Driving schools step on gas to fill teaching gaps
Laura Schuler and Steve Mochel are founders of Fresh Green Light driving school.
Alot has changed since most of us received our driver education training.
What used to be the purview of brave schoolteachers has now been passed off to the private sector due to funding cuts for in-school classes. Technology is also changing the game, improving the curriculum, tracking students’ progress and coordinating scheduling for time-crunched generation Z drivers.
“There’s always somebody turning 16,” said Steve Mochel, CEO of Fresh Green Light, a Connecticut-based driving school started in 2009. He and his wife, Laura Schuler, spent 20 years in marketing before founding the company. Working on a project, they came home with a packet of teen driving stats.
“It’s the No. 1 killer of teenagers in America, but driver’s ed hasn’t changed in 50 years,” he said. They looked deeper into the industry and discovered driving schools were largely mom-and-pop operations and “sketchy guys in beat-up Camrys, which unfortunately is kind of the reputation of the business in a lot of places.”
With the marketing world hard hit by the Great Recession, Steve was laid off in 2008, which pushed him to take the leap. They opened their first Fresh Green Light location in New York in 2009, with a goal of improving those grim statistics through technology, better curriculum and, of course, a marketing expert’s glossy wrapper to set the business apart from competition.
“Our working elevator pitch was we wanted to become the Apple Store of driving schools,” Mochel said. “It was one of these industries that was ripe for reinventing, again something everybody needs to do, but nobody had come along and tried to do anything differently in years.”
Eight years later, Fresh Green Light has six company-owned units—five in Connecticut in addition to the first in New York. They added the first franchisee on the north side of Chicago in Lincolnshire, and have focused on building a company-owned model that future franchisees can use to scale up.
Fresh Green Light focuses almost exclusively on new teen drivers, whereas some other players in the industry will also train remedial adult drivers or corporate clients. Acknowledging that many of their first locations are located in affluent communities, the brand’s average unit volumes range from $250,000 to $400,000.
Corby Lamb is the brand’s first franchisee, just approaching his third anniversary. A former commercial airline pilot, he had known Mochel and Schuler for many years before getting seduced by the concept and signing on. He liked the “look and feel of the brand,” and felt that would resonate with the higher-end demographic the brand’s first units catered to on the East Coast.
He has one retail location in Lincolnshire, 30 miles up the coast from downtown Chicago, and a partnership with Carmel Catholic High School, where his instructors operate within the school giving it access to 325 students at a time.
Because the school is within his territory, he didn’t need to plunk down a second franchise fee, which has been a big boost to his P&L. Three years in, he’s looking to double down and scale up in the Chicagoland area.
“Now that we are in growth mode, I do love the day-to-day challenge of looking at … the possibilities of growing this,” Lamb said. “From a micro level, I really do have the passion and believe that everything we’ve worked so hard to do every day improves the safety of young drivers on the road.”
911 to the rescue
Differentiated by its use of current and former law enforcement officers as instructors, Issaquah, Washington-based 911 Driving School is up to approximately 65 licensed units in five states—with a roster of 21 franchisees. Some are brick-and-mortar locations, and others are satellite locations.
Originally founded by a police officer who witnessed sub-par driver’s education in action, the brand’s current CEO, Joe Giammona, is a self-described businessman who sees the great potential of the category. He’s been in the driver training industry for 11 years, previously working for a brand called Swerve Driving School, before he laid the groundwork to acquire 911 in 2011.
Under its new ownership, 911 has exceeded $15 million in total system revenue, and has had an average year-over-year growth rate of 14 percent for the last three years. With numbers like that, his experience and eye for the category’s potential seems well founded.
Florida has been its most recent expansion, as the Sunshine State does not require driver’s education beyond a three- or four-hour online drugs and alcohol course.
In Washington State, where the brand was founded, driver’s ed providers are required to offer 30 hours of training, with a price point for consumer ranging from $300 in some states up to $650 in Washington, which requires more extensive training than many other states.
When I interjected that it sounds like a rather steep cost—thinking back to my own high school days where I saved precious dollars to buy my first rust bucket—Giammona countered that even $650 is nothing compared to the value of protecting someone’s life.
By having law enforcement officers provide the training, he said they can provide stories from their jobs on the road, and make the potential consequences of driving mistakes in a visceral way that few gym or shop teachers could.
“There’s nothing more powerful in this age of video games,” he said. “You get these instructors up there that say this is what happened last night, they break down the crash scene … here’s the effect of that decision this person made, which is palpable.”
Beyond high school students, a portion of 911’s business comes from driver improvement courses or nannies, as an example, who may be new to driving in the United States. In addition, the company provides fleet training for corporations looking to reduce liability.
Saying that “legislative cycles are huge for us,” Giammona said the company closely watches changes in driver’s education requirements, which often provide entire states as fertile ground for its franchisees.
“There are a lot of government agencies doing things that can be privatized,” he said. “Why is a state agency still doing this when you have all these driving schools that are qualified to do it?”