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Business Operations

Rainy day personnel

October 11, 2010
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Summary: This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing® asked Mark Curtis, CEO of Splash, LLC, Greenwich, CT (which has seen more than its normal share of rain) to answer a question from a PC&D reader wondering how to handle staffing at a full-service carwash on rainy days.

Question: Recently, the full-service wash I manage was hit with a rainy patch and I ended up losing a lot of employees. How can I avoid a situation like this again?

Mark Curtis: Handling personnel on a rain day is perhaps the toughest challenge faced by full service operators. Having talked to several carwashers across the country, this issue has been even more pronounced over the past few years where several regions have been hit with persistent rain. Holding a crew together for weeks on end while dancing between the raindrops is a balancing act with significant consequences for the successful ongoing operation of the carwash.

This issue is so tough because of the complexities involved with the daily decision on staffing. And it’s exacerbated by the cause of the dilemma — the weather — which lies completely out of anyone’s control. Carwash owners and managers are confronted with a workforce looking for income — cash they can count on to pay bills and put food on their families’ tables. Significant interruptions to this flow have obvious ramifications at home. The tentative nature of their paychecks forces them to seek steadier employment elsewhere.

I’m not suggesting there are better alternatives available (landscaping and construction often suffer the same weather issues as we do), but it does promote the search.

And there’s the human side of it. The carwash owner or manager has to deal with sending workers home without pay, knowing they will have a tough time making their rent.

On the other hand, paying workers without revenues coming in can prove to be detrimental to the business’ survival. The added consideration is that by not paying workers through the period, almost guarantees them looking for other employment.

When the sun finally does come out and customers do return to the wash (It will happen, I promise. I just can’t tell you when!), will there be a crew to wash the cars?

A silver lining?
What’s the operator to do? Cover salaries through indefinite rain periods? Lay people off and preserve cash with the hope of rehiring once the weather improves? I believe much of this decision will hinge on the personal commitment an owner has to his staff.

There are significant benefits to continuing payroll through bad weather. You become an “employer of choice.” Many production workers will opt to work for your wash because of the steady paycheck. And they will choose your wash over other offers which may be higher paying jobs because they are uncertain of their continuity.

This, in turn, yields a more consistent and happier workforce. It reduces loss of productivity due to turnover and understaffing. Ultimately, this is a lot easier on the owner or manager having to deal with the staff on a daily basis.

But it costs a lot. And after three months of wash-out week-ends and no sun except on Tuesdays, can the wash survive with the extra expense? Treating personnel as a completely variable expense allows the operator to minimize his costs during bad weather. Assuming there is a pool of workers available in his area, they are simply rehired when the weather improves.

I would recommend a course of action closer to the “payroll maintenance” strategy, but with some caveats. I believe the productivity gains by providing a steadier paycheck justify much of the cost of keeping a staff through inclement weather. The respect and caring for employees is paid back by their respect and caring for your customers.

Ultimately, this means more business. It is hard to measure what this means financially, but the benefit is definitely there.

Of course, we want to get as much as we can for the dollar spent, so maintenance and appearance projects can be undertaken. That way, we have our place looking great once the sun does come out. Customers are treated to a fresh-looking site with a motivated staff large enough to handle the pent-up demand caused by the rain.

However, there are only so many coats of paint you can put on a wall. There has been some suggestion to partnering with another business to hire carwash staff on slow days. We have done this on a seasonal basis with landscapers and pool servicers as our season tends to be busier when they’re off (winter), with a couple of exceptions.

Our spring is pollen season and we get extremely busy. Fall starts to ramp up for us too, both at the wash and in our detail area. But these are times when the landscapers and pool guys are extremely busy. So, who gets the workers?

Generally speaking, we are continually at odds with these other businesses as we all want “to make hay while the sun shines.” It’s never as smooth as we would hope it to be.

The partnering concept may be made more complex by the fickle nature of weather. Relying on any weatherman’s prediction has to be the most foolish thing anyone could do given their historic level of accuracy.

How does your co-op partner count on having manpower if the weather turns for the better, contrary to the prediction? Do you go short-handed or does he?

And what if your employee likes working at his place more? Do you lose your best guys?

The best alternative
I think it is better to assess your staff to determine those key people your wash cannot afford to lose. These primary people must be given a minimum number of hours each week, rain or shine, to maintain their employment. This “guarantee” along with the judicious use of overtime can be used as incentives for performance. We have found many of our long-term employees have opted to stay with us because of the security they have in knowing their income is relatively secure, irrespective of the weather. This provides incentive as well for those “B” players to improve their performance in order to join the ranks of your “tenured” employees.

The net effect is a more stable workforce. The payback is a staff that can handle the volume, when it happens, and more efficiently and productively wash cars. Rarely is this benefit measured and weighed against the cost of carrying the crew when it’s raining or snowing, but I am certain there is great return on this investment.

Of course, I’m still waiting for the sun to come out to prove the theory. In the meantime, the crew is busy, painting the ark.

Mark Curtis is the CEO of Splash, LLC, Greenwich, CT, and founder of WashUSA, the annual charitable event that unites carwashes nationwide to benefit kids through the Make-A-Wish Foundation®. The Splash Car Wash chain currently has 20 sites in and around the Connecticut area.