2020 has been a challenging year for the car care industry. Widespread uncertainty coupled with stay-at-home orders have taken their toll on car washes and detail centers across the country.
While the ongoing health crisis and lessening car counts have unquestionably brought numerous challenges, it has also ushered in new opportunities. The decreased use of automobiles by a socially distant workforce has reduced the need for regular car washes, while simultaneously opening customers’ calendars for high-end detail opportunities.
Mark Elliott of Firehouse Auto Spa has been able to capitalize on increased customer availability to grow his business exponentially over the past three to six months. Customers that would otherwise be unable or unwilling to part with their car are now dropping their vehicles off at the Jacksonville, FL-based detail center for full-service details at record rates.
“We were preparing for the worst when COVID hit,” Elliott says. “But believe it or not, our sales have skyrocketed. Customers are saying that they have been waiting for an opportunity to leave their car with us. They are getting the paint protection, film application, and ceramic coatings they have been putting off for a long time. Now that they are working from home and don’t need their cars as much, they have the time to get these services done.”
Firehouse Auto Spa, which gets its name from 15-year firefighting veteran Elliott, has not only seen its high-end detailing business soar,but its specialty offerings have also taken off.
Around 20 percent of the detail center’s volume comes from specialty projects — RVs, motorcycles, boats, and aircraft. It is the aviation business that gets Elliott most excited and has been a major point of focus over the past year. There is a private airport around four miles from the shop, and Firehouse services between six to 10 planes a month.
“We’re building our aviation division,” Elliott says. “I love airplanes. Being a part of the Air Force One Detail Team and working with Renny Doyle I found a love for planes. We have really nice cars coming into the shop all the time. My guys are like, ‘man, you’re not excited about this.’ And I say, no. You know what gets me excited, planes. Planes get me excited.”
While Firehouse Auto Spa is booming, with a host of high-end and specialty clients on its roster, its origins are much simpler.
Elliott began detailing cars for family and friends when he was a teenager in his native Virginia. He had a knack for the trade and as word-of-mouth spread, he soon had his appointment book filled and plans in place to turn his after-school hobby into a viable business opportunity.
“I would work on my family’s, neighbors’, and eventually my own vehicles,” Elliott says of his start in the detailing world. “As word got out, I started to think I could make some money doing this and the rest is history.”
Elliott moved from Virginia to Florida in 2004 and put his early detailing career on hold as he explored other entrepreneurial pursuits, owning and operating a small construction business. But when the economy took a dive in 2008 and the building industry dried up he decided to return to his roots — getting back into the detail industry for good in 2009 and never looking back.
He continued to improve his skill set and build his client roster but was continually having to refer out more complicated jobs. He knew that if he was going to make a big splash in the industry, he was going to have to improve his skills and capture all that referral business for his own.
He became more active in the detailing community, attending events and trade shows to stay abreast of the latest products and techniques that could take his detailing prowess to the next level. It was at one of these shows — Mobile Tech Expo 2012 — that he meet Renny Doyle and truly began to turn the corner in his detailing career. He began training with the renowned detail guru, joining his Detail Mafia organization, and becoming a member of the famous Air Force One Detailing Team.
“I didn’t feel like I was good at detailing,” Elliott says. “I was always the guy who knew somebody that could do something. Sure, I could clean a car, but I didn’t know how to paint correct or help a customer out with a minor dent. When I met Renny and started training with him that’s when I saw my business turn into a legit business and started making real good money.”
While Elliott had always detailed, it had been a side gig. As a full-time fireman and paramedic, it was just something he did on his days off to earn some extra cash and keep himself busy. But once he had the skill set to compete with the big boys in his market he began to scale his organization, growing it from a one-man shop at the back of a car dealership to a standalone business with six full-time, highly trained detailing professionals.
“We are a one-stop shop for our high-end clientele,” he says. “For them time is money. They don’t want to have to make multiple appointments, they want to be able to drop their car off at one place and get all the necessary work done there. That is what we provide. Now that we have the team in place to meet all our customers’ needs, I can take a step back from the day-to-day. I can focus my efforts on building the business and client relations.”
Now that the business is humming along, and Firehouse Auto Spa is synonymous with quality, Elliott is working diligently on expansion. In December, he will cut the ribbon on a brand-new 5,000-square-foot shop he recently purchased and is in the process of outfitting. The highlight of the new shop is the newly installed stainless epoxy floor, complete with embedded company logo, that makes the work area truly pop.
In addition to the cutting-edge, six-bay detailing area, the new Firehouse location will feature an inviting lobby and showroom designed to encourage customers to relax and enjoy their time at the Spa.
“The new shop is going to have a coffee and cappuccino bar with fresh baked cookies every day,” Elliott says. “We are putting in seven flat screens in the lobby to make people feel at home. There is a bar top where people can set up their laptops and work from the shop. The theme of the shop is comfort, customer education, and productivity for the staff.”
Elliott has been able to turn what has been an extremely challenging year for much of the car care industry into a banner one for his business. By committing himself to continuous education, customer service, and aggressive expansion he has built one of the premier detailing shops in Jacksonville, and is poised for decades of ongoing success.
Name: Firehouse Auto Spa
Owner: Mark Elliott
Location: Jacksonville, Florida
Facility: 5,000 Square-Foot Fixed Location
Specialties: High-End Coatings and Protective Films
Additional Services: Window Tint, Odor Removal, Dent Repair