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Business Operations / Sonny's-Carwash College™ Tip of the Month

The Foundation for Success

CarWash College™ Tip of the Month

February 06, 2014
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Every couple of weeks I have the privilege of meeting car wash operators from all over the world. It's an exciting part of my job because I get to hear a number of different stories on how people got involved in the car wash industry. Recently, I met two operators, about to open their second wash who last attended the CarWash College New Investor Seminar back in 2006. There's a lot to learn from their story and they were kind enough to let me share it.

Allow me to introduce you to Tom Howard, co-owner of Sparkle Express Carwash in Oswego, Illinois, and his son, Tyler, who along with Tom's business partner Steve Hynek just completed CarWash College's Repair certification course. Sparkle Express is an express exterior car wash offering wash packages from $3 to $15 along with express detailing. The car wash averages 150,000 cars per year, and is on the verge of opening a second location. But as you will find out this success didn't happen overnight.

Tom who is a commodity broker by trade decided he wanted to open a new business back in 2006. He did extensive research to find the perfect niche where he could get his hands dirty and not be replaced by a computer. He had always been fascinated by the car wash experience, from his days as a teenager working at an in-bay car wash. Tom had developed a passion and curiosity to enter the car wash industry and began the process of evaluating the investment opportunity of opening an express exterior car wash.

Tom and his business partner Steve attended CarWash College's New Investor Seminar to learn if the car wash industry was the right investment for them. After two years of perseverance and careful planning, their first express exterior tunnel opened on January 30th, 2009. Although they expected to face challenges, the struggle of those first couple of months was more than they anticipated. They missed all of January and struggled to build volume during the crucial first months of the year when seasonal snow and salt drive volume. Opening during the height of the recession, the banks had stopped loaning any money, and they had to cut corners on the very signage and marketing they needed to create brand recognition in their market to build volume. To make matters worse, customers, confused by the concept of express detailing, were expecting a 4 to 6 hour professional detail service. Instead of spreading good word-of-mouth advertising, they were leaving the business dissatisfied with a 15 to 30 minute express detail service. Six years have passed and Tom chuckles as he tells you about the early struggles, but you can tell that the lessons he learned have deeply impacted the planning of their second wash in two key areas.

First is the focus on preventive maintenance. As Tom explains, "sure I know how to tie a brush back, but a customer notices that immediately, we can't afford to let that happen." Tyler fills in their reason for attending a course on repair with 6 years of operating experience already under their belt is because they want to learn the tips and tricks to do preventive maintenance better in order to avoid repairs in the first place.

Second is the focus on branding. When customers come into the wash he wants them to know where, and who washed their vehicle. Followed by the fact that Sparkle Express Carwash offers great prices. When competition entered the scene Tom told me how customer misconception that all $3 Express Washes were part of some franchise. Looking at the high-end logos and signage for the new wash, it's obvious that Sparkle Express is working hard to avoid that ever happening again. Tom and Tyler went on to explain how they focus on every detail to enhance a customer's experience at the wash. This starts with their staff. More than just supplying uniform shirts and above average pay, Tyler explained that they constantly train and involve all staff in the maintenance of the wash. "Even when the weather is horrible, there's always something to do. We rarely send people home and use that time to maintain the wash. Keeping everyone involved helps create a sense of comradery." Tom then added, "We've been fortunate to escape the high turnover I know affects other washes, in fact, when someone does plan to leave, they normally bring in a friend or family member they recommend to fill their position."

Right there is why I asked them to share their story. The proverbial "white elephant in the room" is that preventive maintenance is the cornerstone of both a wash's successes, and failures. Here's a phenomenally successful location that has not only prioritized preventive maintenance for their second wash, but recognizes its impact on everything from branding, to staff retention.

"I learned that we were maintaining some equipment too frequently and other items not as often as we need to. This will help us work more efficiently when we get back and make the car washing process easier." said, Tyler. His father added "coming down and taking the repair course at the CarWash College is one of the best things that I have done; I just wish I did it a lot sooner." Tom, Tyler, and Steve will go back to Oswego, Illinois and teach their 11 employees all of the useful tips, and tricks that they learned while attending the Sonny's CarWash College. Their staff will be more involved in the businesses success and their customers more satisfied with a cleaner, drier, shinier car. If that isn't the foundation for success then I don't know what is.

For more information on either our New Investor Seminar or Repair Certification course, visit www.sonnysdirect.com.

Good luck, and good washing,

Robert Andre
President, CarWash College