When Ron Benderson, CEO and founder of Delta Sonic Car Wash, the fifth largest conveyor carwash chain in America, stepped onto the stage to be inducted into the Carwash Hall of Fame this April, the room expected one form or another of the typically humble and reflective acceptance speech. Such speeches are common in the carwash industry, where leaders often make it to the top by being honest, diligent and hardworking.
But the room didn’t expect Benderon’s complete and total modesty. After all, hadn’t he started this chain, now 28-sites strong and spread throughout three states (NY, PA, and IL)? Hadn’t he been the innovator who decided to design and manufacture his own soap and touchless tunnel equipment? Hadn’t he been the entrepreneur who led the chain through 40 years of varying weather and economies?
So when Benderson stood on the brightly-lit stage and shrugged off any and all personal credit — instead paying tribute to his employees — the room listened in awed silence. “I am most proud of our people,” he said then. “And it’s the thing I have the least to do with; I’m not even a good people manager.”
After years of hiring mistakes and struggling to get a good operational team in place, it suddenly dawned on Benderson — the company would fill leadership positions from within the company, he explained in his speech. “Problem solved.”
This policy actually solves a number of problems. One very minor and obvious advantage is it dramatically reduces costs associated with recruiting and training management-level employees. It also assures the employee has a familiarity not only with the carwash business, but also with the company itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it instills a great sense of loyalty and promise in a family-owned company where “you’re not just a number,” as one employee put it. “You have a future.”
Benderon’s humility extends far beyond his acceptance speech at Car Care World Expo. He has long avoided talking to trade journals out of respect to the others who contribute to his success — in fact; he even turned down an interview request for this article, instead offering to put PC&D in touch with his employees, who would in turn be able to tell their own stories. “They’re the story, they should tell it,” he said over the phone.
And he’s right. Delta Sonic’s policy of promoting from within doesn’t work with just any people — it works with these motivated, ambitious, smart, caring and hardworking individuals. From the start, Delta Sonic must hire as though that person could reach management-level positions. It must treat each employee as a future department head. It must train each and every single employee to not only towel down cars, work the cash register or change the oil; but also to desire more. And it’s not just any person that could rise up to the challenge and opportunity Delta Sonic offers; it takes a special combination of perseverance and commitment.
Climbing the ladder
It’s not hard to find examples of entry-level employees climbing the ranks at Delta Sonic. Paul Lutz, director of human resources, rattles off more than two dozen easily.
- Brian Acquard, mechanic supervisor, Buffalo, one of the first employees hired in 1967;
- Bruce Natalizia Sr., vice president of gas operations, started in 1972;
- Scott Kiener, mechanic supervisor, Chicago, started in 1973;
- Mike Green, vice president of construction, started in 1974;
- Bob Fischer, vice president of operations, started in 1975;
- Brian Smith, mechanic supervisor, Buffalo, started in 1977;
- Rick Carosa, vice president of the Rochester region, started in 1978;
- Dale Claybolt, vice president of mechanical operations, started in 1978;
- Dale Wittlief, vice president of purchasing, started in 1979;
- Bruce Natalizia Jr., mechanic supervisor, Rochester, started in 1980;
- Mike Filippi, district manager, Buffalo, started in 1982;
- Wayne Fry, district manager, Buffalo, started in 1984;
- Russ Eisele, construction supervisor, Chicago, started in 1985;
- Paul Smith, district manager, Chicago, started in 1985;
- Rauf Yates, director of support center, started in 1985;
- Chris Baumgartner, regional director of Chicago region, started in 1987;
- Bob Bonnin, director of maintenance, Chicago, started in 1988;
- Joe Missana, district manager, Chicago, started in 1988;
- John Nowak, director of detail shops, started in 1988;
- Dan Wetzler, mechanic supervisor, Rochester, started in 1988;
- Joe Potalivo, director of c-store operations, started in 1989;
- Al Penfield, director of food service, started in 1989;
- John Rusch, director of lube shops, started in 1989;
- Amanda Allen, director of training, started in 1991;
- Scott Kaczka, assistant director of detail shops, Chicago, started in 1991;
- Larry Wojcik, mechanic supervisor, Chicago, started in 1991;
- Joel Chiarmonte, director of customer service, started in 1994; and so on and so forth down the entire management team.
All of these managers and directors and vice presidents started on the front lines, including Lutz, who began his career in an entry level position at a Buffalo, NY, location 15 years ago. After working through the management ranks while completing college, Lutz decided to stick around and eventually was named Assistant Director of Detail Shop Operations in the Chicago market. Later, he returned to Buffalo and was promoted to Director of Human Resources.
“I was by no means an expert in human resources, but ownership was willing to give me a shot at this position because they place such a high value on the fact of promoting from within whenever possible,” Lutz explained in a recent e-mail. He says it is a major reason why he has remained with the company so long, assured there is always an opportunity to grow.
Another reason? Lutz loves being treated as an individual. “It has always been great to work for a family owned and operated company that is of a large size, but not too big where you are just a number,” Lutz says. “Everyone here has an opportunity to grow and excel with the company through hard work, dedication and a positive attitude.”
Success repeating itself
Good jobs were hard to come by in 1979, and Dale Wittlief, vice president of purchasing, knew a good opportunity when he saw one. He started that year as a cashier at a Delta Sonic Car Wash in Rochester, NY, wiping down cars after they came through the lines and handling the cash register.
He continued at the carwash, working through school and working his way up the ranks at the carwash. “The owner [Benderson] would always talk to us,” Wittlief explains. “He would target individuals who he saw potential in and as opportunities presented themselves, he would allow us the chance to move up.”
Wittlief went from Rochester to Chicago, working in operations for 21 years (as head of detail shops for nine, and head of carwashes for 12), then moved into the “offices,” as he calls them, when he was promoted to a vice president’s position.
“It’s a good company, a family owned company, and they make you feel important,” Wittlief says. “Ron is a great leader, and we were always seeing the company grow, which made you feel confident.”
Not only that, but Wittlief also had numerous friends within the company, friends who climbed the ladder and are now vice presidents themselves. “I grew with them, and having those relationships was another reason to stay,” Wittlief explains.
But more than that is how the company makes its staff feel as individuals, Wittlief says. “You can make an impact, that is a big part of it,” Wittlief states. He had the chance to prove himself and climb up through hard work, and as operations manager had the same opportunity to watch and help others grow. “It was very exciting, to see these people hungry to grow and I was so glad to be a part of that,” Wittlief explains.
The steady growth was not without its ups and downs, Wittlief admits, but he was able to learn on the job. “The Bendersons are such terrific innovators and entrepreneurs. You couldn’t pay a college enough to learn what they have taught me.” While there was supplementary education at school, Wittlief said his most important lessons were learned on the job, through the school of hard knocks. “I always felt that if I worked hard, it would be recognized and I would have another opportunity to prove myself,” Wittlief explained. “My most applicable training came from the Bendersons and from growing with the company.”
Amanda Allen, director of training and a 17-year veteran of the company, agrees. Allen started as a gas cashier while she was still in high school and saw her position bloom into a full-fledged career over a matter of years.
“To me the most important item would be that there is no limitation for anyone here,” Allen explains. “Delta Sonic has always looked to reward for hard work and good ethics. You are not at a stand still ever. There is always somewhere to go or more you can take on.”
Honesty and credibility
Nearly twenty years ago, Joe Potalivo’s father sold the family business, a small chain of grocery stores, and Potalivo, then 22, started to look for work. He wanted to find a job that was fun, perhaps working with cars, while also taking advantage of his experience helping manage grocery stores. He stumbled upon Delta Sonic. “I thought it would be a good job for a while,” Potalivo explains. “I thought it could be a fun gig for a few years, and it turned into a career.”
As an assistant carwash manager, Potalivo learned the company’s core policy: keep your credibility, do the right thing and be honest. It was a policy that Potalivo believed in himself, and every day he worked hard to live up to the company’s bargain. “If I go into work every day and work hard and do the right thing, they’re going to give it back to me,” Potalivo says.
Anyone out there looking for work these days knows that job security isn’t so secure anymore, but at Delta Sonic, Potalivo and his colleagues know they will have a job so long as they adhere to the company’s “do right” policy. Soon, Potalivo was supervising carwash sites, then managing the company’s first multi-profit center in Niagara Falls (with gas, c-store, Subway, detail and fast lube operations). From there he climbed the ladder to district manager of Rochester, and then in March of this year, he was promoted to director of c-store operations.
Aside from keeping the golden rule as a management practice, ownership at Delta Sonic has also worked hard to give their employees a real business education. “They’ve offered me opportunities to go to seminars, to go to training and really learn my job,” Potalivo explains. “At every step you’re encouraged; they want to see you prosper. The more work you do, the more they’ll give back.”
Last but not least, Delta Sonic ownership has committed itself to their operations. “I deal directly with ownership, they have an open door policy,” Potalivo says. “[The Bendersons] are very hands on. They’re involved with the operations, they’re involved with the people, and that instills a lot of confidence in us.”
John Nowak, director of detail shops and also a nearly 20-year veteran, has a story similar to Potalivo’s. He began his time at Delta Sonic as a wiper (now called a Delta Technician) as a way to stay busy and employed until he entered the United States Air Force on a delayed enlistment program.
“It was only supposed to hold me over, but as I worked, learned, and grew at Delta Sonic I started to move up the ranks and right before I left, I was promoted to a shift captain rank,” Nowak explains. It was an entry level position, but Nowak was sad to leave when the time came.
Immediately after serving his four-year commitment and returning home to Buffalo, NY, Nowak asked for his job back — and because he had done such an exemplerary job in the past, he was immediately granted a position as an Assistant Manager in 1992.
“I’ve seen so many employees (including myself), move into position of leadership in many areas of the company, not because we had all the skills, knowledge, and education necessary to fill the position,” Nowak says, “but because ownership knew our commitment, our drive, and what we stood for and they believed in us.”
Nowak then quotes Booker T. Washington, the American educator, author and leader of the African American movement who was a former slave. “Few things help individuals more than to place responsibility upon them and to let them know that you trust them,” Washington said. “And that’s what the Bendersons have done,” Nowak explains. “They have shown they trust us.”
Emulating their success
It doesn’t matter if you are a one-site conveyor operation or a multi-site self-serve with in-bay automatics; these policies will work for any type of employee or carwash operation. From maintenance worker to upper management to line worker or detailer, treating employees with dignity and allowing them the opportunity to advance can improve any type of carwash business.
Taking a page from Delta Sonic’s book is easy. Hire capable, confident candidates and promote them according to their abilities. The advantages are obvious, according to Delta Sonic’s management team: they are happy employees, working with friends and under management that trusts and believes in them. They feel appreciated and valued, and in turn, they respect and work hard for the carwash chain.
If your chain is too small to allow much room for promotion, work on acknowledging employees in other ways. Employee recognition programs, sales contests and a healthy benefits package all show workers how they are valued and will instill loyalty. Ron Benderson is even known to walk around store locations, his pockets stocked with gift cards to reward productive employees at random.
Regardless of how you show employees you appreciate them, make sure you do it often; because as Ron Benderson knows, happy employees mean happy customers — and happy customers mean profitable, successful carwashes.
Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine. Carr can be reached at [email protected].