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Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fight for great employees. In the red corner is the challenger, Autobell Car Wash. In the blue corner is the defending champion, everybody else, including fast food, coffee shops, convenience stores, a myriad of other retail entities, and neighboring carwashes. This promises to be a heck of a competition because Autobell has really been training hard — and recruiting hard, too.
A fighting strategy
In the ongoing contest for great employees, Autobell has developed a program that is unprecedented in the carwash industry. The company’s defining blows are delivered by its own dynamic duo — Andi McJunkin, Autobell’s director of recruiting and community relations, and Pedro Briceño, management development coordinator.
Their individual and combined efforts are akin to a stunning left jab followed by a round-house right hook that leaves the champ staggering around the ring. The knock-out punch comes, however, when McJunkin’s recruit becomes Briceño’s trainee and rises through the ranks of Autobell to become a store manager — and beyond.
“Having Andi and Pedro is a great combination that is working beautifully,” states Carl Howard, vice president and COO of Autobell Car Wash Inc., America’s third largest full-service carwash company with 55 stores in 26 North Carolina, one South Carolina, four Virginia, and two Georgia municipalities. Since its founding in 1969, the family-owned and -operated business has washed over 32 million cars. The Charlotte-based company employs approximately 1,700 and is projected to wash almost 3 million cars in 2009.
“For about 37 of our 40 years in business, we were recruiting and training the old-fashioned way,” continues Howard. “We’d advertise in local papers about openings and encourage employees to recruit their friends, hoping the good prospects would find us; and we would train managers at each store with some videos and on-the-job as time would allow.
“Now, we’re going out into our marketplaces and finding people that we want to be our employees and then professionally training them with significantly structured classroom and on-the-job education. We are really thrilled with the results.”
The left jab
The recruiting process begins with the self-described obsessive organizer Andi McJunkin, who joined Autobell in January 2008. Her primary responsibilities are to develop and execute strategies for recruiting entry-level employees who may be interested in long-term employment or a career with Autobell.
“My strategies are pretty simple,” stated McJunkin. “I research high schools and colleges within about a 10-minute radius of Autobells — old and new — where we do or will need employees.”
McJunkin then contacts career and guidance counselors, as well as job fair, job recruitment and job interview seminar organizers. She explains who she is, and describes Autobell and the opportunities available for employees. In turn, the counselors keep her informed of upcoming activities and events.
“In our established markets, it’s really nice to be welcomed so warmly by those who are already familiar with our company,” McJunkin said. “That makes the introduction process a lot easier. Of course, now that we’ve had success with the program, many of my school contacts are calling me. That’s really nice and the way it’s designed to work. We are being recognized as a desired employer that trains and treats employees very well.”
For many of the school career and guidance counselors, McJunkin is a wonderful breath of fresh air, as she can take a third-party “tough love” approach with students and strongly emphasize valuable points more effectively than teachers, counselors and parents.
“I don’t pull any punches or sugar-coat my presentations,” explains McJunkin. “Autobell and many other employers have strict rules and guidelines regarding employee interviews and hiring procedures. When we are presenting at job interview seminars, I let the students know, in very certain terms, what … is expected [of them].”
This includes understanding interview protocol in terms of clothes and jewelry, to hair length and style, body art and piercings, hygiene, gum chewing, perfumes and colognes, cell phones, attitude, articulation, and the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation.
“In this current economy, employers can and should be picky about the employees they hire,” McJunkin advised. “The finest candidates usually rise to the top, and we try to hire them.”
The right hook
One of Howard’s favorite sayings is, “We’ve got to have new ideas and the guts to try them.” So, in late 2005, Autobell made a major long-term commitment to substantially enhance its training programs by creating the position of Management Development Coordinator.
The company hired Pedro Briceño, a former Autobell manager, school teacher and assistant principal, to run the department. Briceño’s charge is to develop and continually execute a professional management training program for all managers at Autobell’s 55 (and growing) carwashes.
The success of his program has been phenomenal. In just over three years, 119 store and assistant managers have received full training certification. Of course, this number continually grows.
The time commitment for certification is 40 classroom hours and over 700 hours of on-the-job training. When the program first started, course graduates received a $1,000 cash bonus after completing certification. This reward is no longer necessary because line employees and assistant managers are clamoring to become certified and be awarded their own stores to manage, which can be far more valuable.
Briceño’s program, which he continuously is adjusting, includes 12 modules for managers:
- Recruitment, interviews and hiring;
- Concerned customer;
- Customer Focus;
- Performance appraisal;
- Scheduling; and
He also arranged for the district managers to attend the Disney Service Training Institute, and has become certified to teach the Seven Habits for Very Effective Managers initiative, as well as some individual outside training programs such as CPR, Supervision, Dosatron, Maintenance, and Toastmasters.
“We know that when managers are better trained, their employees are better trained, and we therefore experience fewer turnovers, more productivity, fewer accidents, and an overall better working atmosphere,” explained Briceño.
“Once our employees adopt our business culture and become entrenched in our systems and attitude, they are usually quite happy and productive.”
Since beginning the program, management turnover at Autobell has improved by over 40 percent annually. Every store manager and about 40 percent of the company’s assistant managers are certified. There are training centers in Charlotte and Raleigh, NC, as well as new centers that will soon open in southeast Virginia and metro Atlanta, GA. Additionally, the company will begin e-training courses this year for all employees.
“Training has a trickle-down effect that begins at the top with attitude, systems and procedures that have been time-tested and continually refined in this company since Carl Howard’s grandfather founded Autobell in 1969,” Briceño said. “Autobell wants its employees to enjoy their work. Training gives knowledge. Knowledge breeds confidence. Confidence improves enthusiasm. Enthusiasm creates more sales and makes for happier employees. Happy employees make happy customers.”
Carl Howard affectionately refers to Briceño as “The Carwash Whisperer” for his ability to get inside students’ heads.
“Except he doesn’t whisper,” clarified Howard. “He’s quite intense and animated – and hard to ignore!”
The knockout punch
Knowing that employees are its greatest asset, Autobell treats them as such. In addition to professional training in the carwash business, the company offers:
- Competitive pay;
- A friendly work environment;
- Flexible scheduling; and
- Convenient hours, being open only during regular retail hours.
Autobell also offers a litany of other activities and opportunities for employees. Annually, the company awards educational scholarships to numerous qualifying applicants from its employee ranks. Since its inception in 2000, the program has awarded over 200 scholarships totaling well into six figures to deserving employees.
Autobell also involves its employees in some of its environmental efforts, such as waterway “adoption” activities wherein they monitor and keep designated streams and lakes areas free of trash.
Additionally, various management bonuses and employee incentives award workers tickets to professional sporting events such as the NFL Carolina Panthers, the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, the PGA’s Wachovia Championship, and motorsports activities at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
The Autobell Olympics are held annually, wherein the best two or three (manager’s choice) employees from each car wash location compete in specific car wash skills. It’s a very popular and successful event that also includes lunch and various video games. This brings the finest Autobell employees together for camaraderie, competition, and a day of fun.
One desirable situation Autobell offers many employees is the opportunity to transfer jobs between Autobells in their home town and college town.
Connecting with employees
Communications with, for and about the employees is also vital to employee relations.
Autobell holds regular staff meetings at each carwash, as well as monthly manager meetings, in which all types of information are shared with employees, including
- New stores coming on line;
- Personnel and human resource issues;
- Marketing initiatives and activities;
- Secret shopper results; and
- Numbers pertaining to same-store sales, cars-per-man-hour, and average gross profit.
They also have a quarterly custom employee newsletter developed and mailed to all employees’ homes. This gives others in the home (spouses, parents, siblings, and children) the opportunity to also read the newsletter and learn more about the business and employees of Autobell Car Wash.
The newsletter includes numerous employee photographs and focuses on employee and management accomplishments, management promotions and features, new stores, policies and employee offerings, and operations and accomplishments of the various geographic regions of the company.
Autobell feels the more that people — employees, customers, vendors, media, municipal officials and the general public — know about the company, the better.
In conclusion, Carl Howard offers, “The people element of our business — employees and customers — is clearly the most important one. They are both crucial to our survival and must be recruited, educated, and cared for in the most efficient and effective manners possible.
Fortunately, treating and mining gold from the people element begins with a very simple and poignant principle — The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Bruce Hensley is owner and president of Hensley Fontana Public Relations & Marketing in Charlotte, NC. His company has worked with Autobell Car Wash and its sister company Howco, Inc., in a variety of PR and marketing capacities since 1999.