Car washing is all Jamie Nester knows. The lifelong car washer not only spent his entire career in the industry but has worked himself up from hourly attendant to majority owner. He started in the car wash game with a part-time gig at the local car wash to put a little spending cash in his pocket, not thinking that two decades later he would own the business.
He has been with Flagstop since the early ‘90s watching it grow from a handful of washes to a mini-chain with 12 locations, and more on the horizon. The original owner, Bob Schrum, founded the business in 1981 and had many workers come and go over the years but saw something special in Ne
“Bob always told me that the people that helped him grow and stuck with him would one day have an opportunity to buy the company from him,” says Nester. “And true to his word in 2016 when he was ready to retire, he sold the wash to me.”
When Schrum finally decided to walk away from Flagstop after 35 years in the car wash trenches, he and Nester had built it up into an eight-location chain with a mix of full-serve, self-serve, and express locations.
“Bob always had a desire to grow, but he also knew that he was going to retire one day, so he wasn’t very aggressive” says Nester. “When we took over, we quickly transitioned into acquisition and building mode, and increased from eight to 12 locations in less than three years.”
In addition to quickly scaling the busines, Nester and his partners made some changes to Flagstop’s operational model. They exited the quick lube and detailing businesses to focus on their core strength, washing cars at high volume.
While Flagstop always had a mix of wash concepts spread across its holdings, the new owners were increasingly focused on express washing, and fully embraced the low labor offering this past year.
“The express market is where the majority of money is going these days,” says Nester. “We always had a desire to convert our full-service washes to express. Last year we weren’t doing interiors anyway because of COVID so it was the perfect time to make the change. Instead of focusing on building a new location, we focused on converting our remaining full-service washes to expresses.”
Converting all Flagstops to express served multiple purposes. It lessened the wash’s labor demands, supercharged its marketing efforts, and increased the power of its unlimited wash club.
When Flagstop was still operating partially as a full service it employed more than 150 workers. Following the switch to a 100 percent express wash that number dropped to 110, stretched across all 12 locations and its corporate office.
But like Schrum before him, Nester values quality employees — and he didn’t just pocket the labor savings. Instead, he gave everyone in the company significant raises of 20 percent or more. Flagstop paid its full-service employees a starting wage of $8 per hour plus tips, while its express counterparts earned $10 an hour. Following the switch to the 100-percent express concept, the starting wage was increased to $12 per hour, with the average employee making $14.
“When we went from 150 to 110 employees we keep our best workers,” Nester says. “Instead of keeping the money we decided to pay our existing employees more. We also gave our managers raises across the board.”
Unlike similar chains throughout the country, Flagstop is focused on just one market. By concentrating its operation in and around Richmond the wash can truly connect with its customers and streamline its marketing efforts. As a new-school wash Flagstop is committed to next-gen marketing strategies designed for digital delivery. But the wash also utilizes traditional marketing approaches like billboards and television spots.
Much of its marketing mix is designed to bring awareness to its extremely popular unlimited wash club. The wash has been offering an unlimited option for years, but with a mix of concepts under its banner the club lacked cohesion across sites and was a source of confusion rather than convenience for customers.
When Nester and his team made the switch to express they streamlined the wash club, going from a handful of different offerings to just one. The unlimited club has only one level, the top-of-the-line Ultimate Wash.
The Ultimate features clearcoat protectant, bug blaster, wheel brite, tire shine, sealant, and a shammy dry all for $18. But for just $4 more customers can join the wash’s unlimited wash club, making enrollment a simple decision.
“We only offer one unlimited wash club and it’s on our top package,” says Nester. “We have a really strong price point, and the service has become extremely popular. It varies by store, but anywhere from 45 to 75 percent of our customers are unlimited members.”
Nester’s willingness to evolve and think outside the box has helped bring not only the unlimited wash club, but the entire organization to new heights. As a lifelong car washer Nester knows that the industry is constantly evolving, and only those operators that are able to adjust their offerings to meet consumer demand will stand the test of time.
Car WASH Profile:
Name: Flagstop Car Wash
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Owner: Jamie Nester
Concept: Express Exterior
Number of Sites: 12
Average Tunnel Length: 130 Feet
Vacuum Stations: Minimum 13 Per Site
Unlimited Wash Club Membership: $21.99