Young talent revs up Safeway Driving
Chelsea Sauder, left, and Ann Littmann are freshly minted VPs working to modernize Safeway Driving School, a Texas-based franchise.
Ann Littmann, a freshly minted VP at Safeway Driving School, is right on message as she describes the mission of the Houston-based franchise. “Safeway is a 43-year-old company, and we were invented to prevent the phone call no one wants to get,” she said, about a tragic car accident involving a young driver.
The founder of the company, Gene Walker, known as Coach Walker for his days coaching football, “was tired of the tragic loss of life, students not coming back to school after the summer,” Littman added. So he and his wife, Jeanne, started a school to teach safe driving.
Walker himself, now retired but still involved with Safeway events, didn’t quite get the memo about why he started Safeway. “I coached six or seven years and financially we needed to do a little better. I’d like to say we did it to save the people in Houston and make them better drivers, but it was a financial decision,” Walker said, talking bluntly and spin-free like the 72-year-old he is.
Such is life for up-and-coming executives when they take over a brand founded in 1973—there’s a lot of updating to do. That was the task for Littmann and her colleague, Chelsea Sauder, another new VP at Safeway, after a group of Houston business executives bought the school and decided to begin franchising in 2012.
“It was an old-school driving school, with paper records, an old classroom. We revolutionized it so everything is online only,” explains Littman.
Students can take the courses online at their convenience, then come to a Safeway Driving center for hands-on training by certified instructors. Cars are leased through a Safeway fleet, and they are fully outfitted, with that brake on the right side, of course, and a brand wrap that makes the car easy to spot. “I can’t tell you the number of calls we get from people behind our car,” Littmann says.
“For our franchisees, all you need to run your business is a vehicle and an iPad,” Littmann said. “It really changes the priority of the franchisee. It’s a little bit less about operating, and instead you just get to be the pillar in your community about driver safety.”
Safeway has an algorithm based on the number of driver’s ed-age students (mostly ninth and 10th graders) in a particular school zone, and the number of vehicles necessary to operate there. The franchise fee is $35,000 per vehicle needed to operate that zone.
Driver education is run individually in each state, and not all states require behind-the-wheel education, so Safeway is not yet expanding outside of Texas. When they perfect the model and “saturate” Texas, they say, they will move into other states.
The two VPs have fun with their young ages and their big titles. “I’m 27,” says Littmann, who began at the driving school as a marketing intern, became director of operations and today is vice president.
“I’m 26. I’m the young one,” says Chelsea Sauder with a laugh, formerly director of digital experience and technology at Safeway and now recently named a VP.
They pay tribute to the founders’ mission. “This is their legacy. They didn’t want the business model to die off when they decided to retire,” Sauder said. “Whenever we think of doing anything, we think, ‘What would Coach Walker do?’ If we keep his values, we know we’ll do well.”
As for Coach Walker, he’s happy with the young management team and their transformation. “It makes me feel great to see these cars rolling around here. They look a heckuva lot better than they did when I had them,” Walker said. “It feels good. Many times when these things change hands they just die, and they had the foresight to really move it on.”
One thing hasn’t changed at Safeway, and that’s those gory car accident videos that scared the heck out of every teenage driving student as bodies were impaled in every imaginable way.
“There are still some very graphic videos but part of the reason is these people think they’re invincible,” Littman said. “On the front page of our website, it says take driving seriously, and that’s why we have those videos.” As far as she’s concerned, that part of driver’s ed should never change.