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Business Operations

Profile in Success: A newbie success story

March 08, 2011
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For Gunnar and Pamela Hildemann, the problem was obvious. Every few weeks they would arrive at their condo in Palm Coast, FL, in a bug-covered and filthy car. Having just driven 450 miles from their home in Greenville, SC, the last thing they wanted to do was trek another 25 miles for a decent full-service carwash facility, but where else could they go?

It was surprising to the couple, too. In Greenville, everyone had their vehicles cleaned weekly in your average quality, high-volume professional wash, Gunnar explained. “We were puzzled. That’s when the market void became apparent and the need for developing a new carwash seemed to make sense.”

Finding the opportunity
Although the couple had spent years investigating franchise opportunities, stock investments, and even “fad type schemes,” the thought of a carwash had never occurred to them. And even though they were annoyed at having to travel out of town for a decent rinse, they never suspected that a small beach community of retirees and vacationers had a need for a ‘real’ carwash since none was there. “We had no idea where to begin evaluating whether a real opportunity even existed,” Gunnar said.

That’s when he saw an internet ad for the International Carwash Association’s (ICA) annual convention in Las Vegas, Car Care World Expo. “I thought Pamela would slap the back of my head when I contemplated going,” Gunnar recalled. “To my surprise, she said ‘That’s a good idea, check it out!’”

With that, the couple attended the new investor seminar, as well as other educational presentations at the expo and sat down with equipment vendors and suppliers. “On return, I was armed with enough knowledge to at least evaluate whether a carwash was feasible and if so, what type,” Gunnar said.

Getting to work
As soon as Gunnar and Pamela realized that operating a carwash was realistic for their lifestyle, they started analyzing carwash types, the industry, the area market and its growth, com-petition, traffic patterns and costs.

“Along the way we talked with every major equipment vendor and numerous experienced operators,” Gunnar explained. “They were all surprisingly open, helpful and ready to share information that aided in every aspect of our due diligence. They were also refreshingly honest in their varying opinions and advice.”

One operator in particular, Jack Barrett, came to look at the couple’s proposed site and educated them in the critical decisions that would make or break their business. “It narrowed down to location, traffic count, business model and staying power,” Gun-nar said. “We knew the market needed an express exterior priced at no more than $6.”

On Barrett’s advice, the couple decided to plan a ° ex-serve conveyor carwash proceeded with installing a Sonny’s Equipment tunnel with ICS computer automation and point-of-sale system technology.

They also sought out the advice of another type of expert. Jim Keller, president of Con-Serv, a manufacturer of water reclaim and conservation technology, helped the couple configure an eco-friendly array of water reclamation and reverse osmosis systems.

“Going into this we had no clue how to operate a carwash,” Gunnar admitted. “One of our best investments was CarWash College courses offered in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and ICS Tunnel Master Control Systems training. Each week long course taught management, maintenance, equipment repair and operations.”

The five weeks of education paid off. “Today, we are self-sufficient in operating, maintaining and repairing every aspect of the facility and equipment,” He said.

Marketing and economics
Palm Coast was among the fastest growing communities in the nation at unprecedented growth of 25 percent per year. McDonald’s was in front of the site with a shared drive, the rural road next to the site was planned for four lane expansion, big box sites were being developed next door and a new City Center planned a mile away.

The traffic count, although marginal at a combined 32,000 cars per day, was projected to go up to 60,000. “Having spent little on the land we decided that if it took three years for the growth to evolve, we would spend the land savings on business losses to break-even in three years,” Gunnar recalled. “We knew that the area could support only one wash and if we did not build it soon, somebody would.”

The difference
Coconuts Car Wash officially opened in January 2008. Today, the couple says their carwash is being copied by “experienced multi-site carwash professionals.”

The couple was careful to differentiate themselves from other ° ex-serve and conveyor carwashes. They did this in several ways, according to Gunnar, who said that among other things, the couple also:

• Filled a market void;
• Created a theme;
• Established a package that could be franchised; and
• Created a service menu based on excellence, discount pricing and loyalty.

“We learned that carwashes are typically not a destination,” Gunnar explained. “Women are a major share of the market; people appeal to friendly, fun, colorful, clean, attractive and safe surroundings, they want a great job and low price. We felt strongly that franchise type operations generally are considered more professional than home grown operations.”

The couple also relied on achieving brand recognition with Simoniz cleaning products and Eco-Lab Rain-X and detail products. “Every vehicle leaves with a clean, shiny and dry guarantee,” Gunnar said.

“It’s not all about the site, facility and equipment. That’s almost the easiest part. What’s more important is the culture, people and how customers feel,” he stated.

Standing out
According to the couple, Coconuts Car Wash was designed around the belief that anyone visiting the site should leave hap-pier than when they arrived, no matter what it takes. Removing a sap spot on the hood for free is not such a big deal, but it stays in the customers mind forever, Gunnar explained.

The wash features a Caribbean theme of tropical yellow, aqua and pink colors a Caribbean building style, hurricane shutters, a metal roof, open rafters, beach music and nautical décor Customers remain in the vehicle thru a bright 120 ft. ride-thru tunnel in a less than five-minute express exterior wash. Staff members are identified by yellow and Aqua shirts with white and khaki shorts and boat shoes define the level of training and staff authority.

With a limited population and word of mouth being the best marketing tool, the couple set out to be exceptional.

Discount $6 exterior washes with hand debugging and free vacuums are available for the do-it-yourself money saver. A reasonable $21 is charged for full interior and exterior cleaning, and full service interior-exterior cleaning services are referred to as mini-details. “Folks love the added attention paid to removing Florida bugs and they let us know,” Gunnar said. “Sure it costs a little more per car, but that’s not a big deal if it assures adequate volume.”

A consistent culture
Last but not least, the culture at Coconuts is consistent. “We created a well-trained, honest, hard working, smiling, friendly and suburban looking team of employees,” Gunnar boasted. “Part-timers are generally high school achievers and from sports teams. Career staff is a wonderful mix of educated people from all over the world. Customers compliment us and the staff daily for our culture, the attention to detail and the high level of quality.”

This career staff includes Chas Lines from Ontario, Canada, who today, is the wash’s General Manager. “Chas was experienced in high-paced full service cleaning, has a business degree, master carwash operations certiÿ cation and most of all, had a passion to learn and excel,” Gunnar said.

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