By Maria Jose Subiria
On a recent, clear and crisp Monday morning, James Renfroe, Jr., the owner of Express Oil Change and Service Center in Ellenwood, was overseeing his employees in the oil-change bay. A light honk was heard from a vehicle passing by on Panola Road.
The driver waived at Renfroe and his employees. Renfroe waved back, smiling.
"That was one of our customers," he said.
Renfroe said his Express Oil Change and Service Center, located at 1775 Panola Road, saw a significant boost in business last month, compared to January 2009.
"It's convenient, normally," said Renfroe. "We are in a local area. Everyone is in a time crunch. It's a time and convenience factor."
Renfroe, a former longtime General Motors employee, said that as some car dealerships have closed due to the sluggish economy, demand at his nearly two-year-old shop has picked up.
Renfroe said his customers have an emotional attachment to their vehicles, and that he values that bond.
"Along the way, you understand the importance the automobile has to the lives of people," he said. "That is their economic stimulus -- their vehicle."
The 53-year-old businessman said his focus is not only on the service center, but also on the Ellenwood community. Renfroe has dedicated a concrete retaining wall outside the service center for local school children to paint murals depicting the different seasons of the year.
He said he's also hosted a back-to-school parade in the community.
"It is a business in the community and for the community," Renfroe said.
Born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1957, Renfroe said he started working as a paperboy when he was 11 years old and yearned to own a business.
He said he graduated from high school in 1975 and enrolled at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tenn. He attended until 1977 when he took a break and returned to Buffalo.
He later returned to Nashville to attend Tennessee State University, where he met his future wife, who was working in the financial aid office. Renfroe said he graduated from Tennessee State in 1984, with a bachelor's degree in business with a concentration in marketing.
After graduation, he said he was hired by General Motors as a production supervisor at an engine plant in Flint, Mich.
Renfroe said he was promoted to a district sales manager position in 1986 that was more suited to his educational background. His job responsibilities included selling new vehicles to General Motors dealerships, overseeing a dealership territory and handling customer complaints.
Renfroe said he was a district sales manager for approximately 19 years, and worked in a variety of locations, including Fort Wayne, Ind.; Flint, Mich.; Portland, Ore.; Chicago, Ill., and Atlanta. "When I moved to Atlanta [in December 1996], that's when I said, 'OK, enough transferring,'" said Renfroe.
According to Renfroe, General Motors began to downsize and he parted with the company in 2003. He still wanted to own his own business so he began to work odd jobs until he was able to leverage his 401-K to purchase an Express Oil Change and Service Center franchise.
"It hurt," said Renfroe, about taking money from his retirement account. But "I can still touch and feel my 401-K."
He said he chose to open a service center franchise because of his past connection to the automotive industry and the assistance Express Oil Change provided.
Renfroe said the company supplied training handbooks and customer service instructions, assisted him in finding a location and provided price quotes for vehicle maintenance equipment.
"I built this one," Renfroe said. "This was a ground-up facility. A franchised company made it easier to hit the ground running."
Renfroe said construction on the shop began in August 2007 and he opened on March 3, 2008.
"It was something that I always wanted to do," he said. "As I got older, I didn't want to be sitting in my rocking chair and say, 'What if I would have?'... It was now or never."