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In-bay Automatic

In-bays to imitate

October 11, 2010
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Think operating an in-bay automatic carwash is easy? Think again. When we asked equipment distributors and manufacturers to name some commendable operators, many lamented that there were only a handful of owners who were really maximizing their in-bay automatic locations.

So what are the factors that build a successful IBA site? Aside from having a good location and cutting-edge equipment, the following operators understand the benefits of building a brand image, marketing their carwash and continually improving their customer service.

Our 2008 In-bay Automatic Industry Leaders

Location, location, location
John Hansen, co-owner of four Car Wash Plaza sites, has one word for you: location. It’s a word that almost entirely encompasses his mission statement. Since 2004, Hansen has been steadily growing a carwash chain in Washington and northern Idaho by relying on the strength of location.

It started a few years ago, when Hansen’s friend — now business partner — Barbara Chisholm suggested he build a carwash. “I thought about it all night,” recalled Hansen. “The next day, I called her up and said I thought it sounded like a good idea. Why not? Let’s build twenty.”

Progress on the first carwash, a 4/3 self-serve/IBA, happened nearly as quickly as Hansen’s overnight decision to build. Within a year, the first location in Coeur d’Alene, ID, opened. “It went pretty smoothly,” said Hansen. “We had modeled it after a friend’s wash in Reno, NV, and it just kind of fell into place.”

Within a year, the two partners were ready to open their next carwash, another self-serve, this time with five bays of self-serve and three in-bay automatics. Early success led to two more carwashes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today the chain’s four carwashes in Post Falls, ID, Coeur d’Alene, ID and Spokane, WA, are all located on prime property spots near major highways, shopping centers, fast lubes and gas stations.

“We pay the money to be in the prime locations because that counts,” Hansen explains. “Our locations can sell themselves.”

Building an image
Hansen knows that even the best locations can be better maximized by also incorporating a strong corporate identity. “All of our washes look the same. A customer can easily identify our sites.”

Hansen said the branding, married with the A-1 locations, means he can get by without marketing the washes — for now. “Right now, there’s no advertising, no marketing,” Hansen said. “We’re talking about doing a simultaneous grand opening for the two most recent washes, maybe some TV, but really, these things sell themselves.”

Hansen’s ultimate vision is to have eight or so washes in the Spokane area. “Then we’ll take a deep breath and reevaluate.” He will concentrate on finding the right properties for now.

His advice for operators also aspiring to dominate their markets: “Keep the places spotless.” Hansen says having an attendant at each location makes this task easier, and also gives the customer a sense of security and heightened customer service.

A cross-marketing guru
If Hansen’s word is location, than Rodger Wilson’s word must be cross-marketing. Wilson, owner of two carwash locations in Colorado, has made a name for himself by combining the strengths of his businesses with the strengths of other businesses nearby.

Wilson opened his first carwash in June 2006 after deciding he needed a change from the corporate world that would also allow him to involve his father-in-law, wife and children. The family’s wash, a 4/2 self-serve/IBA, is situated in a high-growth area along Colorado’s front-range.

The site features one friction automatic and one touch-free automatic, both by Ryko, along with several vending machines, vacuums and fragrance/shampoo units. Wilson installed a reclaim system from Keeping Pace to recycle about 85 percent of the water used by the automatics.

In order to prepare for entering the carwash business, Wilson attended seminars presented by the International Carwash Association, so “the surprises were few.”

“We have worked hard to make the business a success and it has paid off,” Wilson explained. “I think most investors approach the carwash business as something that requires little attention and then are surprised by the lack of success.”

Key areas for success
Like Hansen, Wilson feels the first component of a successful carwash is the location. “We chose an area with great demographics, little competition, and great growth potential,” Wilson explained. “We looked at the development planned for the area to see where the future retail traffic would have to go and put ourselves in the middle of it.”

After hand-selecting his location, Wilson also made sure to develop a look and feel for the building and site that matched the income level and expectations of his future customers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Wilson developed a marketing plan based on his business experience. And he didn’t waste any time — Wilson started marketing the carwash during its construction. “We developed partnerships with several of the businesses in the area. For example, the largest grocery store in town sells our washes at their pumps within the fuel center. We looked at who had been rated the highest in customer satisfaction [an annual contest conducted by a local newspaper] and attempted partnership marketing with as many as possible,” Wilson said.

Through direct mail and cold calling, the family developed a significant commercial and government business segment. There is also a website,, where commercial clients can manage their accounts and learn more about professional carwashing.

The website, along with an email campaign, launched during the site’s Grand Opening. To mark the big day, Wilson gave away washes to give as many people as possible a chance to experience the site. “To get a free wash, the customer only needed to register at our website,” Wilson said. “For two days, we had traffic backed up around the block. The email addresses provided by registering at the site provide the addresses for our regular email marketing.”

Also similar to Hansen, Wilson believes in staffing his carwash locations. His father-in-law is the primary customer service attendant and his caricature is used in all of the company’s marketing materials. Wilson stressed that the sites are always clean and well-maintained, and there is usually an attendant available to answer questions. “We give personal attention,” Hansen explained.

The carwash also supports as many community programs as possible. Examples include junior and senior high fundraising. “We want the people of Windsor to think of our carwash as being a part of the community,” he said.

In addition to installing reclaim, the family has worked hard to educate both city government and its community about the advantages of a carwash featuring reclaim. Today, the Town of Windsor uses the carwash as a way of saving the resource and money.

By the staff of Professional Carwashing & Detailing®