Car washing is in an unrelenting state of flux. Formats, equipment, and technology are always evolving, presenting new challenges for operators as they look to meet customer demand for a clean, dry, shiny car delivered quickly and affordably.
Amid this environment of continuous evolution there has been one constant over the past 50 years: Autobell.
The full-service car wash chain was founded in May of 1969 in Charlotte, NC by Charlie Howard. Over the past five decades the one-time start-up has grown into the fourth largest car wash chain in the US with 83 locations in five states.
When Charlie opened his first wash all those years ago he could never have imagined the runaway success that Autobell has become. In fact, he didn’t start the business in the hopes of operating a massive car wash chain; he founded it as a way to highlight his equipment distribution business.
Prior to building Autobell, Charlie was an electrical contractor in charge of installing and maintaining industrial equipment. When his long-time employer was bought out Charlie found himself unemployed, and rather than search for another job he decided to go into business for himself.
|Chuck Howard has been|
Autobell’s CEO since 1986.
He and a partner started a vehicle pressure washing business focused on thetrucking industry. That early entry into the vehicle cleaning business quickly evolved into a distributorship for California Car Wash Equipment. To help spur equipment sales the partners built the first Autobell as a way to showcase their equipment, but Charlie quickly developed a deep affection for the business and bought his partner out and the rest is history.
“When my father started Autobell I was a sophomore in college,” Charlie’s son and long-time Autobell CEO Chuck Howard says. “My role early on was to help with construction while continuing my education. There wasn’t a lot of professional car washes in our market 50 years ago and the business grew quickly. By the time I graduated college we had four locations and I decided to enter the car wash business full time. That turned out to be a good decision.”
While the legendary status Autobell has achieved in the industry was a long way off when the Howards were building their first handful of washes, the idea of multiple locations was certainly on Charlie’s radar. In fact, he chose the Autobell name with franchising the business in mind.
“Although we never ended up doing it, my dad had the idea that someday this could be a franchise,” Howard says. “In order to have a franchise we needed a patentable name to protect the brand.
Autobell is what we came up with.”
The “auto” part of the Autobell name was selected to portray “automobiles” and “automatic.” The second part of the name was to honor the key architectural piece of every wash the Howards ever built: a large bell tower. The tower has become synonymous with the brand and the basis for its iconic logo.
While the look and feel of Autobell hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years, the rest of the business, along with the industry as a whole, has undergone dramatic changes.
Chuck, who stepped into the CEO position when his father passed away in 1986, has helped usher in the new age of car washing at Autobell. An age that has been defined by computer automation.
“Probably the biggest thing that has redefined the industry over the past 50 years is computers,” he says. “In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there were no computers. If you wanted to sell an extra service, like a wax, someone had to literally flip a switch when a car got in the right spot and hopefully remember to turn the switch off afterwards.”
Today, sophisticated computers control every aspect of the car wash tunnel. They ensure equipment is running optimally and efficiently, keeping chemical and water waste to a minimum.
Computers have not only helped optimize the art of washing cars, they have completely changed the business side of the industry.
“Modern accounting and POS systems make it so much easier to track performance,” Howard says. “In the early days it was all on paper. If you had multiple sites you had to get your info on the previous day’s performance by talking to your managers over the phone. Today we have real-time access to performance stats right on our smartphones and you can look at it as often as you like.”
While computers have taken some of the headache out of running a multi-location operation, the 83-site wash must continue to evolve to keep its spot at the top of the car washing food chain. Whether it is faced with new construction mandates or working to solve the challenges presented by modern cars’ advanced safety features, Autobell remains an innovative force.
One of the biggest hurdles traditional full-service locations must face is the increasingly popular express exterior trend. Autobell has a leg up on other full-serve operators when it comes to battling the influx of low-cost, high-speed exterior only sites that have flooded the market.
Autobell was actually founded as an exterior wash and evolved into its current full-service state. While the wash chain embraced the full-service model, it never turned its back on its exterior-only roots, keeping a low-cost exterior option on its menu boards for decades. That commitment to exterior-only has served Autobell well as customers re-embrace the exterior trend.
While an exterior wash has always been a part of Autobell’s offerings, it was provided with a unique twist. Every car that exited the tunnel received a wipe down including the door jams, regardless of the wash package selected.
Over the past few years, however, Autobell has introduced a new lower-cost menu option dubbed the Ride-Thru Exterior. This entry-level $7 wash features a trip down the well-equipped tunnel, but cars receive no hands-on treatment by Autobell staff. The menu option is designed to give value-conscious car washers a barebones option and provide full-service customers a quick touch-up alternative.
“I don’t see car washing as one-size-fits-all,” Howard says. “There is certainly a market for express and the model is attractive for investors. But to me it is still a self-serve operation. Customers have to self-pay, self-load, and clean the inside of the vehicle themselves. There is still a market for people that want a do-it-for-me experience.”
Autobell and the Howard family have provided that experience for 50 years and counting. Chuck Howard has five decades of experience in the car wash business and has no immediate plans to retire from the car wash empire he helped build. If and when he does decide to step away he is confident that his son Carl, the company’s COO, and his daughters Kelly and Leigh, who hold prominent positions in the organization, can seamlessly take the reins.
“I am very fortunate that my family is interested in the business,” he says. “I am in good health and I enjoy coming in. I have a team of knowledgeable people that run the business whether I am here or not. I don’t have any plans to retire, but I certainly can slow down because everything is pretty well covered. If they don’t mind a little advice from me now and then I will stick around and try to be of assistance.”
Year Founded: 1969
Founder: Charles “Charlie” Howard
Current CEO: Chuck Howard
Expansion Plans: 90 locations by 2020
States of Operation: GA, NC, SC, MD, VA
Format: Full Service