Going “old school” means something a little different to everyone, depending on one’s age or experience. For the modern carwash industry, the traditional full service format that dominated the mid-20th century, though still quite prevalent today, is being regarded more and more as an “old school” type of wash as ever-increasing numbers of express exterior sites bloom across the landscape like wildflowers in spring.
But, there’s nothing wrong with being old school. Today, it can even be a key marketing component in a company’s brand image as different generations of consumers — from baby boomers to millennials — long for “the good old days,” whenever those were for them. For Car Pool Car Washes, being old school carwash-style is something this business takes pride in. This company strives to deliver a hand-crafted, artisanal, personal touch with old school customer service. Its website even proclaims, “We believe we do not need to change with the times.”
Pooling together its resources
Car Pool Car Washes began in 1977 when local businessman Barry Percival purchased a carwash at 2900 Chamberlayne Ave., in Richmond, Virginia. Riding on the back of his first location’s success, he purchased a second location in 1982 and began operating as Car Pool Auto Wash. Car Pool continued to expand until 1990.
“He was very hands-on in the business and emphasized some of the principles that continue to guide us today,” says Tyree Brown, COO of Car Pool Car Washes.
Brown started working in the carwash industry in 1983 when he landed a part-time job at Hot Springs Car Wash vacuuming cars at minimum wage. He liked the job well enough, but when he would start looking for other jobs, his manager told him not to and that he would just give Brown a raise instead. Brown’s first six months at the carwash continued in this fashion; he was promoted through the ranks until he became the assistant manager.
Brown was the assistant manager for Hot Springs for two and a half years until there was a change in the company and the management team asked Brown to manage the company’s detail shop. “Initially, I did not like it, but over time, I came to fall in love with it, and I had no idea how it would impact my career further on, because I just had an opportunity to learn a lot about detailing cars,” Brown recalls.
Brown was at Hot Springs Car Wash for four years before he applied for a management position at Car Pool, and Percival hired him to open one of Car Pool’s new locations in 1987. Later, Percival transferred him to one of Car Pool’s high-volume locations, where he worked on the ground as a manager for eight years before Percival created a multi-site manager position. Brown’s peers voted for him to take that position.
Percival passed away early in 1997, after which his wife, Joan, operated the business until 2003 when she sold it to the current ownership group, Virginia Capital Partners. According to Car Pool’s website, the new team wanted to restore the brand and create a truly unique carwashing experience by shifting the company culture and making it more service-oriented with solid customer care.
Currently, Brown and Mark Harrison, Car Pool’s CFO, operate the day-to-day aspects of the business. In addition to being the company’s COO, Brown is on the board of directors for the Southeast Car Wash Association and is currently filling the role of vice president. He is also presently continuing his education at the University of Richmond with a concentration on Human Resources. On the other hand, this is Harrison’s first foray into the carwash business, having previously worked in various industries, including a long stint in the energy sector. “He brings varied experience from different industries, which is always useful. Having a different point of view … helps a lot,” Brown notes.
In 2011, the chain opened a new location for the first time in 15 years. Now, Car Pool has eight locations: six full-serves, one exterior carwash and one detail center. And, having celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017, the chain is a testament of success.
A love of the labor pool
Today’s carwash industry has been moving at a rapid pace towards more automation and less labor. Car Pool, on the other hand, has stayed out of the automation fast lane, so to speak, and sided more towards the traditional practices of customer service and carwash application.
“In an industry that is becoming dominated by the express exterior model, we continue to operate as a traditional full service. Our customer base enjoys what has become a market niche, and our brand is highly recognized in the Richmond, Virginia, region,” Brown claims.
Car Pool usually employs anywhere between 275 to 300 people, and the workers on the lot still apply many products by hand. And, with each transaction, employees smile and thank the customer for his or her business.
“I think from an industry perspective, [keeping high labor] is completely counterintuitive because everyone is trying to get rid of as much labor as possible. But, we kind of embrace it. It’s our DNA, it’s what we know, and we really enjoy the hustle and bustle of dealing with all the people. And, many operators think that I am crazy,” Brown admits. “We’ve always done it this way, and it makes sense for us.”
While approximately 60 percent of Car Pool’s employees are part-timers, according to Brown, Car Pool tries to protect its full-time employees’ hours. For instance, these employees will be asked to undertake site cleaning and maintenance operations during rainy days. In showing this sort of support for its full-time employees especially, Brown notes that the carwash chain’s store managers average about a 10-year tenure, and many of the employees have been with the company for 15 to 20 years.
“Our managers have all developed through the ranks. They are walking examples of the brand and are some of our biggest cheerleaders,” Brown adds.
But, in a chain with nearly 300 employees, the managers are not the only devoted members, of course. “Our administrative support team does a tremendous job in assisting keeping the managers on the asphalt while our facility team does a great job in keeping us operating with minimal downtime. Our store teams make things work day in and out, as they are face-to-face with customers every step of the way.”
Rewarding the customer
Nowadays, the popular loyalty program carwashes generally offer is the monthly unlimited program. However, Car Pool uses a different approach. Instead, it has created a Frequency Rewards Program.
“Our rewards program gives a [discount similar to] an unlimited plan, but the customer does not pay upfront,” Brown explains. “We understand that life gets in the way. Customers don’t always have the opportunity to use a program they sign up for. Whereas it is counterintuitive, the customer is rewarded if they have similar wash habits of the industry unlimited averages.”
Every wash package, whether an exterior-only or full service one, is eligible for a discount. For instance, if a customer returns for a wash within two weeks, he or she receives a 20 percent discount; if the customer returns between three and four weeks, there is a 15 percent discount; and, if it’s between five and six weeks, there’s a 10 percent discount. In addition, members receive exclusive coupons through Car Pool’s periodic email communication with them.
As Car Pool is so wholly focused on the customer, its website lists several customer benefits of this plan compared to others: the discounts are applicable to any package, even if you don’t buy the same one time after time; there’s no need for tags or stickers; there’s no need to prepay; and there’s no need to purchase so many washes before receiving a reward.
Furthermore, upon arrival, all return customers are greeted by name, and every customer is called by name when their vehicles are returned to them. “Technology has helped our carwashes evolve,” Brown states. “One of the most impactful things has been the POS system that allows us to recognize each customer and greet them appropriately. A mentor of mine helped us recognize that customers love hearing their names being called and insisted that we find a way to incorporate it into our customer signaling process.”
Another way that Car Pool has come to enhance the customer experience is by recognizing that every customer has a different idea of what clean means. Customers love their cars just as much now as they ever have, Brown notes. Thus, simply washing the car is not enough.
While Car Pool has a standard, Brown explains, the chain knows it is important to understand what the customer wants and to deliver that consistently. As a mark of service, vehicle inspectors will add a personal touch to cars by signing their name to each vehicle that they deliver.
40 years strong
In September 2017, Car Pool celebrated its 40th anniversary with a week of celebrations. On Sept. 9th, it held a customer appreciation day that was replete with pizza, cupcakes, balloons and giveaways. Employees even got a free lunch. The following week, the carwash instituted a “throwback price” on one of its most popular wash options, “The Rainbow,” pricing it at $19.77 to reflect the year (1977) the company was founded.
During this celebration, the company even took the opportunity to name its heretofore unofficial mascot, the rubber duck that appears in its logo. The duck has been part of the Car Pool brand since the early 1990s, when Joan Percival took a liking to it, and the company unofficially adopted it. Trudy Carlton, Professional Carwashing &Detailing’s 2009 Most Valuable Carwasher, named it Sudzy.
According to Brown, employees and customers absolutely loved the celebration, and as such, he highly recommends that every carwash host a similar event when possible.
“Even if you really don’t think you have something to celebrate, if you just engage the customers and engage employees … customers really pay attention to it,” Brown states. Even something as simple as having a popcorn machine and soft drinks can enliven the atmosphere.
The bottom line for Car Pool is that it wants to provide a clean car in a pleasant manner in a reasonable amount of time. This is a mindset that every successful carwash will keep.
“We have come to enjoy the idea that washing cars for our customers is our [way] to help make people’s lives a little happier,” Brown concludes. “We appreciate the customers that spend a small part of their day [with us] and take pride in the joy that we give them when they drive away in a clean car.”