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Carwash case study: Is this the new face of full-serve carwashing?

October 11, 2010
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At a time when most new investors are avoiding the full-service concept like the plague, Philip Toppino is pursuing the idea with vigor. And it seems to be working.

His multi-profit center carwash, Elite Car Wash in Clermont, FL, is what some would consider a “mega wash.” Aside from the full-serve carwash, Elite offers customers plenty to do while their car is washed, detailed and even serviced at the nearby tire store or fast lube.

For starters, customers can peruse the gift card collection while sipping on their gourmet coffee from the in-house cafe. Or perhaps they’d rather sit and enjoy the 62-inch-wide HDTV from stadium seats. Of course, they could always book a massage appointment to pamper both themselves and their car at the same time, in the same facility.

Or maybe they’ll bring the kiddies along to play with the water cannons or enjoy the arcade area as the family car enjoys a quick bath.

Not only does the carwash offer plenty for customers, but its neighbors also have mass appeal. Nearby, a Tire Kingdom offers customers one more way to scratch off their to-do list, and a Mobile One Express Lube in the back gets customers in and out almost as quickly as the express wash. PJ’s Coffee is separately managed, and gives Toppino a headache-free draw to the carwash. The café offers coffees and drinks, sandwiches and a pastry case.

But what is the success rate of a multi-profit carwash like this? With all of the extra capital that went into its construction and its operation, what are the advantages (and disadvantages) to this behemoth?

Plenty of perks
When Philip Toppino first approached banks to pitch an idea for a full-serve, multi-profit carwash, the bankers told him he was one of two things: a genius or a complete idiot.

“The only way to find out was to get it up and running and see if it would be successful,” Toppino, a commercial real estate developer, said.

And so Toppino did just that. Three months into operations, the bank had to admit Toppino’s plan had worked. Detail appointments were booked solid. The carwash had been named Best of the Best – Car Wash in three counties, and it was operating largely on word-of-mouth advertising.

A large part of its success, Toppino says, is due to his managing partner — Tim Robinson, a 23-year veteran of the carwash industry. Without his expertise, know-how, and emphasis on customer service, the mega-wash would never have happened. Toppino said the ultimate plan is for Robinson to buy him out so that he owns and runs the carwash while Toppino can focus on commercial real estate.

But what is the big draw for customers? Toppino had banked on a harried and busy clientele who were looking to multi-task. He invested thousands in the minor details — including $15,000 for the commercial-grade water cannons.

He invested even more in the bigger details, like stadium seating, a $50,000 water reclaim system, and 26 high-resolution cameras which monitor the vehicles at all times. Then there’s the top-of-the-line gift shop with car accessories like steering wheel covers, floor mats, and key chains, as well as a wide assortment of gift cards. Not to mention there is over 7,000 ft2 of office space on site. So what exactly is drawing customers to Elite Car Wash?

The carwash vs. Mickey
The water cannons alone have already pleased one discerning customer — the county’s code enforcement officer. Robinson said he had “tough dealings” with the enforcement officer in the past, but now she’s a lifetime customer.

“Her granddaughter has year-round passes to Disney World,” Robinson explains. One Saturday, the code enforcement officer offered to take her granddaughter to see Mickey Mouse for the day, but her granddaughter said no — she’d rather go play with the water cannons.

“It looks like we’ve beat out Mickey at least one time,” Robinson adds.

Indeed, the carwash’s goal is to appeal to families and children. “We want it to be somewhere that the entire family can go,” Robinson explained. “They can get whatever they want done, and they won’t have to be bored, and it’s revenue-producing for us.”

Making multi-profit work for you
While Toppino and Robinson acknowledge that the goal of the carwash is to have as many revenue-producing services as possible, they don’t actually own and operate or profit from all of these multi-profit centers.

To make the multi-profit concept truly profitable, Toppino said operators must be willing to let go of some of the profits.

“I go back to the fact that by giving some of the profit away — with having Tire Kingdom next door and the quick lube — I’m getting much more in quality and volume and the customer still wins,” Toppino explained. “A lot of people say that if you give something away, you’ll get it back ten-fold. And that has been especially true with Elite Car Wash.”

Toppino turns a fair profit from the office space he leases because customers who make an appointment with the CPA, Mortgage Company, Financial Planner, or Construction Company, also decide to get their vehicle washed. It also opens up the opportunity for “house accounts.”

Plans for growth
Toppino and Robinson both agree that this recent success is just the beginning. Plans down the road could include franchising, but most definitely include company-owned expansions.

“I think the future of the industry is that it’s going to become what Philip and I call, basically a ‘Mega Wash,’” Robinson said. “This is a winning concept, where you have the oil and lube next to the carwash, along with many other internal profit centers, and you make it super-convenient for the customer.”

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