Blog: Changing Lives In Montana

Seamus Heaney once remarked that “the poet is on the side of undeceiving the world.” So too the documentary photographer. Images should speak for themselves, and yet context is sometimes needed to inform the viewer with the documentarian’s starting point of view. This is the beginning of one such story.

It’s based both on 40 years of actual results in Billings, Montana and my own 40 years of venture investing. I’ve been working on it since Spring of 2022. It's a work in progress. Here’s the background.

Look around and see that the number of entry level jobs going begging is quite large. McDonald’s digital signs now advertise for immediate interviews, signing bonuses and paid time off rather than Big Macs, as one example.

And, of course, that’s simply the result of math. If workers wages need to rise to manage product demand, then as long as they rise slightly less than the ability to increase price, things are ok. And when demand falls, layoffs follow.

Businesses who feel they can will almost universally build screening methods that eliminate applicants who are unappealing. We have lots of law around the idea of hiring discrimination, but with the advent of detailed applications, personality tests, references, and background screening of all sorts, the unappealing person can easily enough be eliminated.

When those who do get hired make it to the workplace, their performance is measured by a manager whose own motives and work environment will dictate their reaction to the employee’s tenure. The actual requirements of the work and the education on the job to succeed can be variable and subject to a manager’s view.

Many a manager has a horizontal organizational view, especially in the entry level workplace. Down and up.

“We hire slow and fire fast,” said an executive in a meeting I was in this week.

In many situations, employees may be treated “well” if they are “good workers” but dismissed quickly otherwise.

I have thought this way for a long time. We offer fair, better than average wages, a good environment, reasonably competitive benefits, and an understanding that absent (provable) discriminatory practices, we’re all even at the end of the month.

Companies recognize, of course, that these entry-level employees will move on to advance their careers or achieve their other life goals, at some point. They're not going to be packing boxes, flipping hamburgers or making coffee forever.

The usual goal becomes to fore-stay the inevitable, manage turnover by keeping the application pipeline full, and try to keep wage costs in line.

This inherent tension is built into the system and while not uncontroversial in the US, it’s pretty much business as usual. Employees and employers both expect these are the rules. You can quit and we can fire you. But if you're good at your job, we’ll try and keep you for as long as we can, even though that may not be the best thing for you and your life. But that’s entirely in the employees hands. In these jobs it can be a deceiving allure especially if the employee has never had the advantage of being able to talk, think or dream about their goals for life.

Here’s an alternative that works profitably.

Create a job application that’s contact information, desired wage, a paragraph about your greatest achievement, and a check box of career goals that the company will help you achieve.

An upfront promise to deliver on coaching, career planning, and help reaching life goals. This training program is supported by a full time staff of trainers and life coaches whose goal is to get the team member to leave within 36 months to move on to their next career goal.

No references, background checks, or testing.

A team to work with who are unremittingly focused on self-reinforcing customer service and each other.

Good benefits.

Guaranteed post employment support if needed to find that next job.

So how can this possibly work? It sounds pretty costly and burdensome. How do they get the work done and do this too?

Bill Simmons, who lives in Billings, Montana, owns a small group of oil change stores, called “MasterLube.” More than 40 years ago, he realized that the people working at his one and only oil change shop had ambitions, talents and drive – but they were changing oil for a living. And they would never get to their potential if they kept doing that. So he devised a plan to do something meaningful for them. It turned out that it made his oil change business prosper as well.

In his own words, he created a "principle centered service business” that he describes like this:

“MasterLube is a principle centered service business that recruits people into a temporary workplace experience of extraordinary vision, discipline, and excellence in which they are encouraged to discover their own extraordinary capabilities and then trained, energized, and eventually launched into the specific direction of their greatest potential.”

In practical terms, that extraordinary vision, discipline and excellence has translated into about a 45% higher productivity rate than the oil change company average. By holding wage costs to the same % of revenue as the industry, the company generates significantly more cash to use to support this career development.

It’s not miraculous. People come from diverse backgrounds and incredulity has to be overcome. Managers have to be centered on the ultimate goal for every employee. Turnover still has to be managed, though the concept makes it more predictable. And career advancement has to include significant community networking with future employers who are eager for these high quality people.

He has 100% turnover every thirty-six months because he doesn’t let people stay any longer than that. His goal is to get each of them promoted – and then stay in touch as they continue their journey to their goals.

If it falters, costs stay the same, turnover increases, productivity falls and the company could have real difficulties. That’s probably what scares a lot of other companies who’ve seen this model. So staying the course is critical.

So far, 40 years and counting, customers keep coming back. 40% of all the cars within 5 miles are customers, and 20% of all of Yellowstone county.

Stories are everywhere. The team worker who drove forty miles after work to check on a customer’s car who’d been in earlier that day and called with an engine light on. The ICU nurse who started at MasterLube. The director of Indian Affairs for the State of Montana, the same,

Bill proudly displays a “where are they now” gallery in each of his now five Montana locations that proudly track the history of his past employees.

I’ve probably rattled on too much here for the sake of context. Here, see for yourself:

Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube
Billings, Masterlube, Nicolas Walkerb
pit edit
Billings, Masterlube, Te Amo Staudinger
Billings, Masterlube, simmons* alumni
Posted in MasterLube.