Featured profile: Thomas Car Wash

Featured profile: Thomas Car Wash

This family-owned and operated carwash succeeds with hard work and dedicated values built over three generations and counting.

Sponsored by Synergy Solutions

When moving from a rock house in Beirut, Lebanon, to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1927, the Thomas family probably couldn’t have imagined the impact they would have close to 100 years later. But with hard work and dedicated family values, their carwashes have been a staple in Kentucky and the washing community for 77 years. 

Alex Thomas, third generation owner, shares with us what has empowered them to stay competitive for so long.

PC&D | Tell us about the carwash’s early beginnings. 

AT | My grandfather Tom Thomas opened up our first location with his two brothers in 1946. We were the first conveyorized-style wash west of the Appalachians. Back then, we used to pull the cars through the tunnel by grabbing the underbody with a large hook. It wasn’t uncommon to hook a brake line and tear it off in those days.

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PC&D | What are some of the contributing factors to the early success of Thomas Car Wash?

AT | “Hard work and clean living” is our family motto. We feel that no matter what’s happening in the world or economy, nobody will outwork us — nobody. In the early years, there was always a Thomas at the end of the wash, finishing the cars and talking to the customers; that was definitely a contributing factor to our success early on.

PC&D | What was it like for you growing up in the wash?

AT | I started wiping off bumpers at 2 years old. At 7, I was working full days — spraying off cars, cleaning the wheels and bleaching the white walls. My father and uncle taught me the family principles, like “no one will listen to you if you don’t do the work yourself.” To this day, all managers have to get into the pit with everyone else. Other great men in the company like Ollie and Geoff taught me the mechanical side, which is still my favorite part of washing cars.

It may seem silly, but to me, all the parts, relays and chemicals working together is like an orchestra. I’m always trying to tune our wash and business to provide a better performance, a work of art. Our art is a clean and dry car at the end of the tunnel.

Thomas Car Wash’s founders were brothers and innovators, outworking the competition. 

PC&D | What do you attribute to the staying power of Thomas?

AT | I think some of the drive stems from our strong family culture. In Eastern culture, the children are here to serve their parents. I believe that part of our continued longevity is wanting to make our parents proud. My family has been a great support. My father Eli and Uncle Mike are always there to lean on. They’ve been through recessions, the oil crises (owned gas stations at the time), and many cultural and economic transitions in between.

PC&D | How has their experience helped you?

AT | During COVID-19, their support and wisdom were critical. I felt overwhelming pressure during this time and had my first panic attack. The ability to lean on my family, along with my faith and my wife’s unwavering support, helped us not only survive that time, but also come through as a stronger company.

PC&D | Do you feel there are advantages to a family business?

AT | Sure, we have a stronger urgency. There’s a lot more to lose with three generations of history and service in the community. We, along with every employee who works for us, literally wear our name and history on our chest. And our employees have embraced that. We couldn’t be more grateful for the team we have and the responsibility they share with us as a Thomas every day. I really can’t say enough about our crew.

PC&D | With your history and experience, what are recent changes you’ve noticed in the industry?

AT | We’ve seen two huge shifts with private equity and acquisitions. The first is obviously all the new competition coming to town.

PC&D | How did that affect you?

AT | Actually, it affected us in a good way. We respect the better firms; they’ve helped us step up our game. We look at them as competitors, not enemies. Enemies you want to put in the dirt, competitors make you better. We’re grateful for them.

PC&D | Are you concerned as more keep opening?

AT | The competition in Louisville is already pretty stiff. But we’re stubborn, after all, and we like a good fight. If we continue to put Louisville and its people first, we’ll always be competitive.

PC&D | Legacy businesses often have trouble adapting to market changes and technology. How have you navigated that?

AT | I love new ideas and innovation. We may be set in our
values, but not in our ways. With our experience over the years, we look at the character of the people involved as much as the technology before making a change.

PC&D | Do you have an example?

AT | Sure, with all the acquisitions lately we’ve noticed a real slip in service on the equipment and chemical side of things. As a small company, we just don’t have the time or resources to play games. We recently partnered with Synergy Solutions on the chemical side and converted all of our tunnels. It’s been a game changer.

PC&D | How so?

AT | They’ve simplified all of our chemical processes and provide exceptional service. Like us, they’re family-owned and you can feel that personal level of responsibility and urgency. These guys follow up regularly; it’s personal for them in a good way.

As for their actual technology and products, they are definitely ahead of the curve. Switching to them has provided much more than just a cleaner and dryer car. Their products are much safer for our crew and equipment, and we’ve significantly cleaned up our back room with their extreme pack concentrates. Most may not think that the back room is a big deal, but to us, we sell “clean” every day, so we want to embrace that in our culture with every opportunity.

The customers have also noticed a better end product. I feel this is how innovation is supposed to work. If technology isn’t providing a better experience on multiple levels, it’s generally not worth considering. Synergy has leveled us up across the board.

This carwash company is committed to evolve by partnering with other game-changing businesses. 

PC&D | What are other ways you’ve adapted to change?

AT | A few years ago we brought on my cousin Kristina as Brand Director to build our social media outreach. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. She’s a social media expert, but most importantly, she’s a Thomas through and through. Kristina keeps us accountable to our family values and traditions and helps spread that throughout Louisville in such a fun way with fundraisers and general community involvement. We are definitely a stronger company because of her, and our online presence has never been so solid.

PC&D | It sounds like your “orchestra” is hitting all the notes. Is there a fourth generation being prepared to conduct?

AT | I have some nephews who may be interested. As for my wife and I, we have three little ones at home — ages 6, 4 and 2. It’s hard to say what the future holds, but they’re already building mini tunnel washes in the backyard if that says anything.

You can learn more about Thomas Car Wash at www.thomascarwash.com and see its latest video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljvTY_D1FaE.

Synergy Solutions brings comprehensive capabilities and first-hand experience, to understand every aspect of a carwash operator’s challenges and needs. For more information, visit www.synergygetsdirt.com

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