Express exterior has become the dominant force in the car wash industry. When looking to build, develop, or retrofit a tunnel wash, the majority of operators turn to the low-labor concept as a way to keep costs down while simultaneously providing a modern experience to consumers.
The abundance of exterior-only tunnels across the country has made competition intense in many areas, making it increasingly difficult for new businesses to realize market penetration. But that is not the case in every community. In fact, outside of major urban areas there are plenty of markets that have yet to experience a boom in express exteriors, and are ripe for new investors.
When Mark Richardson set out to build a wash in Edgewood, MD he knew it had to be an express exterior. When he began planning his first foray into car washing five years ago there were no express washes in his county and Richardson was confident in his potential for success.
“We saw a need in our county for a really good express wash,” Richardson says. “The mid Atlantic, for whatever reason, was lagging behind the rest of the country on car wash innovation. Being first to market we experienced organic growth from the very beginning.”
Richardson cut the ribbon on BrightWave Express Car Wash in 2017 and has been steadily increasing revenues and car counts every year since, despite his rookie status as a car wash operator. While the owner/operator was green from a car wash perspective he possessed decades of business experience from his previous career as president of a medical equipment supply company.
For 30 years Richardson worked in the medical field, until intensified regulation finally forced him to begin to look for opportunities outside of medical supply.
“That industry was just so over regulated,” he says. “It was on a downhill slide and I just kind of saw the writing on the wall and decided it was time to sell the business. I started looking for another industry to invest in and I had a few requirements. First, there had to be a small number of employees. Second, it should have as little regulation as possible. And third was the ability to receive payment at the time of service. Express car washing checked all of those boxes.”
Richardson became intrigued with car washing in 2015 during a trip to Las Vegas for a medical device convention that was taking place at the same time as the ICA’s annual expo. His frustrations were mounting at the time as the entire medical device field was taking a hit due to growing regulation throughout the industry.
“It was just depressing,” he says. “The whole industry was going under and I had been dabbling with the idea of starting another business. I was considering car washing and right across town the ICA was holding their annual convention. I decided to check it out. I attended the new investor seminar and it was just such an eye opener. The whole convention was full of life and excitement, it was like the medical industry was 20 years before. That was what sold me on car washing.”
Once the decision was made to enter the car wash industry Richardson went full-steam ahead, researching and planning his first site. He knew he wanted to build an express tunnel since the concept had yet to be introduced into Harford County. He eventually zeroed in on Edgewood, MD as the home of BrightWave. The quiet community is located around 30 miles northeast of Baltimore and offered affordable land and the ability to introduce the low-labor concept into an untapped market. But Richardson was not going to just open a run-of-the-mill express, rather he wanted to design and build a site that would force the community to take notice.
“We wanted the building, the lot, and the site itself to all be part of our marketing,” Richardson says. “It really does grab people’s attention on the highway and pulls them in. The building has a polycarbonate roof that looks like a wave. We use a lot of blues and greens in the logo and in the look of the building. And of course BrightWave is the name of the company.”
The investment in a large plot of land with an architecturally interesting building featuring state of the art wash equipment has paid off for Richardson. The site opened to great fanfare and has continued to experience organic growth year after year.
Like all experienced investors, Richardson entered the car wash business with a long-term growth plan in place. The wash crushed revenue projections the first three years and is on track to once again best year-four projections despite being forced to close its doors for seven weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late March, the state of Maryland mandated that all car washes close, including self-serve and express tunnels, to help curb the spread of the virus. After nearly two months of pleading their case to the state government that their businesses naturally complied with social distancing requirements, automatic car wash operators were allowed to reopen seven weeks after the forced closures.
While the seven-week moratorium on car washing certainly put a dent in BrightWave’s 2020 balance sheet, Richardson is confident that if a second wave of the virus forces another statewide shutdown, express and self-serve washes will be able to remain open. In fact, the two wash concepts were allowed to open their doors before the rest of the state’s economy after it was shown that they require little to no human-to-human interaction to operate.
The nearly two-month pause on operations had the potential to set BrightWave back months if not years on its growth plan, but Richardson had a simple yet ingenious solution to help quell the potential fallout. The wash had experienced phenomenal organic growth in its unlimited wash club, reaching more than 1,500 members. Making the membership numbers even more impressive is the fact that more than half sign up for BrightWave’s top menu option which costs $19 and $35 for a monthly pass.
When the wash was forced to shut down due to COVID-19 Richardson instantly switched all of his monthly customers to a penny per month. Doing so allowed the wash to continue its ongoing relationship with its monthly customers while cutting consumer costs to essentially zero. Once the wash was allowed to reopen, customers’ monthly plans returned to their pre-shutdown rates.
“A situation like COVID shows just how important monthly members are,” Richardson says. “I know a lot of washes either didn’t turn off their recurring payments soon enough or they didn’t do it at all. And they lost a lot of monthly customers that didn’t come back. We didn’t have a significant drop in monthly customers because we acted quickly and never turned off the payments, just lowered them to a penny a month.”
Now that a level of normalcy has returned to his business Richardson’s five-year plan is back on track. Wash volumes continue to flourish and he is working diligently on expansion plans, with a second BrightWave Express in the works 10 miles away from the current site.
Name: BrightWave Express Car Wash
Location: Edgewood, MD
Owner: Mark Richardson
Concept: Express Exterior
Tunnel Equipment: Sonny’s
Tunnel Length: 130 Feet
Vacuums: 20 Free Vacuum Spaces
Lot Size: 2.3 acres
Building Design: Modern Wash Buildings and Solutions