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Starting a carwash

Got a new conveyor? Here's some of best tips you'll ever receive

September 04, 2013
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Robert Andre, president of CarWash College

"One of the most important things when it comes to starting and running a successful carwash is a high level of owner involvement. Obviously the owner will be involved in the equipment selection, design and build, what I am referring to is the day-to-day operation. Often I see locations where no one is present who has any ‘skin’ in the game. I like to use a rental car as an analogy to demonstrate my point. Everyone drives a rental car just like it’s their own car right? To a manger the carwash is just a rental car, unless they have some underlying risk or reward associated with the success of the operation.

After site selection, operation is the number one factor that will affect profitability. I have seen many carwash locations that are under performing because they are just rental cars. If you are going to be a fairly hands-off operator you need to make sure you put the right plans in place to reward those who treat the business like it is theirs."

Russ Coleman, president of Coleman Hanna

The most important advice is to choose the right location. You need to be close to where people live because most people wash cars close to their homes. You need good visibility, good traffic count and a nice professional building to attract customers into your location. Then you need good reliable equipment to wash and dry a vehicle properly.

There are markets that are generating a nice return for investors in their conveyor locations. I have met many customers that are well pleased with their new conveyor locations. In some geographic locations the conveyor market is saturated and we don’t recommend adding new locations. The conveyor market is doing well in some geographic locations.

Paul Fazio, president of SONNY’S

This is not a ‘build it and they will come’ business ― despite what some may tell you. There really is a science to getting a clean dry shiny car mechanically. Get your education before spending the big money. The most successful operations are the ones with hands-on ownership ― not absentee ownership. Build for ROI not EGO. Get with real operators to see real numbers ― make sure your expectations make sense. The business is changing. It is much more professional than it was when I entered the industry 33 years ago to join my family. What hasn’t changed is the fact that those that work hard at it do well. Those that aren’t afraid of change continue to prosper. It can be a great business ― when it is done right. Before you buy in ― go to the tradeshows, make some friends and make sure this is for you. You will be shocked at how willing the guys in the business are to share with you ― as long as you’re not looking to build in their market. Take full advantage of that!

There is nothing like having a conveyor carwash on a busy day when things are running well. To be part of having cars come off the conveyor consistently clean dry and shiny gives me (and a lot of other crazy carwash owners) a thrill ― as well as being financially rewarding. I like working outside so to have a clear day with a lot of activity on a site is something I personally enjoy. I love that it makes my customers happy. They love driving away in their clean car. In this business, everyone does it just a little bit differently. I have never been to two washes that are exactly the same. That is another thing I love about the conveyor business. The business owners are entrepreneurial people that have their own ideas. They are very independent minded. To me that makes them a fun group. I enjoy being a part of that.

Steven L'Heureux, CEO of Ryko

I think there are three important considerations for someone who is opening a conveyor carwash today. 1. Look for a conveyor product line from a manufacturer whose foundation is in excellent engineering. Consideration of this key factor will pay long-term dividends because your product will be able to handle the high volume of washes with a minimum of downtime. Seek out viewpoints from other successful operators on how they’ve handled issues like technical support and ordering parts and service as this is the key to having “uptime” and being regularly open for business.  2. Align yourself with a conveyor carwash manufacturer who can offer a full spectrum of support services, from technical service, cleaning products and parts to management systems and marketing programs. You can minimize the typical growing pains of a new business by having a single source for all of your operational concerns that eliminates finger pointing and provides you ‘one throat to choke’ when issues do arise. 3. Consider how your business will grow and plan to make investments in equipment which can bring your carwash more revenue and additional profits. Options like a tire or wheel cleaning system are good additions to your offering ― either right out of the gate or down the road.

In regards to the equipment and technology available to operators, there is a tremendous amount of forward progress in engineering-based innovations. In addition, there are support systems now in place to help owners more efficiently manage and fine-tune their businesses like never before. Lastly, I would say that the technical service options are also vastly improved from what was available only a few years ago. As the market transitions from owner/operator to investor/operator, I think we will see technical service and marketing support programs become the cornerstone of building a more profitable carwash.

Marcus McLaughlin, marketing manager, Belanger, Inc.

As potential carwash owners navigate trade shows and their own industry contacts to consider their options, my best advice is to first consider what kind of carwash would best suit their personal and business goals. For instance, a touchless in-bay automatic has the potential to be the most ‘hands off’ carwash model in the marketplace. It is best suited to owners who also operate other businesses, work other full-time jobs, or who simply desire to spend less time managing their carwash business. On the other hand, a soft-touch in-bay automatic can wash more cars, at a lower cost per car, but will require more oversight and a larger time investment. Both in-bay carwash models are simpler to expand to multiple locations than a conveyorized carwash model, and are a good choice for operators who want the option of quickly expanding their business to multiple sites.

As one might expect, a conveyorized carwash has the capacity to wash the most cars and produce the most profit, but will need the most ‘hands on’ management, either by the owner or a trusted employee. There’s simply more going on with a conveyorized wash than with either style of in-bay. There’s more equipment, more moving parts, more labor content and, if you built the right wash in the right location, more cars. So the first consideration for a potential carwash owner is, if you want the greatest possible profit potential from a wash site, and you don’t mind the added complexity and management responsibilities, you should be looking at a conveyorized carwash model. Conversely, if you’ll accept a lower profit potential per site, in exchange for a simpler business model and easier path for expanding to multiple sites, you should be looking at an in-bay carwash model.

Once the potential wash owner has a good idea what type of wash they want to open, they should seek out real estate that will support that style of wash. For example, it would be a mistake to build an in-bay wash on a site best-suited for a conveyorized wash, as the operator would overpay for the real estate relative to the volume and income potential of their selected in-bay carwash model. It would also be an equally costly blunder to build a tunnel wash on a site best-suited for an in-bay wash, as the operator would overpay for the conveyor equipment and building, and take on unnecessary oversight requirements relative to the volume and income potential of the site itself.

Of course, savvy new operators will seek the advice of those who can best help them early in the process. Finding an established, knowledgeable and trusted local distributor with whom to work, can be the best business decision a new operator makes. The distributor will be familiar with the market and the customer base, will recognize the profit potential in a given piece of real estate, and will know the ‘ins and outs’ of zoning, permitting and getting the wash built that will best suit the owner’s goals.

Equally important, is the selection of equipment going in the wash bay – since the owner will depend on that equipment for their livelihood for years to come. The new owner should ask ― is that equipment designed and built to deliver maximum profitable ‘uptime’ ― while minimizing maintenance expenses? Will the manufacturer be there for you, with after-hours factory tech support and lifetime parts availability?

With so much at stake, answering these questions thoroughly provides the best foundation for a potential carwash operator in choosing their business model. And because every site is different, every potential wash has its own considerations that will determine the best format for the site, the market and the operator.