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Profile in Success: Rekindling the romance

October 05, 2011
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Buying a carwash is definitely a long-term commitment. When an owner signs the papers, he or she is essentially marrying a wash location. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, the owner's life is tied to the success of the business. For some the relationship is a picture-perfect, storybook romance. For others it is a fitful, frightening failure destined for divorce.

David Woods, the current head of Woods Family Inc., has personally seen every up and down that the carwash business has to offer. Woods started in the industry in 1979, hand washing cars at his family's gas station. He then managed the design process and opening of the family's first carwash location in 1983. Even so, Woods was soon disenfranchised by the industry as he witnessed carwash struggles firsthand.

But now, after almost 30 years, Woods is feeling sparks once again. His carwash love has been rekindled by a dose of up-to-date technology and market growth. And a token of his renewed commitment — a bouncing baby touchless wash — is already on the way.

Treading water

For a number of years, the Woods' original Auto Spa Car Wash in York, ME, succeeded in spite of itself. After starting the business and experiencing some success, Woods decided to leave the industry. Over the next decade, the property had two unsuccessful tenants and went through a number of wash formats. When the family took the operation back over in the late 1990s, the wash count was 9,300 cars a year on a non-performing lease.

In 1998, the Woods family reequipped the tunnel and increased the length. "We did the rehab out of pocket on a shoe-string budget and regretted going cheap for the next seven years," Woods recalled. The Woods constantly combated equipment downtime, and the wash required all sorts of field repairs. The family frequently dealt with flat tires and jumped conveyor scenarios of almost every kind.

Yet, even with the problems, wash counts steadily increased. Soon the Auto Spa was washing 30,000 cars per year. "The thing that kept us busy is we were turning out a good, clean car with a whole bunch of labor," Woods explained. "Oh, I need to mention that we were pretty much prepping the car clean and sending it through."

Update and renovate

In 2008, Woods said he had grown tired of all the problems, so he decided to totally renovate the wash — this time not out of pocket. The building was completely gutted; the only thing left standing was four walls and a roof. The Auto Spa was converted into a hybrid format carwash during the renovation.

"The floor came out, a new pit and conveyor trench were installed along with [the] new Hybrid format … equipment. We even put in a portal and gated entry." It was the success of this renovation that inspired Woods to fall back in love with the carwashing industry.

To clean cars thoroughly, this new format wash uses quality soaps that have been titrated properly. Woods said operators should always use enough soap to get customer cars good and clean. "Don't try to skimp to save money. You will find yourself on a race to the bottom of the ladder."

The gated entry with a portal has allowed the Auto Spa to cut down on labor costs as well. "We are actually operating as a 60 percent attended/40 percent unattended self-loading carwash," Woods said.

"The new format has been working extremely well for the past four years, our annual numbers are consistently increasing to the point where this new wash makes sense," Woods revealed.

Breaking ground

Due to the success of the first wash, the Woods family has now broken ground on a second Auto Spa Car Wash location. The new wash will be in Kittery, ME, which is less than four miles south of York on the Maine and New Hampshire state line.

Woods said Auto Spa is expanding now because there was some pending competition on the horizon. A carwash was planned close to the original Auto Spa because business is growing in the area. If there was going to be new competition in the area, the Woods family decided to compete with itself instead of outsiders. "That is why we chose to build a new wash, to sort of freeze out any competition and make sure we keep the bar raised to a high level."

Unlike their first wash, the new Auto Spa will use a touchless automatic system to clean customer cars. Woods said, "I have looked at the … automatic touchless model for quite some time, and [there are] units out there that I believe [do] a good job." Woods deconstructed the process to learn about touchless operation and to figure out how the best systems clean.

Water temperature control and proper chemical titration are two examples that Woods said will be employed at the new location. "With this model, one of the largest things that we're putting in is a hot-water recirculation system right at the arch," Woods said. "We will consistently have the proper temperature at the nozzle being applied to every car so we don't get inconsistent results over the differing business volumes."

Woods believes that his ideas will provide the wash quality he's looking for, and it will create a high level of customer acceptance. "There is a good size market out there for touchless washing, and I want a piece of it along with volumes that will be profitable."

Offers and pricing

Auto Spa Car Wash has long reached out to the community and offered support for charitable events. Woods said the wash has worked with the police department to benefit the Special Olympics, and they have hosted washes for some high school bands as well.

Auto Spa also offers customers prepaid, preferred customer cards, and an RFID system for unlimited washes. The wash has "after hours" discounts from 5:30 a.m. until 8 a.m., then from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. as well.

Even so, Woods is not crazy about the discounting trend in the carwash industry today. "We are the most expensive carwash in our trading area, and I believe we give our customers an extremely high level of value for the money that they spend with us," Woods said. "We are proud to be the highest priced wash in our … area of southern Maine and very, very happy with the annual numbers that we are producing."

Family tradition

Woods Family Inc., the company that owns both Auto Spa locations, was founded with the start of four businesses in 1969. Woods said his family used to take their summer vacation in York Beach. One summer, Woods' father decided owning businesses in the town would be a good retirement plan. The first few businesses were a campground, a gas station and several commercial buildings.

Today, there are quite a few more businesses under the Woods Family Inc. umbrella. "Well, we have the Carwash, a Laundromat, a Salon and Spa, a Café, [a] Brick Oven Pizzeria, a fair amount of commercial rental buildings, the Campground, an Oil and Propane Company, a small Par-three pitch and putt and a real estate property management company."

Woods said he took the reins of the family company in 1998, and he was able to focus on growing the associate companies to where they are today with the help of his wife and three married adult children. Everyone works for the family business and manages a company, while, at this point, Woods is left to "steer the ship."

Before Woods took over the business, the company was primarily seasonally based. His parents would work in York Beach during the summer then go south to stay warm in the winter. "It really wasn't enough activity for me," he said. "I would find myself getting very bored during winter time." This is when the family took back the carwash and started balancing out business so that the cash flow would be more consistent year-round.

Easing ordinances

The expansion of the family businesses was helped by growth in southern Maine. York is becoming a larger year-round community instead of just a tourist-based community. Woods said the area also got rid of a growth ordinance recently that restricted the number of building permits that could be issued each year.

In fact, Woods said the local government approval process for the new wash was actually easier than the approval of the original wash back in 1983. Then, southern Maine was going through pretty big transformations and zoning was becoming more prominent. The local boards didn't have a background in proper zoning and development, and it actually took 18 months of planning board meetings to get a permit for the small roll-over wash.

"Things are a little bit more sophisticated now, and the ordinances are much better written," Woods said. Since the ordinances are much clearer and better interpreted, there is less personal opinion put in at the planning board level.

Woods also thinks he was much more prepared and smarter on the subject, especially since he is currently on the York local planning board. This qualification helped Woods work through all of the process and requirements in the neighboring town of Kittery. "So this time around it was actually quite nice."

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