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Profile in Success: Riding a wave of success

March 08, 2011
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It certainly wasn’t the traditional father/son story or even fate, but one way or another Bobby Willis found his way into the carwash industry. He spent the first 15 years or so of his career working in the supplier/OEM segment after his friend and college roommate married the daughter of a distributor.

“With Unitec Electronics, I was able to travel around the country visiting other carwashes,” Willis recalled. Walking the pavement at sites across the U.S. gave him the opportunity to see what was go – aing rightnd more importantly, what was going wrong – in the carwash industry. He collected ideas and plans for several years before finally becoming an operator in 2003.

Creating the look
Deciding on a theme for his first carwash was simple. Willis took inspiration from his childhood spent in the Outerbanks of North Carolina and drew on the beauty of the ocean and the beach for the self-serve/in-bay automatic carwash site.

He knew from his visits around the country that his carwash would need to have clean lines and a well-organized layout, as well as some special touches to help it stand out from the crowd. The lighthouse motif was a perfect fit for Newport News, VA, a city which is found near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and tourist town Virginia Beach, and from there, the ideas flowed.

The roof lines of Cool Wave Car Wash mimic a pattern of waves beating against the shore, while beach shells and rocks adorn the landscaped areas between the curbs in the parking lot.

Willis spent a lot of time considering his menu and signage, which also carry the ocean/lighthouse theme and are regularly updated.

The look of Cool Wave even extends to the staff, dressed in bright blue uniforms with cheery smiles. A recent visit to the site finds one attendant straightening up vacuum hoses, while another assists customers in the self-serve bays. Willis said having attendants on site – and keeping his location clean – are important distinctions which are an integral component of his success.

Driving the price
Willis makes no secret that he intends for his carwash to lead the market in price. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to be on top,” he said during the course of our visit to the wash. He also has a second location in nearby Smithfield, VA, which also leads the market in price.

The top package for his in-bay automatic carwash is $15, and he is constantly evaluating the marketplace and his pricing (or $18 with the a la carte tire gloss option) model. He is able to do this by tracking sales and testing add-on services.

“Once you get to the point where 20 percent of your customers are buying the top package, it’s time to raise prices,” he said. “The market is showing itself ready to move up.”

According to Willis, one of the biggest mistakes he witnessed on his trips across the country and in his own market is operators who under-value their service. “Your customers will only pay what you expect them to,” he said, advising others to re-consider how their menu is set-up and evaluate their own pricing structure.

Innovative solutions
In addition to leading the market in price, Willis also takes great measures to make sure he is incorporating new and innovative solutions on a regular basis.

For example, he started offering a monthly wash package program a while back, and also had the RFID (radio frequency identification) capabilities added in each of his self-serve bays. He admits that customers might not yet be conditioned to understand a monthly wash program for the self-serve bay, but said his job is to stay ahead of the curve.

Willis stays in touch with other innovative operators like Tom Hoffman, Jr., of the Hoffman Car Wash chain in Albany, NY, and Chris Giroux of Freedom Car Wash in nearby Virginia Beach. “It’s nice because we can see what’s working at someone else’s wash and we can share ideas that way,” he said.

Another smart way he is continuing to innovate is by staying green and reducing expenses through LED lighting. He also has his chemicals custom-tailored to his wash in order to better control fragrance and color options. “Customers really pay attention to that kind of stuff,” he said.

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