At The Car Wash Show™ 2018, several female carwashing professionals attended a seminar for women in carwashing where they held roundtable discussions about the stereotypes and challenges they have encountered in the industry, among other topics. For instance, several women feel that they are sometimes overlooked when speaking one-on-one with a man in the industry. The women said that these men either assumed they were simply related to a male carwash owner, instead of being the owners themselves; spoke directly and primarily to only a male counterpart if he was also present; or, in the distributors’ cases, presumed that these women could not answer questions they had about company products and wished to speak with their superiors (who were assumedly male).

Much of this bias may be unintentional, and many women may not experience or perceive any bias at all. However, the issues that do exist, especially in male-dominated industries like professional carwashing, can start to be solved with a little awareness.

This article will shed some light on a few of the leading ladies in the industry by sharing their stories — in their words — as well as their views and advice on being a woman in the carwash world.

Katie Balash

President and Director of Operations, Vaughan Industries Inc.

Vaughan Industries Inc. was founded by my parents, Larry and Nancy Balash, in 1975. The company made its start by producing high-quality carwash cleaning compounds not easily available in the Metro Detroit area. As the business took hold and continued to grow, Vaughan added parts, equipment and service work to its offerings. It also became a distributor for two manufacturers and, in the early 2000s, began to design and produce its own line of OEM replacement parts and equipment.

In 2010, I joined the company to take over my mother’s duties after her retirement. I worked alongside my brother, Andy Balash, and my father. In 2014, Andy died suddenly, leaving the future for Vaughan in an uncertain state. I took a new role in leadership at the company to help move forward with the previously laid plans for growth and expansion. By holding true to Vaughan’s core business goals, the company has seen slow and steady growth. Vaughan Industries was recently named one of the “50 Businesses to Watch” in Michigan for 2018, and I was listed as a “Notable Woman in Manufacturing” in Crain’s Detroit Business magazine.

The carwash industry has typically been male-dominated. It has been difficult for some to accept that women are fully invested in the industry. My family grew up in the carwash industry, but only my father and brother were forward-facing to the customer. After my brother passed away, it was a difficult transition for customers to accept my new role at Vaughan. It took some time and investment in relationships to reassure customers that I could meet their expectations.

Stereotypes are hard to break, and I have found that it just takes time and a concerted effort to help shift the thinking of customers and industry professionals. If you do a search for “women in carwashing” on Google, the first two dozen images are still that of the “bikini carwash.”

One of the first ICA shows I attended after the death of my brother was quite amusing. I welcomed a man into my booth and asked him what he was looking for. He sized me up and down, and then the following conversation ensued:

Customer: Do you work for Vaughan Industries?

Me: I do. How can I help you?

Customer: No, I mean, do you really work for Vaughan Industries, or are you just one of the “girls” they hire for the show?

Me: Let me introduce you to our technical advisor, and I am sure he can help you with whatever questions you might have.

At this point, I passed the customer off to the appropriate staff member. Five minutes later, the staff member was back at the table and introduced me as the owner. The customer looked very uncomfortable, but I simply asked if he had gotten the information he was looking for and said that we look forward to servicing his needs in the future.

I think this is an important lesson for both men and women as we transition into increased female leadership. It does no good to become offended at interactions such as these and certainly not to have an “I told you so” attitude. I have found what eases these situations is to focus solely on the customer’s needs and concerns, and not to directly address the assumption that a woman is not in the leadership position.

The best advice I can suggest to all involved in our industry: It’s about customer service and the bottom line. Never underestimate the person you are talking to. We are all in this to make a profit, regardless of gender.

Cheryl Dobie

Owner/Chief Executive Manager, Aerodry Systems LLC

In 1986, my husband, Darryl, and I purchased a full service carwash in Odessa, Texas. We were daily on-site managers working in all aspects of the operation. From 1989 to 1990, with a partner, we constructed another full service carwash in San Angelo, Texas. In early 1991, both carwash interests were sold, and we moved to Denver after purchasing the assets of a bankrupt equipment manufacturer. Worldwide Drying Systems was born from this transition, with my husband and myself as the sole owners.

We continued to own and operate the successful venture until late 1997, when it was acquired by Precision Tune as part of its IPO (initial public offering). With additional focus on sound reduction and updated design, we returned to the industry in 2002 as Aerodry Systems LLC. The year 2014 marked the time Aerodry became a certified WBENC (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council) entity. After an illness, Darryl passed away in early 2016, and I made the decision to continue manufacturing/project management with expansion into new markets.

While I understand stereotypes exist for all working women, especially in industries leaning toward mechanical applications, I personally have had minimal push-back. Working from the ground up, as it were, in day-to-day wash operations — which included daily line work, equipment/facility maintenance, chemical selection, budgeting, employee relations and customer service — served as the springboard to successful equipment manufacturer. These experiences were truly an advantage, allowing me to relate and communicate effectively while staying open to industry trends and justifying growth through R&D investment.

Simplicity is a common misconception about this niche industry. Cleaning cars — seriously, how tough can that be? Someone new to the industry, man or woman, needs to take a step back and assess how the many, many individual facets affect the outcome. Focusing on and then demonstrating proficiency on multiple levels in a single area would be a good choice, as opposed to initially becoming overwhelmed with too many details in multiple areas. From geographic location to facility construction, electrical requirements, equipment selection, chemicals, etc., it can be daunting, and the willingness to accept advice from mentors/vendors is a valuable part of the equation.

Remember, attitude plays a huge role in the response you receive; you may be ready to challenge but not immediately change the status quo. Think in terms of you having control, such that you know you are strong enough to get through whatever happens. It is you that holds the cards, not those around you. Always be open to listening and discussion — asking questions is not a sign of weakness. Have the confidence to act on what you know and the humility to doubt your knowledge.

Elizabeth Gubrud-Howe

General Manager, PDQ Manufacturing Inc.

I have aspired to run a company since I was a little girl. Luckily, having two brothers and a great father, I grew up around men and feel very comfortable around them. My father treated all of us as equals, and I was taught from an early age that I could do anything men could do, if not more. I have had a varied and dynamic career, starting in the service industry with Starbucks after graduating from Portland State University with a business degree. Eleven years ago, I moved to a role in industrial manufacturing through the Dover Corporation and have been in this industry ever since. Last year, I was given the opportunity to take the helm at PDQ Manufacturing Inc., and I was delighted.

I’ve worked in male-dominated industries for most of my career. Though there are always challenges, and I’ve had my share of bad experiences, I’ve learned that trusting in myself and staying goal-focused are key to avoiding second-guessing myself. I’m approachable and down-to-earth, and I genuinely care about the people that work under me, but I’ll also speak up and demand respect if the occasion calls for it. As a child, I was taught that if someone spoke out of line regarding me or any woman, it was my responsibility to stand up for not only myself but any female being disrespected.

Having said that, I have been very fortunate working with Dover. My managers and the company as a whole are insistent upon creating a positive work environment for all their employees, and that makes me all the prouder that Dover tapped me to lead this great team at PDQ in this innovative and ever-changing carwash market.

Be confident in the skills that you have developed and trust your intuition. With these things, you can accomplish anything. It’s important to remember that a business is a business: If you have experience running a service or manufacturing business, regardless of the industry, you can succeed in the carwash industry. Spending my formative years in a well-run service business taught me everything about creating an experience. Everyone can easily relate to the carwash industry, because it is something we have all used in our daily lives. Because of this, it is important to listen to your customers. Receiving input from your customers regarding their experience is an important way to improve how you can serve them in the future.

Crew Carwash

Sally Grant

Executive Vice President, Crew Carwash

My grandfather, Joe Dahm, and his brother Ed founded Mike’s Carwash (Crew Carwash) in 1948 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My dad, Bill, and his brother and cousin all worked at the carwash and joined the business after they went to college. The carwashing industry has always been part of my life. My dad moved our family to Indianapolis in 1985, when I was six years old, to help grow the business and add locations. As a young child, I can remember “making the rounds” with my dad on various Saturday and Sunday mornings — visiting multiple locations and “playing customer,” as my dad would say, while he checked in on the carwashes and the team. My grandpa always had (and still does today) that customer and team member focus. It is the foundation our company was built on and why being a part of this family business was so important to me.

I never felt any pressure to join the business. In fact, I never really set out to make it a career until I attended college and had a couple years of experience working outside the carwash business in sales and marketing. It was during that time that I could truly appreciate what my grandfather, dad and other family members had created — a really successful business by having a passion for their team and their customers.

With 26 locations and growing in 2004, my dad decided it was the right time to hire a marketing coordinator and asked if I would be interested in joining the team in that role, which of course I was. During my first couple months, I spent time with our area directors and managers, learning more about carwash operations before transitioning into the marketing role. Over the past 14 years, I have taken on more responsibilities and am so lucky to be surrounded by people I love to work with and learn from every day.    

While there is no arguing that this is currently a male-dominated industry, I can honestly say that I have never felt held back or challenged because I am a woman. This is a very embracing industry, with almost a family-like feel, that respects anyone who works hard, has ideas and wants to learn.

I think whether you are a man or woman in the carwashing industry (or any industry for that matter), what truly should be taken into account is having a positive attitude and strong work ethic and always being willing to continue to learn and to make some mistakes along the way. I am blessed to be part of a family business that embraced this way of thinking long before I joined the team.

Juliette Silver

CEO, Car Wash World/Panaram International

My earliest family memories involve all aspects of the carwash industry. Growing up, my parents owned and operated three successful full service carwashes. My father was also a carwash consultant and started the business that I own today. I was fortunate enough to have a father that treated my brother and me as equals and made sure that as the daughter, I would still be afforded the same opportunities as my brother. I was the one who succeeded my father and took over the family business.

As part of my carwash education, my father felt it was important that I attend carwash shows, industry events and client meetings at a very early stage of my career. During high school, I worked in all aspects of the operations. I worked at the carwash — so that I could understand how the facility operated — and the office, which manufactured and distributed hot glass window cleaner, towels and washer extractors. Knowing that I wanted to continue in this industry, I felt it was important to study both communications and business administration in college. After graduating with a degree in both, I began working for our family business and have been active ever since.

Sadly, my father passed away four years ago, and I took over our company and became president and CEO. I was definitely nervous to be a woman running a company in a male-dominated industry. There have been some obstacles; however, I have been welcomed and mentored by many male colleagues. During my tenure, we have grown tremendously, and I am proud to say that our company is now WBENC-certified. I am confident that this certification will provide our company with many more opportunities.

The presence of women in the industry has definitely increased over the past 35 years that I have been in the business. Walking into a room full of men certainly can be an overwhelming event, even for the most confident, self-assured woman. Asserting my knowledge of the industry and maintaining client and vendor relationships are the most important aspects of a successful career in this industry. Any female in a male-dominated industry has to be knowledgeable and confident in order to earn the respect of her peers. Believing in what you are selling and having a great understanding of your product is important in this business. I have always found my male colleagues and customers go out of their way to help make me feel comfortable and include me, because I understand the business and maintain professionalism.

If you are female entering in the industry, know that knowledge is golden. People will respect you more if you know your product and your industry. I am proud that my story is included with these other amazing women in the industry. Now, let’s wave a towel to all the great women leaders of the carwash industry.

Kaitlin Wilson Wright

Marketing Manager, Lone Start Car Wash Systems

My dad has always been in the carwash industry. He started out prepping vehicles and eventually worked his way to owning his own full service tunnel. He then went to work on the other side of the industry, first working for a chemical company and then working for another distributor in Texas.

My parents opened Lone Star Car Wash Systems in 2012 with a vision of offering honest and reliable service and installation of carwash equipment and chemical. I was on a totally different course but decided that I wanted to step in and participate in the family business as well. I have two siblings: one that works for a tunnel carwash chain and one that has nothing to do with the industry. It’s not easy to work for your parents, but I think it’s definitely more rewarding than working anywhere else.

My husband also works here, so we have had to establish a “no carwash talk” at the dinner table rule. I really did not have an understanding of what it takes for this industry to continue operating until I got involved in this business, so I definitely was unaware of how many opportunities and different roles are available and need to be filled by skilled men and women.

I personally think one of the biggest obstacles facing women is what appears to be unintentional bias towards women. There still seems to be an assumption that women are only in accounting or marketing positions, but there are women all over the industry in tech development, service, management, owner, operator, etc., positions.

Women find themselves giving more reasons or examples as to why they are qualified to complete the same jobs and tasks as men in the same positions. While it is frustrating at times, the only thing you can do is answer the questions, attempt to offer customer service and, at times, you do have to pass them along, just for the sake of getting the job done. Women have to walk a fine line between being assertive, knowledgeable and motivated and being perceived as bossy or domineering.

I always encourage women to continue to arm themselves with knowledge. I think the only way to combat some of the issues women are facing is to learn more about all facets of the industry and use that knowledge to prove you belong in the conversation.

I also think that men must get on board with women being a predominant part of the industry — that includes family businesses starting to consider looking to daughters to take the reins one day. No matter what job or what industry, everyone will face some hardships and learning curves, but the more you can get ahead of the game by continuing to seek new information and useful knowledge, the better off you will be.