Express Lube greases up one last time
Located in the CountrySide neighborhood in Sterling and a mainstay for nearly a decade, the shop will be closed for business Sept. 6, owner Patricia Wirth has announced.
To some, Wirth may seem like an unlikely business owner. Growing up in New Jersey and later moving to Pennsylvania, Wirth came to Virginia in 1974. She spent 20 years as a paralegal, working on topics ranging from corporate law to immigration law.
By her accounts, Wirth's foray into business came by happenstance 30 years ago. He husband, currently a CPA and COO with a company in Washington D.C., was involved with Jiffy Lube. As a result, Wirth elected to become a franchisee of a Jiffy Lube operation.
“I've always had a hankering to have my own business and be an entrepreneur,” Wirth said.
She eventually sold the Jiffy Lube and worked for a spell as a Jiffy Lube general manager in another area. But her calling to ownership came again and in 1997, Wirth opened the CountrySide shop, then a licensed facility called Texaco Express Lube.
“I was looking into getting into a completely different industry but I always loved the fast lube industry,” Wirth said. “So rather than get into a completely different business I made the decision to open this store.”
In the early 2000s, the oil industry underwent a series of mergers and acquisitions, with Texaco in 2001 merging with Chevron. According to Wirth, Chevron slowly started getting rid of the Texaco name, forcing her to make a difficult decision: find a new national chain to affiliate with or go independent.
Wirth chose the latter.
“It would have been hard to try to break in without that background but I had quite a few years under my belt so I felt very comfortable in becoming an independent,” Wirth said. “But it was still a very scary decision. I've never regretted it, though. It was the right decision.”
For years, the business was extremely successful; the Potomac Express had a regular and steady flow of clientele.
But Wirth said she noticed a change with the recession.
“Our industry has been evolving because of impact from a lot of other things going on that we don't have any control over,” Wirth said. “There's a laundry list of examples.”
Wirth said with gas prices increasing in the last several years, she's been able to count the decrease in cars. The closing of the Borders store nearby also contributed to a 7 percent decrease in clientele.
But the bigger problem, Wirth said, is too many companies fighting over the same cars. Not only are more dealerships providing preventative maintenance, but more businesses are open than 16 years ago.
“What we have here now is complete market saturation in this area for automotive services,” Wirth lamented.
Wirth said the Potomac Express Lube still had positive cash flow but it was much more of a struggle. She considered expanding the business model beyond just preventative maintenance and light repairs to include more services, but ultimately was discouraged by high costs.
“We hit a threshold where if we were going to stay in business, we were going to have to make a huge investment in infrastructure and technology. We're talking a $150,000 to $200,000 investment,” Wirth said. “If I was 50, I may have done that. It just seemed like the timing was right.”
Wirth said the main thing she's going to miss is her involvement in the community, pointing to numerous youth sports teams photos, blood drive events and fundraisers.
“I've been able to use the business as a platform to serve the community,” Wirth explained.
But Wirth assures that she's not retiring and has no plans to simply “putter around my garden.”
“This opportunity came around and I took,” Wirth said. “I'm sure when the dust settles, and it will settle, there will be some other endeavor.”