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Twenty-six years ago, when Reagan ruled the White House roost, hairspray ruled the coifs and synthesizers ruled the airwaves, a man by the name of Joe DeNardis decided to open up a carwash. It’s been a long time since then, but DeNardis has managed to survive an economic dip, an economic splurge, and now another dip, the latter of which has taken its toll on many businesses, a lot of which have gone belly up.
Not only has DeNardis managed to stay afloat, but he’s also kept some customers for almost three decades thanks to good ‘ol fashioned hard work, tenacious vigor and elbow grease. Also during this time, he has developed a company that manufactures coin operated tire shine machines as well as a website at www.crowncarwashinc.com. DeNardis is the first to admit he does things the old school way and even acknowledges that he doesn’t own the most glamorous carwash, but if it’s a clean car you want, Crown Car Wash is the place to go.
Keep it real and keep it running
Crown Car Wash, a full-serve tunnel which also has six self-serve bays, is located in Baden, PA, about a half hour west of Pittsburgh and known as a former steel town. According to DeNardis, a good portion of the residents are seniors or middle aged, and most of his customers have a “steel town” mentality. In other words, he’s going for an ‘old school’ business format.
“They want their money’s worth and won’t be shy in telling you so,” he explained.
DeNardis admitted he is similar to his customers in that respect, and represents a sort of paradigm in management philosophy: Not easy to work for, but also the easiest guy to work for.
“I’m a perfectionist and meticulous,” DeNardis surmised. “I have grown to be very direct when I have to tell my people what they did wrong,” but, he said, “I will praise my people when they do a good job.”
DeNardis also isn’t afraid to ask for a little help and even suggests that any new operator attend CarWash College, an educational training school offering classes in carwash management, maintenance and repair started by SONNY’S, but independently managed.
“I’m old school myself — nearing 63,” DeNardis boasted. “I learned on my own and by a lot of trial and error. Enough cannot be said for having a lot of skills when you come into this business. It is invaluable training.”
Challenges met and conquered
Long and laborious hours go hand-in-hand with owning a carwash and DeNardis openly divulged that the carwash business isn’t all fun and games. It takes hard work and a strong will to succeed and he is open about the obstacles owners and operators face.
“It can be a challenge at times. Carwashing is an interesting business,” he admitted. “This business involves a lot of maintenance, managing people and dealing with the public. It is a business of highs and lows, meaning we can have a good run of business for one or two weeks and then little or no business.” DeNardis also said it can be challenging in that he cannot be there every day and has to rely on managers and attendants to run the wash.
He admitted his biggest challenge so far, has been finding quality employees on a regular basis. “Finding someone who is handy with higher than average mechanical skills and who likes this business can be difficult,” he said, adding that you have to set a good example with your people. “People need adequate training and mentoring in order for the business to function correctly.”
The economy, the weather, buying habits and demographics are ever-changing, so it’s important to change with it. DeNardis said he believes the carwash business operates like a puzzle. He said if he notices something within the business that no longer makes sense, then he makes a change.
“We have to be resilient and adapt as the economy and buying habits change. I went to flex serve almost two years ago — a little ahead of other washes in my area,” DeNardis explained. This has increased my revenue, increased my volume and has allowed me to introduce new customers to my carwash.”
DeNardis said it can be difficult to figure out pricing strategies with the changing economy. “I spent many years toying with increasing a price here or there, finally discovering that your steady customers are really not as price conscientious as one would imagine. If they like the quality and service, a little more money for the wash is not important,” he said.
“Conversely,” he added, “If your wash is lacking in these areas then a price increase will influence a customer to look elsewhere.”
The same customers for almost 30 years
Small businesses come and go and ownership changes, but when one stays the same, and keeps its customers for almost 30 years, the owner must be doing something right.
“Quality and service must be at the top of your list,” stated DeNardis. “While a carwash may not be gaining on customers, you surely do not want to lose customers because of quality or service. Quality, dependability and service will endure.”
Twenty years ago, DeNardis noticed operators were cutting back on chemicals to reduce costs which he said is a monumental mistake. “Novice operators tend to do this,” he said, adding that you want your business to be a standout for quality — not a standout for no soap, wax or poor service.
DeNardis admitted he does not have the most glamorous carwash in his area; it isn’t a multi-million dollar establishment and he doesn’t implement any extensive marketing or advertising. “But,” he said, “My cars come out as clean or cleaner than multi-million dollar washes I compete with; the premises is always clean, neat and tidy; and our service is commendable.”
He added, “A good carwash and good service on a consistent basis is your best advertiser — no question.”