In today’s competitive carwashing market — where ambitious, corporate brand-named locations are outpacing the growth of traditional family-owned and -operated businesses — one wash with its namesake owner remains and thrives in Connecticut. Fred O’Neill, owner of Fred’s Car Wash, began his career in carwashing over 43 years ago during the 1970s while attending high school and junior college in his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut. By 1980, O’Neill had opened his first wash and has been building a legacy behind his name ever since.
From thirsty student to hungry owner
The story of Fred’s starts at an Exxon self-serve gas station, which also featured a 90-foot carwash tunnel.
“I worked part-time at this gas station with the paycheck providing beer and gas money for a young college student eager to move on to a four-year institution and corporate career yet to be found,” recalls O’Neill.
Following his college years at Fairfield University in 1979, O’Neill began a corporate career path with Mobil Oil as a marketing representative in the Scarsdale, New York, regional office.
“My first assignment was to reorganize and revitalize a carwash location in Norwalk, Connecticut. I got picked for this irregular assignment for a marketing representative trainee due to my experience at carwashes in high school and junior college,” he explains.
According to O’Neill, the struggling carwash location was a “constant problem” because it was being used by many senior Mobil Oil executives who lived in the Norwalk area, including the Mobil Oil chairman of the board at the time. Within a short period of time, O’Neill was able to revitalize the site, which also solved a problem for his immediate supervisors.
“By June 1980, I was offered one of two choices: step up the corporate ladder of Mobil Oil or become the franchised dealer of the carwash location I had just straightened out,” recounts O’Neill. “As a basically ‘broke,’ not-too-long-out-of-college kid, the thought of now running my own business was terrifying, but I jumped in anyway, and so began a 43-year career in the carwash industry.”
A Fred’s for everyone
Today, O’Neill owns and operates four of his own locations as well as an additional four locations that he operates with the backing of private equity group Bold Wash Holdings under the banner of Fred’s Car Wash. All eight sites, which are located in Connecticut, feature tunnels of various lengths. In addition to the tunnels, two sites feature self-serve bays and in-bay automatic (IBA) bays.
“One location has a retail Sunoco gas station attached to it as well,” notes O’Neill. “All locations are exterior carwash formats with self-serve vacuums. Two locations have flex-serve and detail operations.”
When asked what makes his carwash locations unique, O’Neill points to the different wash options customers have while visiting. Across America, motorists are being offered more conveyor carwash options than ever before, making IBAs and self-serves competitive differentiators in 2023.
“The unique difference with our washes is we offer different types of carwash models to our customers. In some locations we have self-serve bays for the do-it-yourselfers, and at some sites we feature touch-free IBA equipment, along with full tunnel operations. Several sites even have flex-serve options and car detailing facilities,” enlightens O’Neill.
In addition to the multitude of wash options for customers, O’Neill also shines light on the power of the people working at his company as a main contributor of success over the decades.
“I believe we are successful because we like people. We genuinely like and enjoy the people we work with,” says O’Neill. “Many of my employees have been with us for decades. I receive constant positive feedback from customers about our associates. As a team, we like interacting and meeting our customers’ needs and expectations.”
He takes pride and joy in his staff, especially when those team members are able to turn unhappy customers into raving fans through hard work, effective communication, understanding and compassion.
“We have been at this a long time and still enjoy it,” proclaims O’Neill.
The future of Fred’s
Like many quality operators today, O’Neill is interested in spreading his brand, reputation, and high level of customer service and wash results to more customers in the region. He notes that the company’s future development plans include exploring opportunities to expand in the Connecticut and Northeast markets, using a growth strategy that includes purchasing existing sites and developing new greenfield locations.
But, as more Fred’s Car Wash locations pop up in the area, what can new customers expect? The answer to that question is found in the company’s long history and growing reputation.
Fred’s Car Washes are regularly recognized as one of Fairfield County’s best washes. Building this reputation starts at the top with O’Neill’s trajectory in the professional carwashing industry.
“The most rewarding industry recognition for me was being chosen to serve on the board of directors of International Carwash Association (ICA),” O’Neill remembers fondly. “I had been a founding member and past president of the Connecticut Carwash Association and truly found it rewarding to interact and work with other industry members.”
In his time on the ICA board, O’Neill served as a board member as well as treasurer and president.
“I had the honor of serving with a great group of fellow operators and vendor supplier/manufacturers as the association evolved into the fantastic carwash industry advocate and resource it is today. I was humbled and honored to serve with many incredible, smart and innovative operators and vendors as well as the executive staff of ICA. I had the opportunity to meet and learn from an enormous group of talented, bright people from around the world,” he asserts.
Industry veterans like O’Neill have seen the industry and customer buying habits change over the past decades. They understand that the market will continue to quickly evolve and innovate, and it’s up to operators and their teams to adapt in order to thrive. Operators that are able to keep up with change will be in a better position to meet customers’ needs and provide value.
“In today’s world, the carwash industry gives people back the one commodity they need most … time,” shares O’Neill. “What excites me about the future of my carwash business is the opportunities of continued growth through the implementation of technology. The entire carwash process is now quick, easy and fun. Compared to when I started in 1980, millions more vehicles are being washed at professional carwashes, and the industry has created a larger audience for our services than I could ever have imagined when I first started in the business.”
As the market becomes more sophisticated and lucrative, even operators with over four decades in the business need assistance to remain competitive and profitable. In addition to networking with fellow operators, vendors and suppliers, O’Neill also enlists the help of the Car Wash Advisory team.
“Harry Caruso, founder and CEO of Car Wash Advisory, and his team know the carwash industry and take the time to understand our goals, whether it’s buying new locations, selling existing sites or finding capital sources for growing. I can’t speak highly enough of the team at Car Wash Advisory … they are young, smart, professional and very eager to help,” endorses O’Neill.
Perhaps with all the carwash success since 1980, O’Neill is drinking higher-quality beer these days compared to his college years. However, his appetite for meeting customers’ needs, developing industry awareness, growing and supporting his team, and expanding his namesake carwash business in new areas of the region has not waned at all.
Car Wash Advisory is an M&A advisory firm that focuses exclusively on carwashes. At our core, we’re a carwash investment bank. We sell carwashes for owners. The carwash industry is brimming with more innovation than ever before. So much passion, collaboration and teamwork is being brought to the operating side of the business on a daily basis. We stand for bringing all the same — but to the transactional side of the carwash industry. For more information, please visit www.carwashadvisory.com.