Is there finally light at the end of the economic tunnel? So far in 2013, many signs point to yes. A report released in February by the International Carwash Association® (ICA)showed definite indicators of growth in the carwash industry. The sparks of economic recovery are finally glowing, and many assertive and experienced operators are looking to fan the flames through expansion.
Yet, growing an operation can be a tricky task. While wildfire growth can be an exciting occurrence, often it is far too easy for owners to get swept up in the event. The formula for successful growth is complicated, but there are certain factors that every business must remember.
Most importantly, proper planning is imperative. Long gone are the days of making business choices based on intuition or a “gut feeling.” Every owner looking to expand should instead call on concrete measurements that include market studies and demographics. Splash Car Wash operations in Connecticut and New York are a good example of proper planning in the car care industry. As the Splash Car Wash chain has expanded, the company has tailored their new locations and offerings based on research done in each market.
Formation and formats
Splash Car Wash was founded by Mark Curtis and Chris Fisher. The pair opened their first wash location in Greenwich, CT in 1981. Today, there are 17 Splash locations that, all together, wash more than 1 million cars per year and employ more than 300 people. Currently, different locations offer tunnel hand washing, full-service automated washing and exterior-only express services.
“The format chosen for each location was in response to the demographics in the specific market they serve,” CEO Mark Curtis said. “Some of our markets are high-income communities with a higher percentage of luxury cars. The hand wash addresses this demand nicely. Other communities have lower demographics and aren’t willing to pay the premium that a hand wash necessitates. Hence, we chose to provide full service with soft cloth equipment.”
Even so, it was the public’s response to Splash’s unique tunnel hand washing that sparked the company’s growth. The original Greenwich location was renamed Splash Car Wash in 1994 to highlight the innovative concept of washing cars on a conveyor by hand. The popularity of this hand washing was the catalyst for new operations in Bedford Hills, NY, in 1995 and Norwalk, CT, in 1996. Splash continued expansion with the development of “soft cloth” washes that used the latest washing technology to offer exterior-only or full-service automated washing.
Splitting up services
Today, the carwash offerings at different Splash Car Washes can be broken down into three groups: Hand washing, express washing and Five Star Detailing.
Hand washing: At locations that offer hand carwashing, customers exit their vehicle at the vacuum station and enter a viewing gallery and gift store. Once the car or truck is on the conveyor, it is washed by four attendants using lamb’s wool mitts — no friction machines are used in these washes. The hand wash locations offer a full-service package that includes an interior vacuum, window cleaning, a door jamb wipe down and a dashboard and console dusting. The entire process takes 15 minutes or less.
Express washing: Other Splash Car Wash locations offer two types of express washes: Full service or exterior only. These carwashes use the latest carwash equipment that utilizes either soft-cloth, neo-glide foam or lamb’s wool cloth. The full-service wash takes 15 minutes or less while the exterior wash only takes 5 minutes or less.
Five Star Detailing: Finally, Splash Car Wash’s detailing packages use a two-phase process. Phase one focuses on the exterior and begins with a lamb’s wool hand carwash followed by thorough cleaning and conditioning of all surfaces. This includes engine cleaning, bug and tar removal, tire shining and a three-step polishing process. Phase two concentrates on interior surfaces, including the cleaning and conditioning of leather, vinyl and rubber. Also, door jambs are degreased, all carpets and mats are shampooed and air ducts are blown out.
Five Splash locations have added on lube and oil change services as well. The oil change facilities are run by technicians trained to use the newest technologies for all late-model and new cars. Various types of motor oils are available, and all oil changes come with a multi-point inspection where technicians top off all fluids, perform a full chassis lube and check tire air pressure.
“Our Super Interior Clean express detail is far and away our most popular service,” Curtis revealed. “This is a great source of additional revenue for our locations and it makes Splash a one-stop option for our customers.”
Today, customer interest in express detailing appears to be increasing. Curtis feels detailing has become popular due to two factors — both economic. As wash counts declined over the past few years due to the recession, Splash locations saw customers decrease the number of times they regularly washed their vehicles. But, when customers did come in, they ended up spending more. “I think they want the added protection or added cleaning because of the increased intervals between visits,” he said.
Another explanation for express detailing’s recent popularity surge may be customers moving down from more expensive car care operations. Due to the economy, Curtis noted that many people used to getting full details on their vehicles may have switched to the lower cost options provided by express detailing.
Hiring and training
Detailing and full-service carwash locations are always more dependent on labor than express operations. With hundreds of employees across two states, consistently finding the right employees could be a challenge for the company. Curtis said Splash Car Wash’s hiring and training techniques have developed over the years through experience, outside consultants and constant internal review and revision.
Today, the chain follows the motto of “hire for attitude and train for skill.” Curtis explained that if a person has an attitude of wanting to succeed, Splash can train him or her and provide the needed skills. But, if a potential employee does not want to work or do well, no amount of training is going to circumvent that attitude.
“I believe that most employees want to do a good job. What they need is to understand the importance of their role to the success of our operation, the tools to perform their jobs and the process of how to use them properly,” Curtis stated. With those components in place, training is more effective, and new hires instantly get the keys they need to succeed at their assigned tasks.
Over the years, the dedication to proper hiring and training has paid off in awards for the company. In 1999, Splash Car Wash became the only car care company to have employees win both the Most Valuable and Car Wash Manager of the Year awards in the same year. Also, Splash has the honor of being the only carwash with two MVP awards.
One of the most important awards Splash Car Wash received was the prestigious Mass Mutual Blue Chip Enterprise Award. “The Blue Chip Enterprise Award given by the U.S. Chambers of Commerce is a national award recognizing businesses that overcame difficulties to succeed,” Curtis said. “Being honored at a dinner in Washington, D.C. was a thrill for us.”
Curtis received the Industry Leadership Award from the ICA for his work in starting Wash USA, a carwash-supported charity that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He noted that the award was really just the icing on the cake after he helped organize a national movement of over 800 carwashes in every state of the union.
Lastly, Splash Car Washes have received more than 25 “best of” awards over the years and been recognized by different organizations. For Curtis, it is great to know that the chain’s customers love the washes enough to vote each year.
“It’s always great PR to be recognized in any positive way,” Curtis explained. “The major awards we’ve won have been publicized by the organizations giving the awards. With the ‘best of,’ we include this in our advertising and on our website.”
Even during its rapid expansion, Splash Car Wash continued to maintain its commitment to the communities it served. The wash actually held its first fundraising event in 1985 with the A.R.C. of Greenwich. Since then, Splash Car Washes have raised over $1 million for many local organizations, charities and associations throughout Connecticut and New York.
Currently, Splash handles requests from over 400 charitable organizations each year. The company has simplified most of its giving into four categories:
- Donation of services to raffles and auctions;
- Fundraiser days where a portion of the day’s proceeds are donated to a cause;
- Gift card sales by groups where a portion of the sales are donated to charity; and
- An annual Christmas sale where Splash donates a percentage of those sales to local charities.
Splash locations also participate in Grace for Vets, and Curtis noted that the company actually gave Veterans free washes before Grace for Vets started.
There are a number of reasons that Curtis thinks it is important to give back to the communities where Splash locations operation. “Most importantly, it supports the community that supports us. The goodwill that’s created is immeasurable,” he concluded.