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Climbing your way onto PC&D’s Top 50 list (see sidebar) is an accomplishment in and of itself, but maintaining your position and planning further growth is even more impressive when you consider the pressures of today’s economy, coupled with poor washing weather and unstable gas prices.
PC&D recently talked to two operators on the list to learn what characteristics propel a carwash business to the top. We learned it’s not just about having the money and luck to run a chain of seven washes or more — it also has to do with a having a keen understanding of how each location works, a willingness to work with your staff on your company vision, understanding your core values, and of course, offering some good ‘ol fashioned customer service.
Let the staff help you
According to Todd Gesund, the co-owner and president of Super Car Wash Systems, a chain of eight carwashes located throughout the metro Detroit area, communicating and working with your staff is key. Gesund says the chain’s upper management talks everyday with their staff about what the customers will notice most when they come into their facilities.
“Our customers are in and out in an average of three to four minutes. What will leave a lasting impression on that customer?” Gesund asked. “Obviously, having a clean, shiny, dry car, but also, just as important, they'll remember the smiling, happy faces of our staff. We stress this everyday.”
Clayton Clark, chief operations officer of Bubbles Enterprises, a 13-site chain of Bubbles Car Washes in the Houston area, also said they look to their staff for guidance. “We have monthly meetings with all customer service staff to let them know how important their roles are in building our business and sharing with them the ‘Bubbles Vision,” Clark said. He also shared that management holds a daily conference call to focus on different ideas and scenarios that may come up daily.
Lastly, Gesund said making the staff feel like family will help business. At Super Car Wash Systems, senior management tries to make the staff feel like they are also owners of the chain. “We make ourselves available to our staff. We try to get to know them personally, ask about their families, communicate with them,” Gesund explained. “But most importantly, we tell them to work hard for yourself, so when you go home everyday you can look at yourself and feel proud of the job you did that day.”
Look to expand, but watch the demographics
Expanding your carwash needs to be carefully thought out, according to Gesund and Clark. The cost of land and water, as well as the difference in customer bases and climate need to be considered. Clark said his company hopes to open two locations later this year and even more in the future years in the greater Houston area. He said understanding the needs and expectations of their core customers in this marketplace is important.
According to Gesund, who co-owns eight locations, Super Car Wash is always looking to expand, but he added the demographics have to be perfect before growing. “We think a high residential area close to a corner is most important,” Gesund said. “We have to be careful; metro Detroit is over populated with carwashes all offering the same things at the same prices. We are in a very competitive carwashing market.”
The economy is hurting, but we’re still alive
The American economy is in for a long recovery process, so for a business to stay afloat, as well as a chain, is an impressive achievement. How have these chains succeeded in expanding and maintaining their businesses?
Clark said that at the beginning of 2009, Bubbles called together its management team and key personnel to lay out the company’s game plan and discuss strategies for the year. “Our philosophy was as long as we got the weather to cooperate we should have our best year ever,” Clark said.
The group assembled at the meeting looked at every expense to “cut out the fluff,” as well as negotiated with vendors on lowering prices and motivated staff to encourage excellent customer service. “We couldn't afford to lose a single customer,” Clark explained.
Finally, the company considered changing its marketing message to suit the new economic environment. Bubbles staff realized customers were going to be hanging on to their vehicles longer than they had in previous years, and so keeping an older vehicle in better condition would be a superb marketing approach.
Gesund admitted the economy in the metro Detroit area has been hit really hard. “But,” he said, “with our base wash price of $3.99 which includes a hand towel dry and free vacuums, we are still very affordable.”
Gesund said the chain has also reconsidered its marketing message, just like Bubbles, and is focused on “getting the word out.”
“We are out in the communities helping organizations with their fundraising efforts,” Gesund stated. “We are in gas stations and oil changes where customers can get free or discounted vouchers for our carwashes.”
In addition to these efforts, the company is also involved with a local grocery chain. If a customer spends $100 or more in groceries, they receive a voucher for a free carwash. Super Car Washes offer discounted early bird specials and contact businesses in the immediate areas of their locations with personal letters that include invites to try their carwashes.
Clark revealed the company also relies on “word of mouth” advertising. “I believe that there are many ways to entice a new customer to visit you,” he said, “but we really work on retaining our current customers and they with their ‘word of mouth’ do the rest.”