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A Jointly Owned Franchise Gives Two Pilots a Second Chance After John Grassia and David Smith lost their jobs as pilots, they bought an Express Oil Change franchise to supplement their incomes.

By Jason Daley

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Eastern airlines went bankrupt in the early 1990s, John Grassia and David Smith lost their jobs. The two pilots began flying for other carriers, dreaming of the day they could retire and ease out of the cockpit and into their La-Z-Boys. But over the following two decades, they watched as the airline industry struggled and their hopes for a decent pension evaporated.

That's when the two friends, who last flew for JetBlue, decided to buy an Express Oil Change franchise outside Orlando, Fla., to supplement their incomes. "This isn't just an airline problem; it cuts across the spectrum," Grassia says. "Because the economy hasn't recovered, many pensions have been severely cut back. Even with Social Security, you can't live on that. So you have to find something extra or never stop working. What Dave and I did was buy a franchise."

The flyboys, who opened their location in May, love the challenge so far. And the best part? The franchise still gives them time to fly. Both work as instructor pilots: Grassia at Airbus; Smith at Boeing. We caught up with the duo between takeoffs to ask a few questions.

Why choose an oil-change franchise?
Smith: There are several reasons we were attracted to Express Oil. The industry is changing. People are keeping their cars longer than 10 years, but dealerships are closing left and right. Thirteen years ago there were 160 service bays per car in the U.S. That has diminished. Three years ago it was up to 270 cars per service bay. So there's less and less availability for quick oil changes. And Express Oil is a very high-tech operation. Being from the airline industry, we have an affinity for tech.

How do you get along with your franchisor?
Grassia: Some companies sell you a franchise and then say, "Hope you make it." Express Oil wants you to be successful and is there through the whole process of construction and getting your store started. They are right there day to day, with an unbelievable amount of support. Their computer system lets you monitor the store from minute to minute, and if they see you slipping in an area, they'll step in and help you correct the problems. That's what impressed me. Plus, they're an honest company and want a long-term customer base.

How is running a franchise like flying an airliner?
Smith: In the airline industry, we made our living teaching Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs. One thing that impressed us about Express Oil was its rigid SOPs. It's a proven method of performance and reduces errors and mistakes.

Grassia: When we interview employees, we're looking for someone who can follow the SOPs to the letter. The selection process is critical in getting the right person in there to do that job. We don't want someone who goes through all that training and, when they're cut loose, does everything their own way.

What's the biggest difference between flying and franchising?
Grassia: We've always been employees, and now we're employers. It's an interesting challenge to deal with the ups and downs of employees and with customers. Our employees are not just order-takers. They are efficient and look professional, speak professionally and get a lot of satisfaction from serving customers well. We get e-mails all the time complimenting certain employees, and this gives them a lot of self-esteem.

Smith: There's a real satisfaction in knowing we are helping to support our employees' families and that we're helping a person be able to raise his children.

Do you think you'll ever stop flying?
Smith: To be honest, I don't think I'll ever retire from the airline business. I have enough flexibility being a part-timer and having our Express Oil that I can take time off if I want. If we could build a second or third store, that would be even better. Flying is in my blood.

Grassia: I'm that way, too. I'll always be involved with flying, even if I go part time. I started as an Air Force pilot. It's in my blood, and I can't live without it.

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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