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Business Operations

Building a carwash monopoly

October 11, 2010
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As the sun slowly sets on new carwash investors, it rises for proven operators. Banks will be opening their doors to carwash businesses with a history of profitability and opportunities will arise to buy out competitors or to scoop up prime real estate. This is the year to build your multi-site carwash empire.

Unfortunately, just because you know how to run one carwash doesn’t mean you know how to run five — but the banks don’t know that yet. Professional Carwashing & Detailing talked to nine major players in the carwash industry and asked them to share their stories and secrets for multi-site success. What follows is our game plan for 2008; a cheat sheet for single-store businesses ready to capitalize on opportunity.

The player: Jimmy Branch, owner, Speedy Inc., Panama, FL

The game plan: Maximize funds for maintenance/supplies
First things first, Jimmy Branch, owner of Speedy Inc., a carwash chain started by his father Jimmy in the 1950s, points out that having a multi-site operation is not without its headaches. “Equipment maintenance and chemical supplies are the next biggest challenge [after employee management],” says Branch. “Everything becomes a larger issue … from pit waste disposal, tunnel cleaning, landscaping to supplying the restrooms.”

At the same time, having more than one carwash site also means those issues are addressed with larger funds and a bigger staff. “With multiple sites you have the need and funds available to build a maintenance staff and buy better maintenance equipment,” Branch explains. “Bulk buying becomes a great opportunity. Having the same equipment at all locations means you can stock more spare parts for reduced downtime.”

Branch says you can actually operate multiple sites more economically than a single site if you’re careful and manage your operations closely. He suggests having your main office located at one of your carwashes, which lets you be more involved at that site and also lowers your overhead as opposed to having a separately located headquarters. He also cautions operators who may be considering expansion to carefully consider how many office staff they employ. “Too much overhead can kill any size operation,” he says.

It is important to plan your locations so that it is convenient for you to oversee them. Branch’s sites are all 3-5 miles of each other, meaning he can be to any of his locations in 10 to 20 minutes to personally address a problem. “I would not want to have a location more than an hour away,” he says.

The player: Mark Curtis, CEO, Splash Car Wash, Stamford, CT

The game plan: Hire a great team
Mark Curtis and co-owner Chris Fisher opened the first Splash Car Wash in 1981 in Greenwich, CT. Over the next 27 years, Curtis says the pair learned things the hard way. “The biggest challenge while growing the company was to establish a strong infrastructure to support the multiple site and our continued growth,” Curtis explains. “[We grew] before we had the people and systems to support the size of the company.”

Luckily, Splash was blessed with some of the best and brightest people in the industry, as Curtis puts it, and they were capable enough to help the business grow by properly managing the new markets they entered into and capitalizing on market dominance.

“I believe the biggest advantages come in being able to hire great people to manage and train, to provide upward mobility to team members who can now make a good career out of carwashing,” Curtis says. The marketing synergies created by having multiple sites in a proximate area is an important benefit, too, Curtis says. “Marketing and advertising is especially advantageous as the cost of expensive media, such as radio and television, become very affordable when divided between multiple locations,” he explains.

The player: Andrew and Liberty Ryder, co-owners, Shur-Kleen Car Wash Inc., Mill Creek, WA

The game plan: Take advantage of increased reach
“If you have found the formula to make a successful carwash — why wouldn’t you want to grow?” asks Liberty Ryder, co-owner of Shur-Kleen Car Wash Inc., along with her husband, Andrew. The Washington-based chain was founded almost 25 years ago by her husband’s mother, Shirley.

“It is simple mathematics to figure out that an owner can increase his or her success financially by having multiple washes,” Ryder explains. “Having multiple locations allows us to provide a service to our customers that single location owners can’t — and that is convenience.” Ryder points out that any of her customers within a 70-mile range can find a Shur-Kleen nearby. “They will hopefully visit the wash they are most familiar with when they are commuting to work or just traveling locally,” she says.

Shur-Kleen has also taken advantage of the opportunity to sell fleet accounts, which are often drawn to multi-site operations because they can offer more convenience than a single-store. In addition to the booming fleet account business, each Shur-Kleen site has a different specialty service, from window tinting to a wheel store, that help boost profits an add a unique element to each site.

And while specialty services and layout may vary to fit each location and market, the goal isn’t to differentiate the washes. Ryder points out that each Shur-Kleen uses the same logo, mascot and colors to recreate uniformity in the construction plans. “We feel that the operational plans should be as consistent as possible at every location — this is key to having a chain wash.”

The player: Tom Hoffman, Jr., Hoffman Car Wash, Albany, NY

The game plan: Use your assets
The more sites you have, the more assets you have, according to Tom Hoffman, Jr., an owner of the family-owned Hoffman Car Wash chain. Taking advantage of those assets — including a larger staff to support your operations — is important to maximizing the potential of your multi-profit site. With a larger staff to oversee the daily management, it clears up others to look at the big picture and guide your operation towards innovative practices.

“It adds some security to your operation or spreads the risk,” explains Hoffman. “I think customers may feel more comfortable with our company because we have been in business the longest and we have a good reputation for standing behind our service.” Hoffman Car Wash also offers a wider range of services than its single-store competitors, he said. His carwashes vary from self-serve to in-bay automatic to full-serve and exterior-only depending on the marketplace.

Last but not least, Hoffman, Jr. is able to offer his employees more than the traditional carwash operator, and that gives him the benefit of being choosy when it comes to hiring. “It offers your people more opportunity for personal growth and advancement within your company,” Hoffman says, which gives you another bartering chip when it comes to staff management.

The player: Bruce Milen, owner, Jax Kar Wash, Southfield, MI

The game plan: Offer your customers more
Aside from the effective advertising and buying power, Bruce Milen, owner of Jax Kar Wash chain, also points out another advantage of having multiple carwash locations: service offerings. Milen is able to offer his customers increased value for their coupons, a top management team and exceptional customer service due to the size of his operation. “We feel that our customers are more comfortable coming to a Jax location because of the quality of the brand and our great reputation,” Milen explains. “[We are] able to offer our customers programs that we wouldn’t be able to offer if we were a single location operation.”

Milen says single-store operators looking to expand should first closely examine their management team. You need a team that can operate each carwash as if it were a single store, he said. “We view single store operators as good independent business people who usually have an advantage of closer management, but as I mentioned earlier, I believe we have a top management team who operates their locations as if they were the owners.”

The player: Earl Weiss, owner, Uptown Carwashes, Chicago

The game plan: Use your flexibility and economies of scale
Although Earl Weiss, owner of Uptown Carwashes, admits he must juggle his time to make sure each site receives enough of his attention, he marvels at the economy and flexibility of having more than one operation.

“[I can] shift an employee from one location to another when an unexpected absence occurs,” Weiss explains. He can also order items in bulk and take advantage of discounts offered to large-scale purchasers. Advertising and marketing also present benefits on the “economies of scale” level, Weiss says.

Weiss also benefits from the similarity among his locations. “The marketing structure/model, which includes pricing and packages, is fairly uniform and any new location institutes the same marketing and procedures which have proven successful,” he says. Borrowing from proven methods, Weiss is able to ensure that all four of his locations are operating to the maximum profitability.

The player: Paul Carr, CEO, Car-Pool, LLC, Richmond, VA

The game plan: Grow through “aha” moments
Having more than one site means there are more and more opportunities to have “aha” moments, according to Paul Carr, CEO of Car-Pool, LLC. With six full-service carwash locations, one express wash site and a full-service detail shop, Carr knows a thing or two about “aha” moments. “The more people you have out there working in the field, the more likely you are to stumble on best practices,” Carr explains. “You also have a greater ability to build a management development pipelines for future growth as you expand.”

Carr said brand recognition and buying power are two more advantages to have a multi-site operation. “The basic challenge is, of course, that you cannot be in more than one place at one time to oversee the entire operation,” Carr says. Instead, you must rely on your team to deliver on the standards you set for quality and customer experience at your first location. “Then it becomes all about setting the proper direction and expectations and training others to deliver in your absence.”

And if you want your business to continually improve, having more than one site has already set you up to accidently stumble on more ways toward operator excellence — as Carr calls them, the “aha” moments.

The player: Rob Madrid, COO, Rain Forest Car Wash, Slidell, LA

The game plan: Maximize exposure
Plain and simply put: “Multiple sites means greater market exposure,” says Rob Madrid, chief operating officer of Rain Forest Car Wash. “When you have several sites in a market, you are able to create brand recognition.”

Madrid also reinforces the idea that a good core management group and staff are key to operating a successful multi-site operation. “It’s hard to find good people in this business, but when you do, you must treat them right and hold onto them,” he explains.

Rain Forest, which has three sites right now, has plans to open two additional sites this year. “Each site is unique because of size and shape, however, we do have a footprint for different layouts regarding tunnel configuration, site design and flow patterns,” Madrid says.

The player: Chris Giroux, co-owner, and Carlos Rodriguez, CEO, Freedom Wash, Tidewater, VA

The game plan: Reduce your risk and follow core model
With every additional location, the risk for the entire chain goes down, according to CEO Carlos Rodriguez. “If you do it right, you’re going to reduce risk as you add to your operations. You’re going to be able to build on your branding, your market positioning. All of this comes together, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful,” he explains.

For Freedom Wash, the real problem is pacing their growth. “We don’t want to take on too much, but at the same time we want to strike while the iron is hot,” explains Chris Giroux, co-owner of the chain. Giroux says the speed of your growth should depend on the strength of your core group of operators.

Rodriguez stresses that operators should have their core model perfected before expanding their operations. “You need to be profitable and have a good set of operations in place in order to build like this,” he explains. “Don’t hurry to expand without having your core model in place first. Discover who you are and what you’re best at, then you can work through these processes to build the business.”

One of the most important advantages to a multi-site operation, is up-time, says Giroux. “Up-time is so important in the carwash industry. When you have multiple locations, it allows you to have on-site technicians and to store parts and supplies. Suddenly, you’re not dependent on someone else to get you back up and operating,” he says.

Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine. Carr can be reached at

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