Maxwell’s maxim bears truth, no matter the field. The best learning environments are ones where people feel understood and valued. In the car wash industry and beyond, companies are becoming more responsive to individuals’ needs when designing education and training for employees.

            Today, the most advanced company-wide programs promote collaborative learning, rely on real-world experience, endorse positivity, and encourage confident growth while providing unique learning touchpoints for every person in the room. 

            Below are three major ways that industry leaders inspire individuals while relaying critical information through formal programs.

1. Create a Positive Environment For Growth

            Sonny’s Direct opened its CarWash College in 2006 to help industry staff master the essentials of business. It started with three core classes: maintenance, repair, and management. The curriculum has since expanded to include courses in tunnel equipment repair, backroom equipment repair, controls, and car wash investment.

            There are online offerings as well as fully equipped laboratory classrooms and tunnels in Florida and Arizona, specially designed for hands-on training. Equipment is portable and adjustable within each space for optimum learning. All CarWash College instructors and tech support have field experience. They have worked in the industry, sometimes for decades, owning and managing individual washes or chains. They know what it’s like to be frustrated by myriad issues that cause downtime and they’ve got the skills, tips, and tricks to help others avoid or mitigate the same headaches. 

            In Sonny’s classes, practical knowledge is shared in several ways. For example, in-person repair and maintenance classes are capped at 18 students to ensure that each student can easily move around the classroom to work on equipment. Since people’s learning styles are unique, Bob Fox, senior vice president of CarWash College and technical support, explains that Sonny’s provides several ways for students to get their questions answered.

            “Some [people] pick things up quickly in the classroom, but I would say a good number of our attendees learn more working hands-on in the lab, as they are more visual learners,” he said. “Because people learn differently, we present the information verbally, in print, and then hands-on to reinforce it all. There’s something for every kind of learner.”

            The program has been very successful. In 2023, Sonny’s taught 63 classes to 1,020 students who made lasting connections with one another and their instructors as they progressed through their studies. Some students have a wealth of car wash experience and knowledge, while others are brand new.

            Isabel Garcia, CarWash College coordinator, says the rooms are quiet at the beginning of a course, but soon students become animated, helping one another, and sharing their experiences. Collaborative learning and hands-on instruction in a positive environment make a difference.

            “There was one student who came to all of the classes within three months,” Garcia said. “Her first day on the job in the car wash industry was in a Sonny’s class. She came in so nervous, overwhelmed, not knowing what to expect but wanting, desiring to learn and build relationships with the instructors and the students. You could see her confidence level growing. She came on the last day of the last class and thanked every one of us. She said that she is now capable of doing her job well.”

            The woman later reconnected with Garcia, telling her that when she encountered a problem at the wash, she didn’t panic because she knew how to fix it. “I love seeing people grow through the classes,” said Garcia.

2. Provide Accessible Resources and Content 

            A good program should support individual growth to boost team performance. Over the last two years, Mister has developed and launched a two-track operations leadership program (OLP) covering operations and finance, maintenance, management, and human resources (HR).

            Prior training programs at Mister did not have an HR component; they were entirely focused on running a shop. OLP is more expansive. It helps managers become well-rounded leaders with holistic views of their responsibilities who can create a culture of feedback and positivity in their stores. Managers are inspired to be their best selves at work because OLP gives them a large toolkit and lots of support. HR courses are led by one of eight divisional human resource business partners (HRBPs) who are fully accessible contacts for participants, during the training and beyond.

            OLP1 is a six-to-eight week, self-led, on-the-job and book training designed for new hires or current team members moving from manager-in-training positions through promotion to assistant manager. It includes one HR-related course called handling difficult situations, covering preventing harassment, reasonable suspicion of drugs and/or alcohol in the workplace, and preventing discrimination.

            OLP2 takes employees onward to the general manager position. It has two HR-related courses. The culture, motivation, and feedback course covers creating a vision for site culture, motivating and engaging a team, and building a culture of feedback. The employee concerns, investigations, and accountability course covers best methods for handling team member concerns and complaints, detecting and dealing with performance problems, and guidelines for coaching and counseling.

            The program is working. Carla Thompson-Shealy, manager, field-HR east, supports the HRBPs in the Southeast, East, Northeast, and South-Central divisions and has been a key planner and organizer of the OLP from its early days. She explains that its success can be documented through the ethics hotline that was installed when Mister Car Wash went public in June 2021.

            “What we’ve noticed over time is the complaints we were getting have changed,” she said. “We’re not seeing complaints about the things that we’re teaching…. creating a culture of feedback, of drug and alcohol abuse awareness, or preventing discrimination in hiring.”

            Thompson-Shealy has seen OLP change individuals as well. In Mister’s culture, colloquialisms – words that are familiar among a group but that have differing or offensive meanings to others outside the circle – don’t have a place. Thompson-Shealy was explaining this in a class when a man pressed her for an example. She uncomfortably offered the word, “redneck,” and the gentleman had an epiphany. He realized this word’s connotations were, for him, dramatically different than they are for Black people. She told him and the class, “A lot of times when we work in environments with different people, they bring context to our lives. They bring clarity about things, about misperceptions that we’ve had, misunderstandings or biases that we’ve had. And working with a variety of people can help us unpack and resolve these things.” The next day, the man e-mailed Thompson-Shealy, thanked her, and said, “I might have been offending people my whole life and never even realized it until yesterday.” 

            Thompson-Shealy believes that the key to education, is maintaining a spirit of continuous improvement — for both individuals and the company as a whole. For some managers, the tools they receive through OLP are only conceptual until a situation arises where the learned skill needs to be applied. But at Mister, she said, they are always looking for ways to make the OLP better and more applicable. “We’re talking about what could be more efficient or more effective. We might not be able to remedy it all tomorrow or next year, but it’s at least on the dais.”

3. Care for the Whole Person

            Katie Balash is the president and CEO and second-generation owner of Vaughan Industries Inc., a family business in Detroit, MI. The company manufactures parts, equipment, and cleaning compounds for car wash and light industrial, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024.

            Using prior business experience, Balash stepped into the presidency after her parents and brother had passed. Since 2015, she’s honed herskills in free leadership programs such as the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) T.H.R.I.V.E. Emerging Leaders Reimagined. She was a finalist and a semi-finalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award, and an economic development initiative grant award winner in Detroit. Balash values proper work-life balance and sees difficult situations as challenges, never problems.

            Balash is straightforward about her company’s greatest strength. “My employees are the core of my business,” she said. “Without them we have no business.” Her foundational business value is that her employees be “healthy, happy, and whole.” This has meant helping some staff get their GEDs and in one case, a driver’s license, but typically, Balash is imparting life skills along with technical on-the-job training. Educational programs have taught her that every person must understand their own needs and desires to grow. In discussions and formalized company policy, Balash asks her employees to “find wholeness in their lives,” and provides ample avenues to help them do it. 

            No one can learn or work well if they aren’t in good health. So Balash is one of the very select entrepreneurs who covers 100 percent of her employees’ healthcare costs.  She buys the insurance through a grandfathered plan which she says she will never drop. Employees are only responsible for their copays and drug costs.

            “Literally, nobody can quote me health insurance,” she says.  “And it’s expensive, but I would rather pay for that than pay a little less for 90 percent less security.” She encourages her employees to use their insurance, not just in times of crisis, but for preventative care. Balash also provides two weeks of paid time off and discusses each person’s use of their PTO in annual reviews, praising those who have used their entire time off. She says, “If you can’t take time to do something other than work, then eventually you’re not going to be good at anything you do.” 

            Finally, Balash tells her team to find the education and training she can’t provide onsite as a part of finding wholeness in their lives. “If they aren’t happy in their jobs and if they think there’s a way that they can continue to grow in our workspace, I fully encourage that,” she explains. “If there’s a workshop or a class or something that they want to participate in, and I can afford to pay for it I will.”

            Balash knows her encouragement comes with the risk that employees may ultimately leave. Yet this possibility does not dissuade her. “I tell them, ‘Look, if you’re not happy here, that’s ok! If you want to go find another job, by all means, I encourage you to do so. I will be very sorry to lose you, but I will write you a referral, I will give you time off to make sure that you can interview for other places because if you’re not happy here you’re not doing any of us any good.” 

            Balash’s philosophy is a success — her company has little to no turnover. By understanding and meeting the individual needs, dreams, and goals of every employee, Balash creates team loyalty and ensures most of her employees find “healthy, happy, and whole” lives right where they are. She says, “By inspiring this safety, security, and lack of fear in the job, they are deeply dedicated.”    

Final Thought: Pay Attention to the Individual

            “If we’re going to succeed, we’re going to succeed together,” said Balash. Her words are a succinct summation of how education comes together when it works well. If a person knows they are valued and are given plenty of resources to grow and move toward wholeness in all aspects of their lives, they are more likely to pull harder for the team. Which brings the discussion about education and training back to Maxwell’s truth: show those who are learning that you care about them, and they are more likely to listen to and retain every lesson. 

Gretchen Matthews is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach who contributes regularly to Auto Laundry News and other industry publications. Her experience in education, government, and the private sector makes her a valuable resource for professionals who want to improve their presentation and writing skills. Contact her at gmatthews@chesapeakequill.com.