Though the phrase was only coined in 1931, the American Dream, which promises freedom, opportunity and the chance for success, has served as a source of hope for all, from the settlers of colonial America to today’s immigrants and natural-born. However, in recent years, Americans themselves have begun to question whether or not the American Dream is dying or in fact already dead.
Depending on how you define the American Dream and measure its outcomes, you can argue it either way, but for many people outside America’s borders, the dream is certainly not dead.
In fact, according to AJ Rassamni, owner of Great American Car Wash in Fresno, California, growing up in war-torn Lebanon, no one had ever heard of someone failing to achieve the American Dream. In retrospect, he notes, that was probably because the people who succeed tell the world about it while the people who fail keep quiet. But regardless, he states, “I never knew you could fail in America because I was never told that.” And, that positive outlook was critical to him in his quest for success in this country.
America the beautiful
With the stories of others’ successes bolstering his spirits, a 23-year-old Rassamni decided to continue his education in the U.S. and move to California in January 1987. Like many others at that time, he decided to go to school at night and work during the day. Without prior experience, he ended up working at a carwash — Great American Car Wash, as it were. And, after just seven days of working there, he knew he loved the business.
“I then set a personal goal to buy the carwash in 10 years. From that point on, I no longer saw myself as an employee, but rather as the carwash owner,” Rassamni recalls. At the time, he had $3,000 to his name and an income of $200 per week, but to him, his lack of funds was not an impediment to his goal of purchasing a $1 million carwash. “I had 10 years to plan and prepare, but I had no clue that my goal was impossible to achieve or farfetched for someone in my shoes. Luckily, I did not have any friends to tell me that my dream was impossible. All I was doing was living my American Dream.”
Over the next few years, Rassamni made himself indispensable at the carwash and rose through the ranks as a result. He invested his own time and money into sales seminars, suggested ways that the carwash could improve business and helped the carwash multiply its profits. “I became more valuable than what I was getting paid to do,” he notes.
By 1990, Rassamni had become so critical to the business that, in order to entice him to stay, the owner not only promoted him to general manager and doubled his salary but also gave him 10 percent of the profits. By 1996, Rassamni was already earning 25 percent of the company profits, and that year, the owner decided to sell the carwash. It was the opportunity Rassamni had been waiting for. He obtained two business lines of credit and used the money to purchase the owner’s shares.
Since then, Rassamni has bought and sold several carwashes, including that first carwash, but he prefers to only own one carwash at a time for two reasons: He believes in creating personal relationships with customers and staff in addition to providing unforgettable experiences, and he also has other business interests aside from the carwash. He purchased his current carwash in Fresno, California, in 2007 and named it Great American Car Wash after its predecessor.
This wash is your wash
“You cannot blame a flood on one drop of rain, but on all raindrops combined,” Rassamni educates.
What he means is that there is not just one thing that makes a carwash great, but that many smaller things combine to create the intensely impactful experience that will drive a customer to bypass competing carwashes and return to yours.
Rassamni is a firm believer that staff is the most important asset of a business. “Customers don’t do business with companies; they do business with people,” he says. To that end, he emphasized creating a family culture at his carwash, knowing that happier employees means a better experience for customers.
His philosophy is that it’s something of a trickle-down effect. If he takes care of the managers, the managers will take care of the supervisors, who take care of the staff, who take care of the customers. “How many businesses do you know of that employees come and hang around work on their days off? Ours do,” Rassamni intimates.
Furthermore, Rassamni has inverted the relationship between customers and staff at the carwash. Customers, he says, are the boss of the carwash while he considers himself their servant. “Our customers are not dependent on us. We are dependent on them,” he asserts. “We are not doing them a favor by servicing them, but they are doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.” He says that it astounds customers to occasionally see him, the “boss,” working on their cars just like everyone else.
To that end, the carwash’s mission statement is: “To constantly exceed our customers’ expectations by delivering a perfect service and impeccable experience every time, and to become the standard by which all businesses are measured.”
While these are some pretty high standards to live up to, this carwash has certainly made its impact known already. Great American Car Wash has received numerous awards, some of which include the U.S. Commerce Association Award for Best Car Wash & Detail Center 2011, 2012 and 2013; the Spectrum Award for excellence in customer service 2015, 2016 and 2017; the Citizen Award from the Fresno/Madera Police Chief’s Association for valuable contribution to law enforcement; as well as being entered into the Business Hall of Fame in 2014. Furthermore, Great American is ranked first on Google and Yelp with the most stars and best reviews in Fresno.
Part of what has made these feats possible is Great American’s focus on quality as well as experience. Rassamni says that each car goes through several checks before being handed back to the customer in order to make sure that the best job possible is done. However, in the event that a customer is not satisfied with the wash, Great American Car Wash will do it again for free, and in the event that the customer is still unhappy, the carwash will refund the money.
Additionally, Great American tries to make the carwash experience more incredible than customers expect. In addition to offering free coffee, popcorn, newspapers and a complimentary rewash within five days of receiving a paid wash, the carwash features a waiting area with finely crafted furniture and beautiful murals that altogether “looks nicer than peoples’ living rooms,” Rassamni remarks.
Pledging allegiance to innovation
Furthermore, Rassamni says, “Innovation is not only mandatory — it is also profitable. To be innovative, you can’t just ask customers what they want and give it to them. Customers don’t know what they want unless you provide it to them.”
Thus, Rassamni has embraced innovation, especially since the carwash industry itself has undergone fundamental shifts in trends over the last 30 years. Rassamni’s first carwash was a hand wash, but as the cost of doing business increased, he slowly changed over to an equipment wash. The Fresno Great American Car Wash is a flex-serve with an emphasis on express washing.
Rassamni recalls that when he bought the carwash in 2007, there was only one other express wash competitor around and that 90 percent of the washes Great American sold were express washes. But in 2011 and 2012, he recounts, 10 new chain express washes opened nearby, and Great American’s own wash volume dropped significantly. As such, the carwash began promoting its full service washes and detailing center over its express washes. Today, he says, 50 percent of wash sales come from full service washes, and the detailing center has grown exponentially.
Now, having been in the carwash industry for 30 years, Rassamni has taken all the advice he learned from business gurus, implemented it and accumulated a lifetime of experience.
As such, he plans for this Great American Car Wash to be his last carwash business before he retires. However, he chose to share his passion, knowledge and beliefs about the industry by writing two books: Increase Business 30 Percent in 30 Days and Dirty Cars Filthy Rich.
Although he plans to retire from carwashing soon, Rassamni currently does consulting and speaking internationally on behalf of the industry and will continue to do so in the future. For instance, he is currently working with investors from Saudi Arabia to build the first tunnel carwash in that country.
After he retires, though, he plans to devote more time to his other business, MyLoyaltyApps.com, and write a new book about the mindset people should have to prosper, as he is a firm adherent to the idea that you need to believe in yourself to achieve your goals.
Home of the brave
There is also one aspect of the carwash that helps it stand out to the point that it has even become a landmark of Fresno. Great American Car Wash features a 30 by 120-foot mural titled “Wall of Honor,” honoring all veterans and law enforcement personnel. Not only do customers and non-customers alike stop by to take photos of it, but the carwash has held several memorial events in front of the mural as well, which have been covered by television stations and attended by several public officials, from congressmen to local law enforcement. Great American even won one of the 2016 Horizon Awards given by the Fresno Arts Council for the mural.
“I believe owning a business is a privilege and should be used as a platform to give back and make a difference in the community that helped [the business owner] prosper,” Rassamni affirms.
As such, Rassamni invested in this mural in order to show appreciation for those heroes and to prove that those who lost their lives did not do so in vain. He wanted to create a landmark for them, and he succeeded. “My small contribution of appreciation is this wall — a wall of hope, a wall of remembrances,” Rassamni adds. The portraits of local heroes killed in action have been painted on the mural, and Rassamni is always open to having families contact him to honor their loved ones.
Further, veterans always receive 20 percent off carwash and detail services and can receive free washes on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. In addition, Great American donates at least $100,000 in carwash and detailing services each year to various non-profits, such as veteran and law enforcement organizations, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, schools, churches and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California.
In fact, Rassamni is also the current president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California, and the organization once used the carwash mural as a backdrop for an event announcing a countywide mentoring program that partnered law enforcement and public servicemen with local schools in low income areas with many at-risk kids. The program brings a law enforcement volunteer and a group of these children, who often see this service branch as an enemy, together to have regular lunches so that they can build healthy relationships and provide a new circle of influence for these young people.