive, detailed and important part of the process is training – which is an eight-week long program tailored to the needs of each individual franchisee.
During the eight weeks, franchisees take instructional classes that teach them technical skills alongside professional sales and marketing tactics, and most importantly, in-store experience at a company-owned location. All the while, franchisees have a direct contact from Ziebart’s support staff should they have any question – no matter how big or small – and this support lasts long after opening day, as our company was founded on the principles of community and empathy.
Our training program has not changed much as a result of the pandemic, but from an operations standpoint, the company has improved communications methods in an effort to keep all our franchisees in the know, and lessen any fear surrounding COVID-19 and related procedures. Not only does it increase transparency, but it builds trust and autonomy – we provide the means to success and the franchisees know how to implement it for the betterment of their store and their community.
FC: Can you tell us more about your role with Ziebart?
TW: My career with Ziebart is a long one – I’ve been with the company for more than 40 years. My current role is to serve as the brand’s president and CEO. I started back in 1977 as the controller and worked my way up to the position of treasurer and a member of the board of directors in the mid-80s. In 1994, I led the employees to buy out all the previous owners using an ESOP (employee stock option program), meaning the employees own the company, which lends to an even greater pride in its success.
Now Ziebart has turned into somewhat of a family affair. My son, Thomas A. Wolfe, is a member of the executive leadership team here as a Senior Vice President, as well as my son Timothy R. Wolfe who is our Director of Treasury Services. It has been so fulfilling to have them by my side as we implement changes, diversify our offerings, and make the business stronger than it was the year before. To say it has been one of the joys of my life would be an understatement, and I look forward to seeing all the wonderful places this company will reach once I hand off the baton.