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News from the Industry

October 11, 2010
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WCA, workers speak at L.A. hearing on workers’ rights
The carwash workers’ rights saga continued in Los Angeles, where several high-profile raids and lawsuits have focused on violations of labor laws at carwashes in the city and throughout the state. This January, a National Workers’ Rights Board hearing was held to hear from carwash employees who claim they were mistreated and to call upon employers to improve working conditions.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa welcomed community and religious leaders, elected officials, carwash employees and Western Carwash Association representatives to try and address abuses and hear recommendations to improve conditions. WCA member Sander Romick was in attendance and WCA President Bill Carbonel was afforded the opportunity to testify. He testified that while the city of Los Angeles may be experiencing problems with a few rouge operators, the vast majority of carwash operators are law abiding and professional. He said the actions of those rouge operators create an unfair playing field for those who are following the rules.

In an interview with Professional Carwashing & Detailing, Romick said he believed the cards were stacked against the carwash industry going into the hearing, adding that most portrayals of operators were as ones who didn’t care for their employees. “We attended knowing we would be heard, but not objectively,” he explained.

Romick pointed out that the WCA asks its members to obey the laws — it’s in their bylaws to do so. “Some of the items mentioned are logical. Of course workers have the right to a safe workplace.” However, he said, as with any other industry, “you’ll have people who exploit their workers, so why paint our industry with a broad brush?”

“Overall, we think they had some good points,” Romick said, “But we also think they had some onerous points.”

Workers at the hearing told the Mayor they were paid less than minimum wage and worked 50-60 hours a week without overtime pay. “I saw workers have accidents because they were not provided with basic safety equipment,” one worker said in a press release before the hearing, “and I saw the owner fire or reduce the hours of workers who they suspected of supporting a union.”

Aura Lopez, a former employee of Best Way Car Wash, told those assembled at the hearing that she was injured on the job in 2008. “A month after the accident, the owner saw me talking to a union organizer about how to get help for my injuries. The owner then fired me and told me never to come back to the carwash,” she said.

The hearing, part of the CLEAN (Community-Labor-Environmental Action Network) Carwash Campaign, also included a photo exhibit which showed pictures of unsafe working conditions. CLEAN has been campaigning for workers rights since 2008.

The National Workers’ Rights Board offered up the recommendations to:
  • Do business only with carwashes that have signed the CLEAN Carwash Agreement. The agreement outlines safety, environmental and health standards for employees and allows them to form a union without incident.
  • Improve the state’s wage and hour, health and safety, and environmental laws.
  • Form a multi-agency task force to investigate employee complaints.

SONNY’S observes increase in flex-serve carwashes
SONNY’S Enterprises, Inc. is reporting a significant increase in flex-service carwash sales and predicting the industry will continue to evolve in that direction.

The company said that while express exterior carwashes dominate the market for new construction, representing 75 percent of SONNY’S overall sales in 2009, flex-serve has grown from 15 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2009. Full-service declined from 7 percent to 5 percent in the same comparison period. Flex-serve typically combines an express-exterior carwash and express-detailing service offerings on one property.

“When you look at the economy and the general consumer population, it makes perfect sense that operators who would have previously built a full-serve are increasingly choosing the flex-serve model,” explained Paul Fazio, president of SONNY’S. “There will always be demand for the full-service wash, but today’s carwash often needs to appeal to a broader customer base and be in better control of its labor costs to succeed. The flex-serve model allows the business to attract a larger audience with a value priced drive-thru exterior while meeting the demand of the full-serve customer by providing interior cleaning and express detailing services.”

In addition to the flex-serve trend, Fazio also noted operators are building more multi-profit center locations. “There’s a definite push to increase the value of a property by adding multiple wash formats and services that can expand hours of operation and the consumer preferences served,” Fazio said in the release. “That is a trend that I expect will gain momentum in 2010.”

SONNY’S Enterprises is the largest manufacturer of conveyor carwash equipment, parts and supplies in the world.

Mark VII notes increase in friction sales
Friction in-bay automatics now account for the majority of sales at Mark VII Equipment Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of WashTec AG of Germany, which noted the introduction of the company’s SoftWash XT® rollover in 2009 coincided with the increase.

Previous to 2009, friction units represented about a third of the company’s rollover sales, but have now surged to 51 percent.

Director of Marketing and Product Management Steve Robinson noted four factors driving the trend:
  • Popularity of new systems.
  • Demand for newer technology that sig nificantly reduces water consumption. Friction units use as little as 15 gallons per wash, thecompany said.
  • A desire to reduce operating costs. According to comments made by the company, friction machines require fewer chemicals, which combined with lower water consumption, reduce operating costs and make the business greener.
  • The needs of convenience store chains, “which represent the lion’s share of in-bay automatic carwashes.” The company said c-stores look for lower operating costs and quality cleaning results.

But Mark VII President Murray Kennedy said not to worry — touch-free carwashing still has its hold on the market. “Touch-free carwashing isn’t going away,” Kennedy said. “Both wash formats have their place and we’re happy to see carwash operators more willing to give consumers a choice of the format that best suits their needs.”

Autobell plows ahead, opens 57th site
Autobell Car Wash Inc., the third largest conveyor carwash chain in the nation, is now 57 carwashes strong after opening a location in Clover, SC.

The newest wash is the company’s second location in South Carolina and it features an Aqua Bio 100% reclaim water treatment system in which enzymes digest and recycle the waste water.

“We continue to look for strategic locations from which to serve this ever-expanding metro region,” explained Autobell President and CEO Chuck Howard, “and this wash will make our services convenient to more South Carolina residents.”

Darin Icard has been named store manager at the Clover site.

Costco plans carwash for another site
Costco, the warehouse supermarket chain, has plans to add a carwash and gas station to its San Juan Capistrano, CA, store as soon as permits are approved for its property acquisition.

At the tail end of last year, Costco also began the process to add a carwash to its San Marcos, CA, location, as well. Currently the chain has two conveyor carwashes in operation, one is in California and the other is in Washington. The company has not said if it plans to continue with the express exterior format at its two new carwashes.

Costco’s involvement in the carwash industry came about after 10 years of research and one failed attempt in 2003. It opened its first carwash in April 2006 in Washington, the company’s home state, and followed with a San Diego location in 2008. It has used MacNeil conveyor equipment and the express exterior format, offering members a single-price wash service.

Carwashes thrive in winter weather
Carwashes across the nation were finally able to accept the weatherman’s reports after volumes increased this winter due to both sun and snow. Cold winter weather (and the accompanying salt and sand) boosted car counts in Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, Iowa and Alaska, while warmer weather patterns were drawing in customers in Massachusetts, West Virginia and Minnesota.

For example, the In and Out Car Wash in Joplin, MO, was seeing about 100 cars per hour after a winter storm this January, up from the 100 cars a day it had been seeing earlier in the season. Carwash Manager Kyle Jackson said, “This is wonderful. The temperatures have warmed up, the streets have dried up, we have plenty of cars coming in with plenty of dirt on the cars.”

Nearby in Rogers, AK, Boomerang Car Wash was also doubling its volume, but it was due to warmer weather and not snow and cold.

In North Attleboro, MA, a heat wave helped carwashes in the middle of January, which brought out self-serve customers in high numbers. As carwash customer Dave Lopez explained, “It’s the perfect temperature to get rid of the salt. You can’t wash it when it’s cold because when you drive off, it freezes up.”