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Postcards from this year’s top 10 leaders represent four regions of the country; from cherry blossoms in Maryland in the spring, to the Colorado foothills of the Rocky Mountains, with stops in Louisiana and Illinois. It is a wonderful tour of the country.
However, a closer read of the cards shows there’s not much difference among the owners; all share a successful operation dependent upon customer service, attention to detail and a lot of work.
Professional Carwashing & Detailing’s® Industry Leaders Review is the result of a wide-ranging survey, created to compile a list of the country’s top-performing self-serve carwashes in a variety of categories.
The survey was sent to subscribers who listed themselves as owners/operators of self-service carwashes. From the responses, PC&D staffers compiled the top 10 lists and then selected four owners to profile.
Take a few minutes to enjoy their stories and the rest of the 2006 Industry Leaders Review.
When College Park Car Wash in Maryland topped Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine’s 2003 Self-Serve Industry Leaders Review list of wash cycles sold, it had more than tripled the numbers from 2001 when the facility was fourth on PC&D’s list.
This year, College Park is again at the top of the list and still showing improvement — more than 400,000 cycles.
“First it’s the location," said owner David DuGoff, “And the demographics have to be right."
Yet, while College Park is only about a half-mile away from the 45,000 people who work and study at the University of Maryland, DuGoff figures it’s the surrounding area. “This is in the Washington metropolitan area, a very dense place," he explained. “And most college students don’t have a car."
Starting from scratch
In 1995, DuGoff, an environmental lawyer, took over his father’s gas station business. He sold off all but one of the stations and razed that one, which had a two-bay, automatic wash his father had built in the 1960s.
In its place went six self-serve bays and two touchless automatics. “I don’t want to have six sites," DuGoff said, “I want to have one really good one."
So his site has concentrated on service. There is a full-time attendant on site “to keep the place clean and deal with those little problems, like the swivel or the wand that’s not 100 percent.”
He also believes in the location. In his case, it’s U.S. Route 1, a major north-south commuter path with 35-45,000 vehicles passing each day and a speed limit of 35 mph.
“The problem with some places is the traffic goes by too fast," he explained. “That’s why ‘big boxes’ have an advantage. They’re so big you notice them no matter how fast you drive by.”
Checking out the competition
One of his competitors has a very neat, clean operation. “But he’s a block off the main highway and people can’t see him," DuGoff said. “And there’s no attendant to help out.’’
A second competitor, also a neat, clean operation, is on the main road, but has a problem with site layout.
“He has a tall wrought-iron fence around the site. Maybe he thinks it will make people feel safe. I’m not too sure," DuGoff said.
The building at that site is also turned perpendicular to the street. “I think a well-lit, open site is best. I’ve seen single women here at night washing their cars," he said.
DuGoff’s building is parallel to the street “so any cop, or anybody else passing by, can see into the bays.”
Another rule is the length of time per cycle. In 1995, DuGoff made the decision to use shorter cycles.
“When I started, it was a quarter for five minutes," he said. The price now is $1 for a minute-and-a-half.
“With shorter cycles, people won’t hesitate to put in another token ($1 each or 6 for $5) to finish the rinse or even to try a wax special or no-spot rinse. They tend to use all cycles available," he said, “and they get a much cleaner car. They leave much more satisfied.”
And tokens are being accepted. According to DuGoff’s figures, quarters comprise just 8 percent of revenue with dollar coins making up 4 percent and $1 and $5 bills about 11 percent. Tokens make up the remaining 77 percent of his self-serve business.
“There’s no doubt that my customers have accepted the tokens and appreciate the everyday bonus of six for a five dollar bill," he said.
A final game plan
College Park Car Wash is a known commodity in the area because of promotions and work with local groups.
While he doesn’t figure he’s drawing many customers from the college student ranks, there’s all the others associated with the university. “At every sporting event, we give away a free wash," he said.
His explanation for constantly increasing sales, although he admitted there’s no proof, is that he’s drawing business from the ranks of the driveway washers.
And there’s one last principal: “This is like a good football team. We don’t do anything snazzy; we just block, tackle and run. We do the fundamentals that win."
Metro Car Wash Inc., Alexandria, LA, features 17 self-serve wand bays and a staggering 30 vacuums at the two-acre site.
In business for 23 years, the wash is considered a staple to many residents in this small Louisiana town of 50,000, located 200 miles northwest of New Orleans.
Before owner Ed Nelson opened the Metro Car Wash, he was a manager of an equipment firm in Houston for eight years. But, Nelson said, the congested lifestyle of the big city wasn’t his cup of tea, so back to Alexandria he went.
Nelson started Metro Car Wash with ten bays in 1983. A dozen years later, he purchased the additional land and added seven bays. Excluding the land, the project cost $200,000-plus for the new bays, a concrete driveway and 27 of the 30 vacuums. The rest is pretty much carwash history.
Adjusting to change
Nelson has seen a lot of changes in Alexandria since he first opened his business. Over the past few years he’s watched 62 self-serve and automated carwash bays pop up within a 1.5-mile radius of his business. He admits the additional competition has made life a little more demanding for his enterprise.
“They kind of mess up your whole market,” Nelson said. “You can only cut up that piece of pie so many ways.”
But while many other owners might throw up their arms in frustration, Nelson adapted, investing more than $150,000 in upgrades.
Included are new payment options and, just recently, a larger vending machine for customers.
In the past, the business was a cash-only facility, but now he’s offering tokens and the option of using credit and debit cards.
Nelson admits the carwash has had to make a lot of changes to adjust to the new specially-minted coins, but as far as he’s concerned, things are looking good.
The new tokens have made promoting his enterprise much easier than in the past. Nelson is running an advertising campaign in the local newspaper and when the existing contract expires he hopes to do it again. As far as Nelson is concerned, if nobody knows what you have to offer they won’t know what they are missing.
“Business has been up for the last month and we’re seeing new faces everyday,” he said.
A symbol within the community
Nelson will admit things haven’t always been so easy. A long stretch of bad weather, high utility costs and lofty fuel prices have made this year especially difficult for many residents in Alexandria. In turn, business at Metro Car Wash has suffered.
“A lot of people in this area are struggling to pay utility bills. We’re not in a real high income area,” he said. “It’s kind of hurt business to a degree.”
So far his business has been fortunate, but he admits that things could always be better.
Despite the hardships, he’s managed to become a fixed symbol within the community. He attributes his long-term success to a program of keeping all the equipment up and running and maintaining a clean and orderly facility.
“We’re working at it all the time. We’re working at it all day long, seven days a week,” Nelson said.
The future of Metro Car Wash
According to Nelson, he also aims to keep the business in the family. He presently runs Metro Car Wash with his son, Edward “Eddie” Nelson, Jr. The two have invested time, money and sweat into the father-and-son partnership, but all the hard work has certainly paid off.
While he has been a steady presence at the wash since childhood, Eddie was at one time a sheriff’s deputy. When the opportunity finally arose to work with his father full time, he jumped at the chance.
“My loyalties are to my family,” he said.
In 1992, Rich Weimer pulled into a Colorado self-serve wash to give his car a rinse down. Glancing around the unattended facility, Weimer realized that this was the perfect career opportunity.
Back then, Weimer assumed the only worry for a self-serve carwash operator was where to find a bucket big enough to hold all the quarters.
Thirteen years later, the owner of National Pride Car Wash, based in Pueblo, CO, seems to have a new perspective. His major concern now isn’t how to get the quarters to the bank, but rather how to handle the daily maintenance problems that arise at his 18 sites.
Weimer also worries about competition. If you peruse through our top ten lists you’ll see plenty of the leading operators are based in Colorado, where self-serve washing seems to be the popular option.
Looking at Weimer’s numbers, however, it’s hard to see anything to worry about. Of his 18 washes, 15 are located in Pueblo, a city of about 100,000 people.
The sites include a location with three automatics and 12 vacuums, a large and profitable part of his chain.
Looking at the numbers
Weimer bought his first wash in 1993. He soon realized there wasn’t enough money in owning just one location, but thought he might have a chance with multiple sites.
Giving himself about a year to learn the ropes, Weimer bought his next wash in 1994. Over the next few years, he slowly acquired washes here and there.
A deal in the late 1990s gave him six washes at one time. Not too long after that, Weimer purchased a quartet of washes, tried his hand at building one, and then bought another to bring his current count to 18 washes.
Weimer said his goal is to have 25 washes. To avoid competition, he clusters most of his washes in similar areas.
“That’s the key,” Weimer explained. “You get all your washes near each other and then they compete with each other. You don’t have to worry about [the customer] heading down the street.”
In the competitive Colorado self-serve market, where consumers have plenty of options, that sounds like a winning game plan.
Maintaining a reputation
Today, Weimer only visits his washes about four times a week, but in the beginning, when he had only four washes, he handled all of the maintenance issues by himself and was at the washes daily.
“I figured it’s just as easy to take care of one wash as it is to take care of four. But then when you get up to five and six and double digits, it’s a real process,” Weimer said.
Now, with a staff of 20, Weimer is able to rest easy knowing maintenance issues will be handled promptly.
There is no common denominator in the problems, Weimer said. One day it’s a change machine gone berserk, another day it’s a broken hose, but every day there is some problem or another.
No matter the problem, Weimer’s only stipulation is that the situation gets handled immediately.
“I can’t stand to have a broken bay. It has to be fixed as soon as possible. I’ll have one of my guys out there within the hour,” Weimer said. ‘The bays have to be clean, and they have to be working.”
The in-bay automatics are where much of his attention goes. If a wash has an automatic on site, it has a full-time attendant.
His most recent project is a site with three automatics and four self-serve bays. He added the third in-bay just this spring.
Weimer has no solid predictions about the site, but he thinks, based on the lines that used to form behind other automatics, this was the right decision.
“I’m just going to try it out,” Weimer said. “That’s how the business is. You just take a chance.”
Bob and Mary Black’s bank account held only $17.42 when they began constructing their first self-serve in 1976. Thirty years later, the couple still owns that wash, along with 168 others and a franchised network of another 200 washes, stretched across 21 states under the Super Wash® banner.
Needless to say, their bank account holds a bit more than $17.42 these days.
Through the 30 years, the Blacks have remained true to the principles they set down when they opened their very first wash on the outskirts of Morrison, IL, aptly named Town’s Edge Car Wash.
“We want to make a difference in our customers’ lives,’’ Bob Black explained. “You have to have a servant’s heart for this business. You have to want to give.”
While far-flung, Super Wash Inc., is still based in Morrison, IL, and maintains a family flavor. The corporate staff includes the couple’s grown daughters, Susan Black-Beth and Jennifer Black, and Bob’s brother, Barry. Many franchise owners have become close personal friends.
The wash his daddy built
The first Super Wash has more than just sentimental value for Bob Black.
The wash is a legacy — the last project he and his father, Buryl, worked on together and the wash he dreams of one day passing on to his grandchildren.
“(The) Morrison (wash) was the last thing my dad and I ever did together before he died,” Black said. “The week before we opened he had a heart attack and died. It’s the wash that’s going to educate my grandkids. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had eight or ten washes at the time, Morrison is the one.”
Black refused to upgrade the wash for over a decade. His wife, Mary, finally came to him and asked if his reluctance was due to the connection the wash had to his father.
Mary asked if he thought the original footings that Buryl and he had poured in 1976 would be wide enough, deep enough and strong enough to support a new Super Wash if they tore down the building. Bob said they would.
“Mary said, ‘Don’t you think it would be really symbolic? Here is the very foundation that you and your father put down, and now the new-style Super Wash can come right out of that foundation,’” Black recalled. “I just looked at her and said, ‘Oh, honey. Thank you.’”
The Morrison site has been updated numerous times, yet the foundation Black set with his father for the very first Super Wash remains.
A family affair
Inspiration doesn’t end with his father. Black says the real credit for this carwash empire goes to his entire family.
Mary coaxed Bob into considering the carwashing business back when the family was struggling to make ends meet on his teaching salary and her earnings as a radiology secretary.
After rejections from 13 different lending institutions — not surprising when you consider their bank account had less than $20 in it — the Blacks pursued one more bank, which finally approved the couple on the condition they borrow $10,000 from Bob Black’s parents.
Mary is also the partner responsible for spotting trends and directing the company toward new goals, like in-bay automatics back in the early 1980s, which Bob dismissed as a passing fad.
The couple’s daughters, Jennifer and Susan, began as attendants at the first wash when they were in elementary school. The girls have climbed the corporate ladder to chief operating officer and director of franchising, respectively.
If it wasn’t for his “girls”, Bob Black admitted he probably would still be a biology teacher, coaching high school sports on the side.
“I probably shouldn’t admit this out loud, but it’s the truth — if the family wasn’t involved, I probably would have lost my passion for this a long time ago,” Black said. When he’s having a bad day, one of his “girls” will brighten it up.
From $17.42 to 160+
In 2001, Super Wash came to a crossroads. While a lot of the washes were pushing 20 years of age, it wasn’t the buildings and facilities that were distressing the Blacks. The company’s major concern was the toll those years had taken on some of the other owners.
By now, Super Wash had nearly 480 licensed operators and the licensing format left the Blacks unable to control the operators running washes under the Super Wash name.
“People’s lives change; they get divorced, they send their children off to college, they have a health crisis,” Black said. “Suddenly, they’re not so interested in the wash.”
According to Bob Black, 70-80 percent of owners lose their passion for carwashing after a few years. And when owners lose that passion, they start to miss the point.
“Their perception becomes, ‘I’m here to clean the mud off the floor’, instead of really being the integral link between what the customers need and what we vend,” Black said. “What we vend is feeling better, feeling good. Feeling good because your car is clean and you had a pleasant experience at the wash.”
In 2001, the Blacks updated the company’s format and became a franchise entity.
The franchising format gives the company the freedom to dictate how their washes are run. All of the washes are guided under Bob and Mary’s “Golden Rule” principle, another important part of the company’s success.
The Golden Rule
Black admits there are a few “Golden Rules” these days — “He who has the gold, makes the rule” or “Treat others how you would like to be treated” — but he pushes those aside in favor of his own: Treat others how you would like your mother and father to be treated.
“That’s the real kicker,” Black said. “If you can honestly say that you have met every person with a glad heart and treated that person the way you’d like your mom or dad to be treated, then you’re doing it right.”
The Blacks, along with their family and friends, use that Golden Rule in every business decision. They won’t develop a wash if they wouldn’t spend their mother’s money on it and they greet every customer in a way they would like their father to be greeted.
When it comes to Super Wash Inc., father and mother know best.