How do you meet small-company CEOs who'll share operational tips and technical innovations? Before starting $19-million Oil Changers, a California chain of 37 oil-and-filter-change centers, Larry Read spent more than a year on the road, talking to owners of independent "quick-change" shops from Salt Lake City to Daytona Beach, Fla.

Read still schedules at least 10 trips a year, which altogether costs him about $60,000. (For what others spend, see "What Do You Spend on Market Research?", No. 07921173, July 1992.) But knowledge gleaned from his treks put his company in the fast lane: 7,367% sales growth from 1986 to 1990. Some other benefits:

Start-up research. When the chairman of Jiffy Lube couldn't answer Read's questions about pricing, profit margins, and how to grow, Read began visiting small, independent operators, who provided him with the answers that informed the business plan he still uses today.

Operational insights. On a recent trip to upstate New York, Read discovered a new quick-lube technology that's better for employees and the environment. His travels also led him to form the National Association of Independent Lubes. The 470 members convene once a year to discuss ways to improve operations. Last year's convention turned up an oil-system cleaner that added $350,000 to Oil Changers' coffers.

-- Susan Greco