Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Rough road ahead? Not if you stay alert

The future is hard to predict, but with rising gas prices and union discourse it's important to stay positive and be prepared.

May 8, 2012

Here we are again approaching another summer, and what a summer it's sure to be. As far as I can tell we are at one of those crossroad years with elections, soaring (ridiculous) gas prices and problems in the Middle East, just to name a few. Also, let's not count out the doomsday predictions for 2012. On the whole I think it will be a fairly normal year if you're ready for complete unpredictability.

Now, let's take our focus to the issues at hand facing those of us in the carwash industry. One of the main issues would be labor, sustainability and the carwash industry's "big picture" insofar as some kind of owner cohesion, which has been sorely missing for quite some time.

Sense of community

In recent discussions I've had with several industry experts, the growing opinion is that it's "every man for himself," which has stood to serve competitive practices no doubt, but has also led to (or at least been partly responsible for) the current situation we are facing with the unions, the environment and the various very ill-informed whack jobs and price fluctuations between neighboring businesses. Now, I concede to the fact that the union issues are of their own making due to less than honest operators, managers and the like. However, if we had a little sense of community amongst owners and operators, we probably would have staved off the union pressure and had some semblance of order.

The latest headlines in some of the biggest newspapers around the country are calling carwash workers "slaves" and this would of course be remedied by unionization. So we will now have "union slaves" and the slave workers as local chapters. Exacerbated by the local, state and federal politicians who are eager to serve their lobbyists and do a little pandering at the same time, the stranglehold of unions in my opinion will only increase over time. So why don't we have lobbyists working for us? Good question. Maybe a call to action by a more cohesive and community minded owner association could be formed?

Lean on your carwash association

In the meantime, we do have several excellent associations that are not being given the chance by many owners and operators to provide the services that are so desperately needed, now more than ever. For about $1 a day, carwash operators can enjoy many benefits including legal advice on environmental facts and fallacies, labor law, workplace issues and a host of other services that are professionally represented and backed. I urge anyone who is not a member of at least one of these associations to seriously consider joining now. I am personally a member of the International Carwash Association (ICA) and the Western Carwash Association (WCA).

The customer's point of view

So let's look at the point of view from the customers' stand point. First and foremost there is the cruel rising of gas prices, which is putting a serious dent in Mr. and Mrs. Average American's disposable income. And, in case you didn't' know, carwashes are one of the leading indicators of discretionary spending in this country. And as their disposable income lowers, so does their ability to spend money freely at places like a carwash. Now, if you have $40 extra to spend, and if you are like Mr. or Mrs. Average American with a few children to boot, you are going to think hard about where you are going to spend that extra money: At a carwash or at McDonald's?

Let's look at what a union carwash or any full-serve wash has to offer. Realistically, you will not be out of the wash for 20 to 30 minutes (at a union wash it will more often than not be longer because of new rules dictating work pace, paid breaks, quality control times, etc.), and it will be at least $20-$25 out of your $40 budget. This is only for the basic wash or single upgrade plus $2 van/minivan charge and tip. So trying to feed two kids on $15 is cutting it pretty close, would you not agree? What are the alternatives for Mr. Average American? Well, if it were me, I would go to an express/flex and spend $10-$11 for the works while my kids get the whole colored wax and light show and get to eat their McDonald's in the car. And then park over by the free vacuums, clean up the food mess and be out in less than 15 minutes. I'm now a hero to my kids and a smart budget guy to my wife for saving money ($11 at the wash and $20 at McDonald's). Sorry folks, it's reality check time! Yes that's right, gas prices are not coming down significantly and median income is not going up significantly. This is by design.

Controlling the industry

Is everyone starting to put a frame around the big picture? Unless some serious forethought goes into how we are controlling the industry, we are going to in fact lose control of this once secret and highly profitable cash business! Some type of representation at the national level would be great and policing our own a little wouldn't be a bad idea either. If you think about it, in some ways at every level the carwash industry has been taking a real beating. From the fed up SBA lenders, to the unions, to the disenchanted customer, to the fossil fuel protocol, the damage is coming in from all sides.

I would say that we are not full red alert yet, but the warning lights are on! I highly recommend a symposium or some kind of meeting of the minds soon lest we forever play catch-up to our own ignorance or arrogance just the same. I will be the first to offer my services in this effort and will bring to bear my powerful connections in and around the Capitol if so asked with integrity in mind and at heart.

In conclusion, my purpose in writing this article is not to paint a bad picture of any model or of any management style, but to simply present the facts as they are so that awareness can take hold and the outlook can ultimately change. I think there are some bright days ahead for all of us, but it will be because we rewired the bulb and the switch!

Till next time,

Christopher C. McKenna of McKenna Assets LLC, based in Redondo Beach, CA, can be reached at 310-947-9711, or via email at You can also visit his website at