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Teaching an old wash new tricks

Part one in a two part Auto Atlantic carwash special feature

Business had been rather good for two competing small town car wash businesses that opened around the same time in 1985. This was before every gas station started building an in-bay automatic on every corner and consumers that didn’t want to wash in their driveway had only two options for a professional car wash in this particular town. Both wash owners, Charlie and Dan, enjoyed several years of growth, profits, and they were able to afford things like new fishing boats and take nice family vacations every summer.

After being in business for five years it was apparent that the two owners ran their business a bit differently. Dan spent a small part of every week running through a checklist, doing water titration tests, cleaning down all walls in each bay, and running every piece of equipment to check for irregularities. As repairs were needed Dan would buy the parts and keep a few spares on hand for various valves, gaskets, and hoses. He did this for all of the parts that had a habit of wearing out in order to maximize his uptime. Once a year Dan would contact his local distributor to find out if any part recalls were issued for the equipment he owned. He always made sure preventative maintenance was done and upgraded any components as-needed. As you can imagine Dan’s wash had very little down time and customers appreciated the cleanliness and attention to detail.

Dan did not mind the occasional expenses of maintaining his equipment, upgrading to better coin acceptors, timers, and replaced decals when they started to fade or peel. He was also always on the look-out for the next big thing to improve his business and customer experience. Charlie ran his car wash operation a bit different from his competitor. After building his wash it was Charlie’s goal to squeeze every drop of profit out of his location and only make repairs when absolutely necessary. It was not uncommon for a customer to see at least one “Out of Service” sign taped to the front of a meter box or coin acceptor somewhere on the property. Charlie sprayed down his bays and was pretty good about keeping his pits from overflowing too often, although there had been a few ‘instances’ that lead to some expensive service calls. Even with all of the minor problems Charlie made really good money because he kept his expenses to a bare minimum.

It was not until the winter of 1996, almost ten years after both wash locations had opened, that  things really became apparent. Dan’s wash location had been showing growth every year since it had opened back in the summer of 85’. However, Charlie ran into some tough times the years previous after several major equipment failures forced him to close two of his four bays for over a month at a time.

This was not the first time Charlie had to close bays off for emergency repairs. When the salt started hitting the winter roads the customers in town were frequenting Charlie’s location less and less in favour of his competitor’s wash. Customers that visited Dan’s location marvelled at how nice and clean it always appeared and commented on how they loved some of the upgrades he had made to his location. Dan had added several extra vacuum islands, a shampoo machine, and a really nice rug beater machine to his lineup of services. Every few years Dan made it a point to add or upgrade a service on site. Because Dan was able to “squeeze” more out of his equipment by taking care of it with regular maintenance and minor repairs he was able to keep his wash running with minimal downtime.

Dan was always of the mind that he needed to treat his car wash like a professional business. This meant that he was a member of his location car wash association, participated in educational seminars, and kept his eye out for new products that could retrofit into his existing business to make it better. The local city municipality offered to sign a contract with Dan to wash all of their employee vehicles if he could find a way to work out the ability to work on a PO system. Dan did not pass up this opportunity and took out a small business loan with his local bank and purchased a fleet management card system. The additional revenue from the new fleet business allowed him to easily make the loan payments with the additional profits it brought in. His wash became so popular that city employees started washing their personal vehicles at Dan’s wash once they got set up with a loyalty card of their own.

Dan was able to show that by making regular improvements to his business it was far more profitable in the long run than following the lead of his competitor. Charlie would always say, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” every time an update or upgrade was made available for his wash equipment. Charlie was also fond of “I’m just happy with the way things are, maybe next year...” every time he saw a new product at the exhibit hall of a trade show that could help improve his business. Charlie knew that he needed to modernize his out-of-date car wash location and understood that he had to do something. He would always say things like, “well, when I get a bit more money and can afford it I will defiantly make those upgrades”. Rather than go to the bank and take care of business he was content with dragging out the inevitable.

In 2003 Dan went to visit Charlie’s car wash on the other side of town after his neighbour told him they saw a For Sale sign in front the building. Dan saw only a single car on the property and recognized it as one of Charlie’s part-timers. Looking around it was apparent why the business was for sale. A slimy green film covered the walls of the wash bays and the once-painted walls were now peeled and bare. The walls and floor were covered in grime and three of the four coin boxes had the original faded decals from when the business first opened.

Dan was greeted by the startled attendant who did not even know somebody else was even at the wash. He apologized that that coin changers were either out of service or had been cleaned out of change the night before and nobody had been to the bank to refill it. When Dan asked about Charlie he learned that he was on another vacation. The attendant grumbled about how the boss can afford to go vacationing every year, but not make some of the necessary repairs around the wash. The writing was quite literally on the wall as a customer had scrawled in bold letters next to the change machine, “this machine eats your quarters! Do not use!!!” I guess more than a few people got the message.

In 2004 Dan purchased Charlie’s old wash and got it for the price of the land it sat on and set out on a major remodelling project. He needed to find a way to teach this old wash some new tricks. Luckily for him he already had a very successful car wash on the other side of town and a lot of contacts in his local car wash association that could help with suggestions. Dan would have a lot of work ahead of him to get the wash back on its feet on what would be a limited budget.

In Summary
As a business owner with an existing car wash business you have to constantly be evaluating your business and ask yourself whether there is something more that you could be doing. An operator like Dan knew that the way to remain profitable is to continually make needed changes, upgrades, and retrofits as they become available.  Short sighted wash operators that fail to treat their car wash as a professional business will lose customers, lose profits, and inevitably lose their wash like Charlie did.

There are a number of ways that we can transform the ugly duckling with dipping sales into an attractive location again. For wash owners like Dan that buy a failed wash business or suspect that they might be headed towards a failing wash business, there are many strategies to turn things around.

The Basics of a Car Wash Remodel and Retrofit

  • Creating a Plan - Putting together a plan of attack for a successful location update
  • Minimizing Equipment Costs - What equipment stays and what goes?
  • Cosmetic Upgrades that don’t cost an arm and a leg but look great!
  • Creating a New Business Identity - Business Branding and Marketing an old location
  • Modernizing an Old Wash - Retrofit options that literally makes more money for the business.
  • Grand Re-Openings - Kicking things off with a bang.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Teaching an Old Wash New Tricks” in the upcoming  Auto Atlantic, the East Coasts carwash source!)  

Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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