Leading women in carwashing: Iona Kearney
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Leading women in carwashing: Iona Kearney

The women interviewed for this special series share their stories. The goal of this interview series is to not only share the stories and experiences of these market leaders, but also inspire more women to join this fun, exciting and growing carwash industry. 

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This week, let’s meet Iona Kearney.

Iona Kearney, Operations Manager, Speedy Sparkle Car Wash 

MP | How did you get your start and how long have you been in the carwash industry? 

IK | I started in the carwash industry when I was just 14 years old. My dad joined the industry when I was little so it was the obvious first job for me when I was able to work. I worked at our full service carwash all through high school cleaning interiors and selling memberships. I went to college, graduated, completed a year of traveling leadership consulting, and found that I just couldn’t stay away from carwashing. I came back to the washes, worked on the marketing side, then transitioned over to operations and have loved it. 

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MP | What is the most important lesson you have learned while working in the carwash industry?

IK | You can’t lead someone you don’t know so you have to start by listening. 

MP | What advice do you have for women getting into the carwash industry today?  

IK | Ask questions and stay true to your natural leadership style. In any industry you need to question to learn. The more you learn, the more confident you will feel in your position and no one — man or woman — knows everything. Furthermore, I think a lot of women coming into a male-dominated industry like ours attempt to overcompensate in their leadership style to come off more “tough” or intense to try to gain respect, but that is an exhausting route to take. You will find much more success staying true to yourself and your style of leadership than trying to conform to a type of leadership style you think others expect.

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MP | What are some challenges you have overcome as a woman in the carwash industry that you’d like to share with other women in hopes of helping them to overcome similar challenges? 

IK | When I was younger I was not mechanical in the slightest. I knew this would be my greatest challenge when I entered the operations side of the carwash. I was incredibly lucky to have such a great team of people who did understand the mechanics and was able to help me learn. I listened and probably asked way too many questions. 

I also forced myself to try to fix things before someone else who knew what they were doing fixed the issues. I remember my first time replacing a solenoid I could have just watched my assistant manager, who had done it countless times before, do it but I wanted to try it. So, I had him watch me (to make sure I didn’t break anything or mess it up too badly) as I puttered around with it until I figured it out. I ended up drenched in pre-soak, but by the end I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. 

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You really need to be hands-on to learn the mechanics of a carwash; you can’t just stand there and let someone else teach you. At our wash we encourage failures as long as someone is trying and he or she learns the correct way in the process. I am so happy I had the chance to fail and learn, and I would encourage other managers to have that same mindset as they develop their employees. 

MP | What aspect of the carwash industry is most exciting/rewarding to you?  

IK | I enjoy the feeling after a busy, record-breaking day, that would be the most exciting to me. There’s just something about how the operation flows when the customers are happy, employees are having fun and cars are clean — that just makes me grin from ear to ear. The most rewarding part of the industry is seeing employees grow and develop. I’m lucky enough that I get to work with people every day who are happy and just want to challenge themselves to get better. Watching them achieve their goals — even if that means they leave the company — and develop into amazing people is, and probably will forever be, the most rewarding part of this job. 

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MP | What three character traits are most important in your opinion for a woman starting out her career in carwashing? 

IK | Patience, humility and not being afraid to get dirty.  

MP | Where do you see the carwash industry moving toward in the future?  

IK | I see the carwash industry becoming more of a career choice for younger generations. I think in the past, working at a carwash was seen as an in-between job for high schoolers going into college or for people going through a transition in life. But, more and more young people are choosing to make a career out of it instead of using it as a launching point into something else. More people making a career in carwashing is important because as the industry develops and the labor intensiveness of a carwash goes down (with the predominance of express washes), having a great team of engaged employees will become more critical to each carwash’s success. 

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Melissa Pirkey is the CEO/president of Melissa Pirkey Insurance, dba Car Wash Insurance Agency. If you are interested in sharing your story in an upcoming issue, please contact her at 214-998-8960 or [email protected] or email PC&D’s Rich DiPaolo at [email protected]

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