Few carwashes can claim to be 70 years old. After all, the first carwash only came into being in 1914, and even by 1948, there were only 18 in operation throughout the U.S., according to the Mike’s Carwash website. Compare that to the roughly 80,000 carwashes in existence across North America today, as noted by the International Carwash Association (ICA).
On June 1, 1948, Joe Dahm opened Mike’s Minit Man in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the first automated carwash in the state. Later, Joe’s brother Ed joined him in the business, and together they started a family-owned chain of carwashes that is still thriving 70 years later. Nowadays, this business has become well-known in the Midwest as Mike’s Carwash and, more recently, also as Crew Carwash.
Getting an early start
Whether in the 1940s or today, there are often two powerful reasons why someone chooses to invest in a carwash: for the profit potential and/or for the love of carwashing. Both of these reasons were a factor in the creation of the Dahm family’s business.
In the late 1940s in Fort Wayne, there was a real estate opportunity available, and Bert Dahm — Joe and Ed’s father, who had a passion for washing his car — was interested in using the land to build a carwash. In 1947, Bert and Joe took a train to Detroit, Michigan, to see firsthand Paul’s Auto Wash — recognized as the first automated carwash in the world and also the first carwash to use Leo Rousseau’s innovative Minit Man automatic carwash equipment, according to the ICA.
Swiftly realizing the potential this business had, they returned to Fort Wayne and prepared to open their own carwash. Joe quit school to focus full-time on opening the business. The Dahms also purchased Rousseau’s equipment, and in June 1948, they opened Mike’s Minit Man at 1509 S. Calhoun St. in Fort Wayne, and the location continues to operate to this day.
But, where did the name Mike come from? Mike is actually Joe’s younger brother, and when deciding on a name for the carwash, Joe decided that Mike’s Minit Man sounded better than Joe’s Minit Man. Of course, with none of the founders being named Mike, the naming initially threw customers for a loop. According to Joe Dahm, “When we started out, people would come in all the time and say, ‘Where’s Mike?’ and I would always respond, ‘I’m Joe. How can I help you?’”
The second generation of carwashers — Joe’s sons, Mike and Bill, and Ed’s son, Jerry — got an early start in the business as well, beginning as wash associates and working actively at the locations throughout their high school and college years in the 1970s and 1980s.
“In 1978, we converted our second location in Fort Wayne from a full-service carwash to an exterior-only wash,” notes Mike, who is the current president of Mike’s Carwash. “The Mike’s express concept was a big hit with customers and became the model for all future Mike’s locations.” Today, all of the brand’s carwashes operate under the express model.
Securing the next generation of washing
In 1985, Bill moved to Indianapolis, where he opened the first Mike’s Carwash in that city and then began expanding the brand into central Indiana. Then, in 1993, Joe and Ed stepped down to allow the second generation of Dahms to take over the family business. As such, Mike, Bill and Jerry became the principal owners of the chain.
The next stage of the company’s growth came as a literal split in the family — but in this instance, it was for the better. In 2014, Mike and Bill completed a friendly company reorganization to not only promote better opportunities for growth for the business but also to ensure succession planning and keep the company in the Dahm family.
As a result, Mike’s team opened a new support office in Cincinnati, Ohio, to operate the Mike’s Carwash locations in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio; Florence, Kentucky; and Fort Wayne, South Bend and Evansville, Indiana. Fittingly, he retained the Mike’s Carwash name. Bill, on the other hand, took hold of the central Indiana operations, which numbered 26 at the time, under the rebranded name of Crew Carwash.
“Other than our business name, nothing has changed,” notes Bill, who is the CEO of Crew Carwash. “We have done such a great job of establishing a brand in central Indiana that the rebranding had no impact on our business. Our brand look and philosophy remained the same. We have held true to our brand promise of [delivering] clean, fast and friendly service to every customer, every time. This was a seamless transition, as the only major change on our end was removing the word ‘Mike’s’ and replacing it with the word ‘Crew’ within our existing logo and brand colors.”
Today, Mike’s Carwash operates 23 locations, and Crew Carwash operates 31 locations; both brands are two of the largest exterior-only carwash companies in the U.S.
A successful crew
Values are integral to strong branding, and those of the Dahm founders have carried the business high throughout the years. Joe, for instance, often says, “We are really in the people business — we just happen to wash cars.” The late Ed Dahm would often recite, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
To that end, Mike and Bill believe that there are two aspects that have accounted for the success and growth of their respective brands: being customer-focused and having stellar teams.
“I believe much of our success stems directly from our customer-focused model,” Bill states. “We believe in treating people the way they want to be treated. By providing exceptional service and a friendly crew, we can deliver on our company purpose of creating smiles and lifetime customers.”
Of course, providing the “friendly crew” is a large part of that equation. In fact, the whole reason behind the name “Crew Carwash” is to honor the company’s dedicated and talented employees who work hard to make the chain the success that it is. According to Bill, “We hire only the best people. Our team members really allow us to provide customer service that is second to none in the service industry.”
To inspire this upbeat team, Crew Carwash invests in its employees by continually training, acknowledging and supporting the members. In fact, with nearly 800 full-time and part-time employees, Crew has been recognized as a “Top Workplace” by the Indianapolis Star, one of the “Best Places to Work” by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and a “Top Small Workplace” by The Wall Street Journal.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Mike’s team is any different.
“At Mike’s, we know that the most integral part of our success is our team members,” Mike explains. “Every day, we strive to create the best possible experience for both our customers and our team members. It’s not just part of our culture — it is our culture. After all, it takes a special person always willing to go the extra mile, working outside in all weather conditions wearing a necktie and a smile. We work hard to recognize our people because we know, without a doubt, it’s those special, caring team members who keep our customers coming back. We truly believe our people make the difference, and we are dedicated to providing our boss — the customer — with a great experience every time.”
In fact, Mike’s Carwash treats its team members so well that it too has received both national and local recognition for being a top workplace and for team member training. For instance, 2018 marks the fifth year in a row that Mike’s received a Best Employer in Ohio award. The company has also received recognition for marketplace ethics and entrepreneurial excellence.
In 2015, the Goering Center for Family and Private Business recognized Mike’s Carwash at its All-Star Award event in the category for Family Businesses over 50 years old. “We were recognized for our company culture and how that culture has positively impacted employees, customers and the community,” Mike adds.
Speaking of the community, for both Mike’s and Crew, giving back to the areas they serve is an integral part of their cultures. For instance, since 2015, Mike’s Carwash has donated over $1 million to local charities and organizations, and in 2017 alone, Crew donated over $500,000 to its charitable partners.
Mike’s Carwash has partnerships with various organizations and nonprofits, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA Youth Service Bureau of Greater Fort Wayne, the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund, the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, Project Hero and Toys for Tots.
In addition to helping schools and other organizations raise funds throughout the year, Crew Carwash annually holds three main charity drives; its most recent drive raised $60,000 for the St. Vincent Foundation to benefit the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.
Celebrating a milestone
Such a momentous anniversary calls for a huge celebration, and both Mike’s and Crew began celebrating at the beginning of the year.
At Mike’s Carwash, all employees have been wearing “70 year” hats, pins and bowties/ties every day since January. In addition, the carwash has been hosting a #70for70 social media sweepstakes, where customers can enter weekly online to win a free $70 gift card to Mike’s.
Finally, on the weekend of June 1-3, all 23 Mike’s locations will offer the Ultimate Wash for just $7 (a $13 discount) as a thank you to customers for their business and support over the last 70 years.
At Crew Carwash, the company is honoring both its crewmembers and its customers. Crew has been providing special gifts to its employees throughout the first few months of the year to show its appreciation for their hard work. Customers will get to participate in the celebration starting June 1st, in commemoration of the original anniversary.
“We are so excited to be celebrating our 70th year in business,” Bill concludes. “However, my father, Joe, has said, ‘People don’t care how long you have been in business — they only remember their last wash.’ Therefore, we are going to stay focused on providing our customers the speed and convenience they desire, along with the quality and shine that they have come to expect from [us.]”