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Business Operations

The secrets to their success

December 01, 2011
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Today, watching the news has become a daily challenge. Grim economic trends and petty political bickering await viewers on almost every channel. Truly, what the country — and especially the carwash industry — needs now are some good old-fashioned success stories.

One company in our industry that has continued to succeed regardless of the economic climate is the Autobell Car Wash chain. Autobell is based in Charlotte, NC, and the company has continued growing despite the downturn in the economy. In fact, Autobell has opened 15 carwashes and hired over 450 new employees since the recession started in 2008.

Today, Autobell is recognized as one of the top three largest carwash chains in the U.S., with 63 washes in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. According to Autobell's leaders, a large part of the company's success can be attributed to creative thinking. The chain has worked ceaselessly to become one of the most progressive companies in the carwashing industry.

Hiring and promoting

One key to Autobell's success is the company's set of stringent hiring guidelines. Autobell is a drug-free workplace that pre-screens all employees and randomly tests their wash managers. The company also has an in-house, full-time professional recruiter who constantly searches for the best and brightest employees. After decades in the carwash business, Autobell knows what they are look for when hiring new employees.

"We take pride in our people. We think we have the best and brightest young men and women out there, and we work hard to get them," Monty Rast, director of store operations, said. "We spend a lot of time and effort training and preparing them to give our customers the best carwash experience available."

The company also promotes employees from within, and there is a regimented process for promotion. Rast said district managers recognize employees that have the ability, talent and desire to choose Autobell as a career path. Here, the company has invested in training and developing so that these employees can be successful as soon as possible.

"We have developed people from within for close to 20 years now," Rast explained. "Everybody, all of our managers and decision makers in this company are home grown, so to speak. And we've identified those traits and skills that we're looking for in our leaders of tomorrow."

Manager training

In the past, when employees were promoted to manager, Autobell used a training checklist. But as the chain continued to grow, the company wanted to make sure employees were always presented with the exact same syllabus, messages and information. Cue Management Development Coordinator Pedro Briceño.

Briceño was a carwash manager for Autobell early in his professional career. After leaving the industry, he went on to earn a master's degree in education and work as an educator. Briceño ended up as an assistant high school principal for a number of years, but he always kept in contact with the Howard family, the owners of Autobell.

As the chain began to grow, Briceño talked with the Howards about a regimented manager training process, and he was finally hired to create and oversee the program. Briceño took the information that Autobell wanted to present to their wash managers, and he organized it into specific classes. Further, once the information was organized, he took it and taught it in a fashion that would engage adults.

"And he has done a phenomenal job," Rast said. "He's got hands-on experience, and he's got training in how to educate people. And he's got a love for washing cars and a love for this company. So it was the perfect marriage for us."

Chuck Howard, president and CEO of Autobell, said the loyal and great employees that they've hired and trained have definitely been a big part of the company's success. "Over the years we've developed our system, our methods, and documented them and developed the training to pass on to our employees," he said. "So, we have a system that's easy to run; it's easy to duplicate in other locations. And we have great people that have stayed with us and understand our philosophy."

Wash format

Much like their hiring and training practices, Autobell has developed and refined the carwash format and process to allow the company to succeed. Howard said the chain's standard tunnel design has evolved over time, but the groundwork for the system was laid by Howard's father and Autobell's founder, Charles Howard Sr.

The first Autobell Car Wash location was built in 1969 by Howard Sr., who was a carwash equipment distributor. At that time, Chuck Howard had just finished his second year of college; still, he was involved in the construction and opening of the location. The carwash was an exterior with self-serve vacuums and gas pumps, and it was built specifically to showcase the equipment that Howard Sr. was selling.

Howard attended college for two more years, and he worked in the carwash part time while he finished his degree. During this time, the family built more washes, and when he graduated college in 1971, Howard joined Autobell full time.

Howard said that family members working in the washes in the early days wore many hats, but he was primarily responsible for running the carwashes. He equated his position at that time with a district manager. He oversaw the operation of the three or four carwashes that the family owned while Howard Sr. worked in the carwash equipment company.

"My dad was a big champion of automation. He had spent many years in a plant that was very automated, so he was familiar with machinery and conveyors and controls and production," Howard explained.

Howard Sr.'s experience with automation helped him boil down Autobell's carwash process into simple steps that were easy to teach. In the late 1970s, the chain switched to a full-service model and continued to break down the wash process into steps. These steps were soon documented so that they would be easy to duplicate.

Today, the chain has a set design that they use for all locations. "We have two buildings that we use … depending on how big the site is," Rast said. "We have a 70-foot building and a 90-foot building, and the equipment packages are the same for both. The only difference is the length of the conveyor."

Conserving water

One feature that all Autobell locations share is water reclamation. Rast said the chain recycles up to 80 percent of all water used at every location. In extreme drought conditions, the washes have the capability to reclaim more than 90 percent of their water. In the chain's last 10 washes, Autobell has used a new system to clean the reclaimed water, and this system has enabled the carwashes to lower their total water usage to about 10 gallons a car.

The system works by harnessing bacteria that is already in the water. In the storage tanks, the existing bacteria are given a place to thrive, converted to anaerobic bacteria and trained to eat the hydrocarbons and chemicals in the wash water. According to Rast, this leaves only clean water, and it reduces the burden on the local cities that have to treat any exiting water.

The reclaimed water is used in the mixing of some chemicals, and it is also used in the tunnel for everything except the final rinse. Rast said the water from the new system leaves the interior carwash walls much cleaner, and it contributes to a better wash process and a better buying experience for Autobell's customers.

"We've always been in the water management business. We've been reclaiming water and trying to conserve water and reuse water as long as I've been with this company," Rast said.

ICA and reclaim fame

While the water output by this reclaim system is not potable, Rast said it is drinkable. And there have been a couple of "PR stunts" where Autobell employees have done just that. Carl Howard, vice president and COO of Autobell, was the first person to drink the reclaimed water during a carwash appearance in Atlanta.

Then, Rast and Eric Wulf, executive director and chief executive officer of the International Carwash Association (ICA), drank the reclaimed water during a WaterSavers tour stop and media event at an Autobell location in Raleigh, NC. "We wanted to show just how clean the water was, so we recaptured it directly out one of the arches … and then Eric and I drank it," Rast said. "We just thought that was a different twist. It hadn't been done."

Autobell is a long-time member of the ICA, and the chain was also one of the early member's of the ICA's WaterSavers program. Rast said Autobell was very fortunate to have been chosen to host stops on a WaterSavers tour, and while Wulf and the ICA were at the wash, Autobell wanted to take advantage of the opportunity and do something special.

Defeating drought

Even though the chain is part of WaterSavers and recycles water in every location, Autobell is no stranger to the problems caused by drought conditions. In the past, the chain was even ordered to shut down some of its carwashes due to drought. But Rast said Autobell operations no longer have to worry about drought in their home state due to legislation passed in North Carolina.

Autobell's CEO Chuck Howard was part of a committee of local operators that formed the North Carolina Professional Car Wash Association. Howard was active in the group, and they spent a lot of time going out to city councils to educate them on the facts that carwashes do not use a lot of water.

"We were proud to be part of the process that helped bring this legislation to North Carolina," Rast recalled. All of Autobell's carwashes participate in the North Carolina Professional Car Wash Association Certification Program which is a requirement of the new legislation.

Community fundraising

Autobell also helps protect the water resources of communities by offering a charity carwash program to groups and organizations. The program lets non-profit groups sell full-service carwash tickets that are personalized with a group or organization's name. These tickets have no expiration date, and they can be used at any Autobell location.

The program requires no upfront money from a group. A chairperson fills out a contract and accepts responsibility for all tickets when they are printed. When the sale ends, the group gets to keep 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale. The money and excess tickets are turned in to Autobell, and the sale can be repeated again during the next calendar year.

The program's literature lets groups know that using Autobell carwashes for fundraising protects the environment from harmful wastewater: "Washing vehicles on driveways and in parking lots can have a negative impact on the environment. Untreated wash water is discharged directly into the ground or storm sewer systems and is prohibited by many state statutes and by county wastewater pollution control regulations."

In addition, the program makes fundraising easier for the groups. If they opt to sell these tickets instead of holding a traditional carwash, they do not have to:

  • Find a location for a carwash;
  • Purchase chemicals and supplies;
  • Face liability for participants; or
  • Worry about rain and the weather.

Typical location

Rast pointed out an Autobell Car Wash in the western part of Union County as a good example of a successful location. Before the economic slowdown, the neighborhood near this wash was one of the fastest growing areas in the entire state of North Carolina. And, Autobell had searched for a viable location in the area for some time.

"I live … within a mile of the carwash. I'm very familiar with this [area]. I've been begging and pleading, 'Hey, we need a carwash out here,'" Rast said. A lot of potential customers in the area had to use other carwashes, and they were letting Rast know it would be nice to have an Autobell close by.

The piece of property Autobell finally selected stayed undeveloped for a while even though there is a retail area surrounding the lot. There is a lot of residential property in the area as well. Howard and the company's real estate people chose the lot, a location was built and it has proven to be a lucrative spot for Autobell. "It's a good community carwash," Rast said. "It's a great location, and we're excited about it."

Still growing

And today, Autobell is still growing. The chain recently completed a push to earn approval for another Charlotte, NC, location. Howard said his son Carl led the drive to get approval for a location in an area where there was no zoning for a carwash. Autobell was interested in opening a wash in this area because it is home to a busy shopping mall and exclusive neighborhoods.

In Charlotte, conveyor carwashes are only allowed in areas zoned B-2, which is close to light industrial. Autobell worked to get the zoning changed, but the rezoning ended up being challenged by residents close to the wash.

Howard said the lot Autobell selected was actually zoned for multi-family residential, but the property was challenged from that standpoint because of its small size and its proximity to a major power company substation and a sewage treatment plant. For those reasons, the land really didn't lend itself to residential usage.

"We felt that we could present that argument in the rezoning, and that's what we did, and the city council agreed with us," Howard said. "We did have to make concessions as far as appearance and operation … the neighbors had the opportunity to attend public hearings and neighborhood meetings, and we had many dialogs with them and formed our plan based on their comments and concerns."

Now that the zoning is approved, Autobell is in the process of finalizing plans, and construction should start in December or January. Howard said construction typically takes about four months, and the wash should be open for business by next spring or early summer. And the growth shows no signs of slowing. There are currently new carwashes in the development process, and additional new locations are being sought by Autobell.

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