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Profile in success: Then and now

How J.R. and Patricia Carsten found almost 50 years of success in the ever-evolving detail industry.

June 05, 2012
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In the world today, it is rare for a person to stay in the same position, with the same company, for more than five years. While employees of earlier generations worked for the same companies for decades and decades, modern workers now frequently jump from job to job.


Because of this, the story of J.R. Carsten and his wife Patricia is particularly interesting. Carsten, owner Carsten Auto Cleaning Inc. in Springfield, MO, has been a full-time detailer for 49 years. He got his start in April of 1963. To put that in perspective, when the Carstens entered the detailing industry, John F. Kennedy was president and The Beatles were a young band releasing their earliest recordings.

Though the operation has had employees in the past, today the business is run as a "mom and pop" shop. In fact, Carsten said that Patricia has been involved in detailing almost as long as the business has been open. In the early days, when she noticed J.R. working late hours, a then-pregnant Patricia offered to come in and help out by washing windows. "Well, 49 years later she's still cleaning windows. The girl's never stopped," Carsten said.

Detailing then

At the age of 17, Carsten began working for his father's used car business located in a shop owned by his uncle. Carsten and his father would travel to Wichita, KS, and buy cars, then tow bar them back to sell in Springfield. At first, his father paid him a salary to detail the vehicles before they were sold.

What did the typical detail consist of in 1963? There were a couple of other shops in town before Carsten opened his location. "They were charging like $14.50 a car, and that was for the engine, interior, trunk, exterior – the whole thing. So I thought, 'Well, I'll start out at $13.50.'"

Carsten recalled that he started the business with only a buffer and an old Hoover vacuum. The vacuum was actually a house sweeper that had a hose a user could connect, and it was pretty noisy. "It sounded like a screaming panther when you turned it on." At that time, the business didn't have a steam cleaner.

Older interiors were easy to clean because they either had cloth or vinyl seats. Doors had straight panels with no compartments; most just had an arm rest and a crank down window, according to Carsten.

The hardest part was probably the engine compartment, Carsten explained. Engines were cleaned using kerosene and a brush. After that, laundry detergent would be mixed with water in a bucket, and Carsten would then take another brush and scrub the engine down a little bit.

"Normally, after you cleaned that engine, they wouldn't start because they had the old point system," he noted. "So you had to take the distributor cap off, let them sit out and dry and put them back on."

Detailing now

Today, Carsten uses a totally different process compared to 49 years ago. "I mean we are so advanced now, thank God for the intelligence of our people that know how to build this new equipment and all these new fine products that we've got to help make our work a lot easier," he said.

Though the couple is performing the same car care services, extractors, modern buffers and pressure washers have made the process easier. Specifically, Carsten pointed to a barrel buffer that has helped eliminate common buffer swirls. Also, the business uses a modern natural-fired pressure washer.

Chemical wise, the shop has a "standby" company that they call upon. Carsten noted that this company is his choice because they frequently take the time and spend the money to properly test products before release. In most cases, this company works to improve their products for a few years before they are introduced to make sure they work effectively.

"It's really pretty endless anymore about the products that we have, because we really don't have one product we use for all," he said.

Today, the shop's specialty appears to be dark-colored cars. "It's unbelievable the amount of dark-colored cars we do," Carsten revealed. "And I'll wet sand every one of those."

And, with all the modern equipment and modern practices, come modern prices. Carsten said a full-detail price at the shop currently runs about $285. But, this price includes "going from one end to the other."

Business then

Through the early years, the shop worked with a number of small car dealerships, and the couple would frequently clean between five and seven cars per week. "I mean you could kind of count on one hand about how many cars … you were going to get that week," Carsten remembered. "You might get one car on a Monday … then you'd deliver it to a dealer and you'd call around and nobody else would have one."

Still, in the early days, cleaning five to seven cars was a good week. Even at $13.50 a vehicle, by the time the couple bought groceries and paid bills, Carsten estimated that the family was making more money then than they are now. Especially since $6 would buy a week's worth of groceries at that time.

Another difference was the care that car owners showed their vehicles. "Detailing was not big at all back then; it was virtually unknown," Carsten said. "They'd go out and wash and wax their car under the shade tree in the summer time. And when they got ready to go sell it, they absolutely didn't take a dirty car to a new car store to sell it or trade it." This means most of the trade-ins that the shop cleaned were already "in pretty doggone good shape."

Business now

Today, the shop works mainly with a major car dealership. Carsten has known the owner since 1974. The dealership is located in Monet, MO, and it has proven popular with car buyers in a four-state area. Last year alone, the large dealership bought 1,500 program cars.

Over the years, and with help from additional employees, Carsten figures his business has detailed about 40,000 cars for the dealership. "I mean that's just that one dealership alone. But he's really been faithful to us and sent us a lot of program cars that were relatively easy to do," he said.

In addition to the dealership work, the shop has occasional retail business, and the Carstens are key holders for the local police department. The police agreement means that vehicles are frequently brought in for exterior washes and interior cleaning as well as for biohazard work and disinfecting. Finally, the business performs some insurance work that includes oversprays, etc.

Finding business

Currently, word of mouth is the shop's only marketing tool. "It's just being in this business for all these years," he stated. "Everybody around the country knows who we are. They know the type of work that we put out." It also helps that repeat customers know that they are going to get the same quality cleaning every time they return to the shop.

"I've had guys call me, of course I didn't even know them, and they'd say, 'I don't know what you pay these people to pump you up so much. But I have never heard anybody brag on anybody like they brag on you.'" Carsten said.

When it comes to new business, Carsten always makes a certain offer to skeptical potential customers. "I tell people, 'Why don't you come by and take a look at a car that we're going to do, and when we get it done I'll call you and you come back and look at it.' And I've never had anybody do that." After hearing the offer, new customers know that they can trust the shop with their car.

Detailing advice

Based on his decades of experience, Carsten recommended that new detailers go to the best detail shop they know of and work for that owner for at least six months. Also, younger detailers should watch all the videos available and learn everything that they can possibly learn before starting out. "Because even when you learn all that, you're really just beginning when you get in that shop," he said.

It is also essential for experienced detailers to continue to learn and invest the money to pay for their ongoing education. "You've got to stay on top of it. You've got to read up on things. You've got to know the products that are out there, and you've got to be willing to invest in those products that are new and test them."

Carsten said he and his wife are still constantly learning, even after 49 years, because of the changes that occur in the automotive industry from year to year. One example he cited was new car paint. Even though a car is the same model made by the same manufacturer, the paint may be completely different on the newest model than it was just a year before.

One trend Carsten said new shop owners should avoid often is a result of shop buyouts. "We also see … a middle aged person buy another shop out, and they try to keep that help there, and they don't want to do any of the work," he explained. "They want those kids to make their living, and that don't work. That just don't work."

Shop location

Carsten also shared advice for new shop owners about location. "I would suggest that they spend the money and get a high-output traffic place," he said. "That really does hurt you, if you're … starting out [and] don't have much money."

Memories of Carsten's early location may be the basis of this recommendation. The couple's first shop did not include a drain in the floor. Because of this, cars had to be washed in the alley, even during the winter. "I mean there were just icicles hanging everywhere. I mean it was really miserable."

Today the shop's location is still a bit off the beaten path. The business is only one block over from a high-count street, but it's just far enough that drivers do not notice the shop. Carsten said that is okay because the couple could not handle the high-traffic work anyway.

At 67 years old, and after a triple bypass, cancer and six and a half stints, Carsten said he is just glad to still be going. "Well, they used to say back in World War II, you couldn't go buy a new tire. They would just patch it and put it back out on the road. That's just about the way I feel the doctors do me."

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