• Scott Baeten, president of JBS Industries
• DeWayne Hall, owner of Fast Lanes of America Car Wash and Lube in Oklahoma City, OK and president of the Southwest Car Wash Association
• Tom Hobby, president of AUTEC Inc.
• Domenic Previte III, owner of Somerville Carwash & Detail
Center and WashSource, Somerville, MA and president of the New England Carwash Association
• Gilbert (Jr) Rietsch, Jr., president of PECO Car Wash Systems
We asked the panelists to consider four issues of general interest to car care business operators:
1. The economy — The outlook for next year and its impact on the car care industry.
2. Investors (e.g., through private equity firms) are increasingly active in both the operator and vendor segments of the industry — How will this affect the car care business now and in the long term?
3. Market Saturation — Are we building too many (too few) car washes of a certain type, or too many (too few) washes in general?
4. Concerns — What other issues will the industry face next year?
I think the economy will remain strong, which will improve capital investment in the market as well as help washes that were struggling to regain some ground. All indications show that this trend will continue.
At this point the economic outlook for the Southwest is positive. Of course, the picture can change based on the final results of proposed Congressional action on the ACA and the budget/tax-cuts issues. Lack of action will have a negative impact on the long-term economic perspective. The car care industry is in a significant growth pattern now and that is helping to bring more car owners out of washing in the driveway to the professional car wash operations. Because of the good economic picture we are seeing more investors entering the market and current car wash operators expanding.
In my opinion, the economy has picked up in general. We have more active prospects than ever and the future seems to be brighter than it has been for some time. The financial aspect of developing new sites is conducive to our business model particularly, since our footprint has probably the smallest requirement for entering the retail car wash business. With the current availability of financing for qualified prospects, we see more potential today than any time in the recent past. When business is good and people are working and buying cars, the car wash business, properly executed, is a very profitable business model that appeals to many investors and should continue to fuel exponential growth numbers. We do have some concerns about some of our customers and friends that have been adversely affected by the severe weather recently in areas such as South Texas, South Florida, and even in Puerto Rico.
Who knows? But, I think the economy will stay strong — and in New England, it’s always the weather. We thrive on weather. If the government gets its act together and gives people tax cuts, people may have more money in their pockets.
2017 was better than 2016, and 2018 will be better than 2017!
The economy will continue to be strong and persist in growing aggressively. Capital financing will continue to be low and readily available. The upcoming year will be the year to create efficiencies through investment and technology and new equipment in preparation for 2019, which is looking to be extremely strong.
If the new tax legislation in congress passes this fall, the middle class and small businesses will benefit greatly. The middle class and small businesses make up not only a large portion of car wash owners but car washers too. This could help increase profitability for car wash owners as well as the car wash industry suppliers.
We foresee using the upcoming year to get stronger and be prepared for the boom expected in 2019.
Short term I think that it will impact the industry minimally. Long term I think you will lose personal interaction and talent in the industry. Typically, the bigger the company the less interaction with the customer. Many of us in the industry are family-run businesses nurtured and grown with sweat equity. Knowledge and skills that have been passed down for generations may be lost.
There is always room in the car wash industry for good operators and good business owners. With more investors entering the market many dynamics of the car wash industry are changing. Instead of the single- or two-operation owners, we are seeing the pattern of investors spending more dollars with smaller profit margins, which requires them to build more units. With this saturation of the market place, operators will be required to be more creative and innovative, making the car wash industry stronger. Local, onsite, family owners/operators will still have an advantage in creating meaningful relationships with their customers and the local business community.
Most car wash manufacturing operations have been the vision of an entrepreneur and as long as that vision is kept alive, I think the growth will continue. As far as operations are concerned, there are certainly advantages in purchasing and in growth of personnel needed to maintain the direction and the performance of the business. The car wash business, at retail, has traditionally been a difficult model to grow due to variations in performance of equipment in various environments, distribution and service of that equipment, and now, with the continued growth of the minimum wage issues, I think the labor issue will be an ongoing problem.
Vendor Segment: Our industry is being looked at since it is so mom and pop. Eventually, we may have just a few major companies. The individual divisions will keep their own identities and continue to advertise and to exhibit at the association shows as in the past. They need to maintain their brands.
Operator Segment: A lot of big players are trying to roll up car washes nationally. New England is not as attractive since we are in a bit of a real estate bubble. We have high property values in the highly populated areas. In addition, there already isn’t enough talent in our industry to manage operations. Labor costs may rise in our efforts to find the right people if investors continue to operate on a manager-driven model.
The car wash industry has dealt with investors before and will continue to be affected by these private equity firms. However, this time around, the difference is that these new private equity firms are backed by Wall Street. These entities are going to be around and are definitely going to change the landscape of the car wash industry. Immediately, the change is new and hard to define but in the long term the car wash industry will have overall price increases in both the operator and vendor segments of the industry.
There will be fewer product offerings for the chain car washes and the large car wash suppliers. In short, fewer options will drive standardization throughout the car wash industry. These private equity firms are extremely positive for the car wash industry, creating needs, and bringing money, long-term innovation, and profitability.
I guess that all depends on the region and the competition in the area. Many existing washes are being remodeled and updated. New equipment sales are up across the country. We currently don’t see an over saturation in our area. With money being cheap and new investors coming into the market daily this could definitely be a possibility in the near future.
In the Southwest we are not seeing many full-serve conveyors or self-serve car washes (except in rural areas for the self serve) being built. The trend has been toward the express/exterior and that market model is becoming saturated in most of the metro areas. Saturation and over-building is a problem for both the current owners and the new owners by dividing the market and the profitability of an area into smaller pieces. However it also has the benefits of bringing more people from the driveway to the professional car wash operator. In the past we have believed that our competition was not the other car wash operator but the “driveway washer.” Saturation will also make us better operators. Good operations will stay and bad operations will go.
As far as saturation of various markets is concerned, it does appear that some markets do tend to get overbuilt, but the huge demands of cash flow to support these larger operations will result in a natural attrition. There may be some excellent opportunities to purchase sites at hugely discounted prices when markets do get overbuilt. We still see huge opportunities to develop our business model (our InBayExpress) in smaller communities that just can’t support the investment of the popular “express tunnel” business model.
From an operator’s standpoint, there are too many car washes in general. People don’t need to wash their cars, and the customer pie gets split into smaller pieces.
As the president of a car wash manufacturer, I have to say that we can always use more washes in every market. In reality, there continues to be population growth, as well as an influx of car sales, so even a market that seems saturated can be profitable.
Every market is different throughout the United States. The Midwest and East Coast are very mature markets. The South is seeing a lot of growth with a variety of wash types. The West Coast has been dominated by full-serve washes, and express washes are beginning to populate there. The Midwest has been dominated by express washes but full-serve washes are growing in popularity. Perhaps there will continue to be a mix of different types of car washes in each region with more variety. But overall, saturated markets will evolve to maintain profitability.
From a chemical standpoint things are trending towards power concentrates and new chemical distribution methods. Regular blends and powders are becoming old school. You have to keep on the cutting edge and ahead of the game or you will get left behind. With shipping cost and container cost the small package concentrates save money, which translates into more profits for the operator.
I think we will continue to see a saturated market as investors see the car wash industry and related property values as a better place for their money than other investments. The key will be for the industry professionals and vendors to help the new investors make smarter business decisions and more appropriate site selections. Cities will continue to increase requirements and permitting for building/construction of car washes. This will also increase the time and costs required from property purchase to opening. The car wash operator will see many more auto dealerships entering the car wash market and car wash owners will be facing increased cost of doing business in the future.
Our major concerns going forward are dealing with the municipalities with unreasonable guidelines that make it difficult in permitting our business model. We are certainly all in favor of protecting the environment with efficient water reclaim systems and energy efficient operations in general. However, in one area, the municipality required a handicapped accessible bathroom with designated parking for such for a site that is a totally unattended InBayExpress car wash facility with no vacuums, and typically no restroom facilities are planned. In this case, this requirement added substantial costs in construction that was not planned and will never be used as such. Without an attendant on site, how would a handicapped person access the facility?
Young people aren’t as interested in buying cars and many are moving back into urban areas with public transportation and the availability of ride-sharing services. In the more distant future, driverless cars also may affect car washing. As we get closer to the $15/hour minimum wage, car washers will continue to evaluate their labor needs and costs, and move towards more automation.
Without hesitation, lower unemployment will continue to make staffing a concern in the car wash industry. Finding ways for car washes and car wash suppliers to work efficiently with less help will be inevitable. Also with the investors emerging onto the car wash scene, and the increased growth of the car wash market, there will be more focus from the environmental agencies at the state and local levels, which may affect the car wash industry. Automated features on vehicles may challenge car washes, such as auto wipers and auto braking. But overall, finding help and getting by with less help will be the number one issue faced by the car wash industry next year.