Jeff Wagner, Champion Xpress Car Wash
Jeff Wagner, Champion Xpress Car Wash

Since 1991, Professional Carwashing & Detailing (PC&D) has asked its readers annually to submit nominations for the title of Most Valuable Carwasher (MVC), and every year we receive a number of highly qualified nominees. But, what makes one nominee stand out as an MVC? While there’s no concrete answer, what the editors of PC&D can say is that a combination of dedication, leadership and an impactful presence at the carwash are just some of the qualities that we look for.

This year’s MVC has all of these qualities in spades. The PC&D team is pleased to present the 2019 MVC honor to Jeff Wagner, general manager of Champion Xpress Car Wash, based in Roswell, New Mexico.

Just starting out

Champion Xpress only opened its doors in August 2015, making it — and Wagner — relatively new to the industry. Actually, Wagner’s start at Champion Xpress was his introduction into the professional carwashing industry, but his tenure there has been his “third career,” as he likes to call it. 

Wagner’s “first career” lasted 15 years in the office products industry. During that time, he worked in an assortment of positions, from outside sales to computer technology to store management, eventually making it to CFO of the company. He even became a minority owner in the business.

Once the office products company was sold, he then moved into his “selling career,” where he started out in the fundraising sector before moving into commercial real estate. During his eight-year stint in real estate, he helped to start a property management company, which oversaw approximately 2,200 units. 

However, life is a series of ups and downs, and 2014 was a particularly rough year for Wagner. Things started looking up though when his brother-in-law, Chad Merchant, and nephews, Derrick, Trey and Jordan Merchant, all co-owners of Champion Xpress Car Wash, hired him in November of that year to help plan and implement the company startup.

“I firmly believe my previous ‘careers’ have prepared me for the great adventure that is Champion Xpress Car Wash,” Wagner says. “The opportunity to work for family and help create a fun business was simply too good to pass up.”

So, from November until the following August, he helped to open the company’s first new-build carwash in Roswell, New Mexico. Thereafter, he became the carwash’s first manager and spent the next two years running the location before the company began to expand. 

Success in teamwork

In less than four years, Champion Xpress has grown to nine locations in New Mexico and Texas, and now as general manager, Wagner oversees them all. 

Currently, Wagner runs the back office of Champion Xpress with his wife, Kim. His day-to-day tasks include taking care of financials and payroll, handling customer complaints and damage claims, producing financial and daily reports for the owners, making sure each location is reaching its fiscal goals and providing each location with items like uniforms and office supplies.

In addition to these duties, Wagner interacts with managers and assistant managers if they have a problem or maintenance issue to resolve. He also tries to visit each location in person monthly. “I believe it’s important to keep yourself grounded by seeing our employees and customers in person,” Wagner asserts.

Overseeing nine locations as general manager is no easy task, but Derrick Merchant, who nominated Wagner for this recognition, highlights the qualities that have made Wagner a success.

“Jeff is very good with the customers and always goes above and beyond to ensure they are satisfied. Jeff is a very smart man and understands how to balance customers, quality controls, maintenance and cleanliness, and profits. Jeff put together our carwash operations processes, and they are mimicked at all our washes,” says Merchant. 

In addition, according to Merchant, Wagner has hired great managers for the locations and has a keen eye for recognizing potential as well as promoting within the company. It is the very people with whom Wagner works — including the store managers, assistant managers, supervisory team and owners — to whom he attributes his secret to success.

“God has blessed our company. There’s been a lot of answered prayers,” Wagner proclaims. “We’ve been very fortunate to find great employees. We’ve also been blessed with great owners. They all have small-town backgrounds, along with myself. As a result, I think we understand our market. We know what it’s like to want a product or service and not be able to find it. Therefore, we’re always looking for towns that are under-served and need our services.”

Of course, success also stems from passion, and Wagner, though relatively new to the industry, appears to have developed quite a bit of it.

“The best thing about this industry is it’s a fun business,” Wagner says. “Who doesn’t feel better when your car is clean? Our customers come expecting to leave happy, and we want to provide them with that. I always remind our managers and staff, ‘We’re in the clean business. That means clean working equipment and facilities.’ We also strive to interact with each customer. Make sure the customer leaves happy, and they’ll come back.”

A key asset to growth

As mentioned before, Champion Xpress has grown to nine locations in two states in under four years. As if that were not impressive enough, this carwash company already has plans to open another seven this year as well as break ground on an additional seven in 2020.

“When we started in this business three years ago, we said our goal was to get to 20 washes by 2020. A lot of people laughed at us, and it’s only by God’s blessings and hard work we expect to be over 20 washes by December 2020. We now have set our goal of 50 locations by 2025,” Merchant explains.

However, Merchant is also adamant that none of this growth would be possible without Wagner.

As far as construction and real estate expertise go, the Merchants felt confident in their own ability to handle that aspect of expansion. The hurdle they felt would be a bigger challenge was being able to handle and standardize their operations. 

“That has not been the case since finding Jeff,” Merchant asserts. “His leadership and work ethic led to us becoming fearless in opening more carwashes. We have found that we can expand as fast as we want because he always handles all of the operations with ease. We simply would not be where we are today without him. We are in the process of entering another state this year, and Jeff is already thinking about how we can gain competitive advantages as well as gearing up for [our upcoming] washes.”

In fact, store openings are one of the aspects of the job that Wagner enjoys the most, and he’s had several opportunities to put them together in recent years. 

“I always enjoy store openings. They are a wonderful opportunity to get to know our great employees and meet our outstanding customers,” Wagner says. “I’m from a small town, as are the owners of Champion. It’s nice to visit with people face-to-face.” 

His favorite memory from being on the job is actually from the opening of the first Champion Xpress store. “I was working at the pay station to help people choose their wash, and customers were thanking me for us coming to town,” Wagner recalls.

When a new opening is in the works, one of Wagner’s jobs is to set up interviews and hire the staff. In most cases, he will find a manager and an assistant manager in-house, since the company believes in promoting from within. Then, he and his wife will stay on-site during the entire first week of the opening.

“This week can be exhausting, but it’s a lot of fun too,” Wagner says. “It’s very satisfying to see a new store get up and running.”

Such a week is exhausting for everyone at the wash, from the attendants to the owners. But, according to Merchant, Wagner found a way to lessen the stress of those first few “free carwash” days of operation. 

“You’re cranking an insane amount of volume and trying to still treat each customer with extra attention to give a great first impression,” Merchant explains. “Thus, when we open a new location, he takes a team of managers and employees from other washes. He has all our best people for what we consider to be our most important first impression: [the] first week. It allows our people who have been doing it for years to teach others while still giving the customer a top-notch service experience of a wash that’s been around for years.”

Doing it right

Merchant nominated Wagner out of all of Champion Xpress’ employees because he has been behind the company since day one. According to Merchant, Wagner cares about the brand just as much as the owners do, and he is not selfish about doing what needs to be done and performing at his highest ability. Merchant expects Wagner to continue to oversee all aspects of the business as it grows in the coming years, since he is the one always driving the markets and making sure the locations are following the proper and established processes.

Merchant says it is these qualities in Wagner that allow their customers to know that Champion Xpress will always do right by them and that the company will aim to fix any mistakes it makes, although the goal is to always do everything right the first time.

 “At Champion Xpress, we are blessed to have Jeff,” Merchant explains. “He has not only a strong work ethic, great customer service skills [and] extreme intelligence, but he is a family man, a man of God, and we believe it’s those things — and I believe that he would tell you — that makes him who he is today.”

As for why Wagner thinks he was nominated for the title of 2019 Most Valuable Carwasher, he responds, “I think it’s a reflection on our company. We’ve gone from one to nine stores in less than four years. Not to sound boastful, but I like to believe we’re doing something right.”

Jeff Wagner, Champion Xpress Car Wash
Champion Xpress Car Wash
Champion Xpress Car Wash
Champion Xpress Car Wash
Champion Xpress Car Wash
Champion Xpress Car Wash

Past MVC award winners

2018: Jason LeBlanc, Benny’s Car Wash, Baton Rouge, LA
2017: Noel Saldaña, The Wash Tub, San Antonio, TX
2016: Jose Luis Cruz, Splash Car Wash, Greenwich, CT
2015: Mike Hulburt, Autobell Car Wash, Virginia Beach, VA
2014: Mark Fox, Cornhusker Auto Wash, Bellevue, NE
2013: Elias “Lou” Spellos, Squeeky Clean Mobile Car Wash and Detailing, Virginia Beach, VA
2012: José “Joe” Fernandez, Superior Shine in Covina, CA
2011: Chad Cornell, Crystal Clean Automotive Detailing, Grand Rapids, MI
2010: Sandra Silvestre, Valencia AutoSpa, Valencia, CA
2009: Trudy Carlton, Car Pool LLC, Mechanicsville, VA
2008: Shawn Stevens, Adirondack Car Wash, Queensbury, NY
2007: Aaron Rusbuldt, Shur-Kleen Car Wash, Lacey, WA
2006: Juan Avila, Splash Car Wash, Wilton, CT
2005: Brian Daigle, Willimantic Car Wash, Willimantic, CT
2004: Bob Handt, Mister Car Wash, Roseville, MN
2003: Gary Pendleton, Wilshire West Car Wash, Santa Monica, CA
2002: Casey Bowmaster, Champion Car Wash, Trevose, PA
2001: Roman Zelek, Koziol Car Wash, Chicago
2000: Darold Evans, Sandwich Car Wash, Sandwich, MA
1999: Marcel Vargas, Splash Car Wash, Norwalk, CT
1998: Clifford Mitchell, Bebo’s Car Wash, Mobile, AL
1997: Chalmers “Lefty” Jackson, Jax Kar Wash Inc., Southfield, MI
1996: Michael Garrison, Beaverton Car Wash, Beaverton, OR; and Marjorie E. McNeil, Clarkston Auto Wash Co., Clarkson, MI
1995: Jose Ruiz, Auto Valet Car Wash, Trenton, NJ
1994: G. Walker “Paul” Calisme, Exit 13 Car Wash, Darien, CT
1993: Mark Ellis, Soft Touch Express Wash, Valparaiso, IN
1992: Gary L. Daily, Happy Wheels Inc., Wilmington, DE
1991: Norris Brown, Weiss Guys Car Wash, Phoenix, AZ