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It's a depressing situation. Turn on any TV, find a 24-hour news channel and listen as the "financial experts" regularly sound the death knell of the American dream. The current economic crisis has threatened the notion that a hard-working operator, aided by intelligence and forethought, can find success in the car care industry. Yet, even as many businesses have withered on the vine, there are owners who have uncovered inventive and intriguing ways to succeed.
Attentive carwash owners and operators have learned how to pull profits from their businesses by studying the success of others. Using the information provided by associations and publications, operators should frequently ask themselves tough but important questions: What steps can I take to improve tunnel efficiencies? How can I stay a step ahead of government regulations? What type of employment screenings will save me time and money?
The Marc-1 Express Car Wash locations in Alabama are a good example of success in spite of the troubled economy. In 1981, Marc-1 founder Marcus Kittrell got his start in the car care industry as a full-service carwash worker. Now, three decades later, he owns the Marc-1 chain and is the acting immediate past president of the Southeastern Car Wash Association (SECWA).
Ending up express
During his early years in the industry, Kittrell worked in almost every format of the carwash world except for express tunnels. Kittrell had been employed by a full-service wash for five years in 1986 when he and his father built their first self-service carwash. While staying employed at the full-service wash, Kittrell was able to buy and operate even more self-serve locations. In 1995, Kittrell went to work for a carwash distributor, and in 2000 he opened his first full-service wash tunnel.
The express inspiration didn't strike Kittrell until a visit to Benny's Car Wash in Baton Rouge in 2002. There, he saw an express carwash model first hand, and that led to his decision to enter the express market.
"I had five or six locations at one time of the do-it-yourself [washes] with the automatics. And then, over time, sold all of those but one and … stayed with the conveyors," he said.
Kittrell said that, in the end, his background was in conveyor washing, and he was just more comfortable with conveyor washes. "You generate more money and things like that. So that's … why I just started staying with the conveyors and slowly getting out of the self-serves."
Build it convenient
Marc-1's newest location was built in bustling Pelham, AL, in 2006, and it followed the Hoover, AL, Marc-1 wash that opened in 2003. Kittrell's full-service conveyor in Prattville, AL, was the wash that debuted in 2000, but it was rebuilt as an express wash in 2008 after the business was destroyed by a tornado.
When it came time to build the wash in Pelham, the business' bank actually helped Kittrell find the perfect location. The bank owned a lot on a busy highway in the city where it planned to build a new branch. Even so, the bank bought a different piece of land with an existing building, and they contacted Kittrell because they knew he was looking for property in the area.
Kittrell explained that ultimately the expansion and growth of the Marc-1 chain was made possible by the business' focus on customer service and convenience. First and foremost, Marc-1 uses the express format to provide customers with an affordable and convenient car care service. "[It's] all the little things we do," Kittrell said. "We really try to put out a nice, clean, dry car."
And one way Marc-1 keeps an active flow of customers is through its convenient locations. Kittrell stated that all three locations feature good traffic counts and all provide customers with easy access. Each of the sites was designed to offer quick easement in and out of the businesses, and good location visibility has also proven to be a big plus for the chain.
A dash of DIY
Some popular offerings that Marc-1 washes feature are self-serve prep and finish areas available to customers before and after the tunnel. The prep area lets customers pull in before entering the wash to touch up any potential trouble spots. "You know, no one knows your car like yourself, and if you've gone through a carwash sometimes you know exactly what maybe the carwash can't get," Kittrell noted. "And scrubbing those areas, that's been a big hit."
After the wash, Marc-1 has the traditional free vacuums, and there are also towels provided so that customers can dry their own cars. There are window cleaner and towels available so that customers can wash their own windows as well, according to Kittrell.
"We've kind of, I guess, mixed the full-service and the express together a little bit, but without the labor part of it," Kittrell said. "And we've found out that customers really like that value, that they can come in and do it themselves."
One benefit of this setup is that it allows customers to spend as much time as they want cleaning their car. Or, if they're in a hurry, customers can still just vacuum and go. Kittrell said this service is an example of the affordable and customer-friendly services that Marc-1 tries to implement at each carwash.
Ways to save?
Kittrell said, over the last few years, there's been a big push in the market to reduce utility and chemical usage. Specifically, businesses are looking for ways to save on their costs for:
There is "always new technology out there," Kittrell stated. When it comes to energy usage, Marc-1 has installed electrical boxes that have shown savings on the washes' power costs. Also, the businesses have installed parts on their dryers to help reduce energy usage between cars.
When it comes to water and sewer costs, the washes have installed water-saving equipment and metered equipment that helps closely monitor the gallons used per car. "With chemicals it's the same way, you see a lot of emphasis on everybody trying to save money," he said.
"Those are probably the main areas … that our industry is getting better and better at with savings," Kittrell continued. "Definitely look in those three areas and you'll see a lot of different opportunities to save some money."
How hiring can help
In express businesses, only a handful of employees are needed on-site during the normal business day. Because of this, it is important to make sure that employees can handle several different roles. "You have some customer service, you have some maintenance, you have some cleaning, and so your employee now … better be [more] well-rounded than what we've hired in the past," Kittrell said.
To this end, Marc-1 managers and employees have worked to improve the interview process. Kittrell and his team take more time interviewing potential employees to make sure they understand schedules and customer service and to measure their capability to perform in a multi-faceted job. Pre-employment drug screenings are also required.
"It's a lot cheaper to turn somebody down than it is to let somebody go," Kittrell revealed. "And so we have definitely spent more time, are taking more notice of, trying to hire an employee that will work better for us."
Serving with SECWA
Kittrell has served with SECWA for years, first as a director, then moving through the ranks as treasurer, vice president and the 2011 president. Currently he serves as the group's past president, and he said SECWA has given him the opportunity to meet a lot of great operators in the carwash business. "I encourage anybody getting in the business or that's in the business to be a part of [an] association," he said.
SECWA is heavily involved in a "road show" format for meetings where operators from around the country can come to a city for an affordable two-day trip. These trips let owners tour other carwash facilities and see first-hand what practices might help them in their own businesses.
"You can go to carwashes, look at them, talk to the owners, talk to the managers, see if something that's working for them might work for you," Kittrell stated. "We've always said if you can take one good idea back from a meeting, then it was worth your trip. And we've heard that over and over and over again from all our folks that visit."
Kittrell also noted that it can be helpful for an operator to be a part of multiple associations. Specifically, he mentioned the International Carwash Association (ICA). He cited the ICA's Water Savers program and assorted marketing offerings as great assets to carwash owners.
Today, it seems that local governments and the federal government are offering more challenges to carwash owners than ever before. Locally, it's getting tougher and tougher to get a carwash zoned in some cities — especially cities that have strict water and sewer restrictions, Kittrell said.
The government restrictions now are making it so owners have to jump through more hoops than the past, according to Kittrell. In addition, license and property tax fees continue to become more and more expensive.
New investors and owners that are looking to expand are commonly faced with these problems, Kittrell said. Because of this, there is not as much new construction in the market. Instead, people are buying older locations and rehabbing properties.
When it comes to the federal government, owners definitely need to be more aware of what is coming in terms of Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement, Kittrell explained. Whether it's a new or old location, there are going to be strict OSHA requirements that will have to be enforced. While many washes don't have personal experience with the regulations yet, most have heard about them.
Oh my OSHA
In fact, carwash owners now are used to discussing OSHA at almost every SECWA meeting. "Yeah, you're seeing the OSHA name just about every show," Kittrell said. "And that's really all over the associations. You see that everywhere now."
The group's presentations commonly cover what OSHA looks for in the typical carwash visit and how an operator can be OSHA ready. These typically let an owner or operator know what steps need to be taken, and they can help the industry start learning and figuring out how to be OSHA complaint, Kittrell noted.
What was Kittrell's reaction when he began learning about OSHA's interest in carwashes? "Well, it scared the life out of me at first," he said. "I wanted to sell my carwashes, get out and move. But, you know, we're still educating ourselves on that."
Now, after learning more, Kittrell's thoughts on the regulations seem a bit calmer. "I think some of the OSHA requirements will make you a better operator if you take it the right way. I'm sure some OSHA things are aggravating, but we're going to try and take it in a positive way. Okay, will this make us safer and better? If it does then we need to be doing it."
So far, there have been a few OSHA carwash inspections in North Carolina, according to Kittrell. "You know, that just means that it's coming. It's not if, it's just when," he said. "So I think that it's definitely coming. So we just all have to hopefully be prepared."
Social media and meeting challenges
It's no secret that many challenges loom for carwash operators today. One of the biggest technological challenges facing owners is the big push in social media marketing, Kittrell said. Owners are going to have to get familiar with social media or they are going to have to hire somebody that is. "I think to compete at the level that everybody's going to … it's going to take learning some skills."
There will always be challenges that owners will have to face head on — from energy and water to city, state and federal guidelines. "That's something that we're all going to have to stay on top of," Kittrell said. "I don't see that changing at all. I mean I think it's just going to get magnified more and more."