In the early part of 1994, I was two years into my marriage. Wife Donna was due with our first-born. This, along with being in the fifth year of gainful employment with the Federal Government in what was supposed to be a career-path position, everything was “set.” Then came the famous Government Drawdown of 1994. My particular job position was newly established, so it was one of the first ones eliminated. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just go out and get another corporate job in the same capacity.”
Frustrated by months of submitting dozens of job applications all over the country, I decided to leave the corporate world and pursue the dream of having my own business. Fueled by a long-standing entrepreneurial drive and backed by the support of friends and existing customers, I launched Detail in Progress at the end of 1994.
I will never forget my parents’ reaction when I let them know what I was planning to do. Shocked that their son was changing to a vocation that seemingly has nothing to do with his master’s degree, their comment was, “You’re going to wash cars?” Now, aside from their obvious misunderstanding of the activities of a “professional detailer,” little did any of us know where this career in automotive detailing would take me.
As an example, consider my activities for the month of May 2016. This has been arguably the busiest that I have ever been in one month. By the time the month was over, I had stayed in seven different hotels, visited 10 cities, driven 2,000 miles, and flown 9,000 miles.
Having “Recognized Trainer” status with the International Detailing Association allows me the privilege of proctoring the administration of the IDA’s Certified Detailer exams (as well as the “Skills Validated” level II of the certification). So, on May 1, it was off to Fullerton, CA to certify two detailing professionals by providing a “Certification-in-a-Day” event at a detail supplier’s shop.
• Takeaway: Get involved with your trade association, the IDA. Although you may not achieve “Recognized Trainer” status, there are several benefits to participating in committees and the board of directors of the IDA. You will see some later in this article.
I flew out to Nashville for the International Carwash Association’s “The Car Wash Show.” It was a privilege to be asked to represent a large chemical company by providing buffing demos in their booth during the show. So there I was, buffing away on a hood for three days, five to seven hours a day. The demos were aimed at car wash owners who need a “fool-proof” system to remove minor scratches from wash customer vehicles, for those customers who claim the wash damaged the car, and as a marketable additional service that can be relatively easily provided by most anyone on staff.
Aside from the camaraderie of the company employees and sales staff, it is fun to engage with show-goers, including many friends and colleagues that I see each year at this show. The most rewarding part of this work is to watch someone — like a car wash owner, for example — pick up a buffer for the first time and, with a quality system (buffer, pad, and chemical), and some coaching (from yours, truly, of course) remove 1,500-grit sanding scratches in a matter of a few minutes.
The after-hours networking at these trade shows is an added benefit as it builds friendships and business relationships. I caught up with a detailing colleague from Michigan; he happened to be staying at the same hotel. So we were able to grab dinner together and share “war stories” from everyday detailing work, as well as exchange tips and tricks that would help us both as we return to our detail shops.
• Takeaway: Consistently attend the trade shows that are related to our industry. Shake hands with the leaders in the industry. Do this consistently and someday someone might ask you to represent their company. You will also make friends from all over the country.
Twelve hours after landing back home in San Diego, I hopped in the car and drove 500 miles to Northern California for another round of detailing-related activities. An industry friend had asked me to help out at a detailing clinic being held at his detail chemical manufacturing warehouse. The first day was spent setting up the “stage” for the crowd of detailing professionals and motoring enthusiasts that were expected to show up the next day for the clinic.
That night, I was fortunate enough to be able to hang out with long-time detailing buddy Renny Doyle, as well as the president of a company that produces one of the newer polishing machines on the market. I learned a motto years ago in early sales training: When attending a gathering of like-minded professionals, be the first one to show up and the last one to leave; it’s in these early and late moments that the magic happens. We all know that this is not always practical, but sometimes it pays off big, like being invited to have dinner with one of the most famous detailers in the world and the head guy of one of the most popular buffing systems in detailing today.
The day of the clinic found me polishing out micro-scratches on a brand-new, off-the-showroom-floor McLaren in front of a crowd of 80, using a new paint perfection system. I also contributed to the program with a brief talk on interior detailing. The local Porsche club rolled in with about 10 beautiful vehicles, and I spent the afternoon showing those owners how to use the new paint perfection system on their cars.
• Takeaways: 1. Attend special events that your detailing suppliers offer. 2. Be willing to help, even if you’re not getting paid. You will make great friends and industry contacts. 3. Be the first one there and the last one to leave (which is easy to do if you are volunteering to help).
Hop back in the car and head to another part of Northern Cal to visit my friend Jeanne Schmidt Herron, who owns a car wash and detail center in Auburn, CA. We had a pleasant dinner together along with her manager Eric Cabrera, and discussed ways to improve their detailing services and profits.
Jeanne had asked me there to “certify” her detailing crew. The next morning, Eric and seven other employees from the car wash attended a several-hour IDA “Certification-in-a-Day” event, during which I provided a comprehensive seminar on automotive detailing, focusing on information needed to pass the IDA Certified Detailer exams. Then I administered all 10 exams to the attendees. They all passed and I was happy to bestow upon them the title of IDA Certified Detailer.
• Takeaway: Just because you are a professional detailer, don’t ignore the car wash industry. There are friendships and money to be made there, too.
After driving back to San Diego on the 16th, I got to enjoy a special day in the middle of this crazy month. It had nothing to do with detailing, but everything to do with another passion of mine: music. I found out a couple of months ago that high-school friend and professional drummer Gerry Gibbs was coming into San Diego to perform a live concert for our local jazz radio station. I hadn’t seen Gerry for 35 years but reconnected with him via Facebook.
Those of you not familiar with the jazz world will no doubt still find his accomplishments respectable. Gerry’s albums last year broke long-standing records for “number of weeks at number 1 on the jazz charts.” One of his albums was also nominated for a Grammy last year. And the list of musicians that he has either worked with or recorded with is mind-blowing.
The concert was great, and catching up with Gerry was great, especially his stories of other high school friends that he did a better job keeping up with. But the most special part of this day was when Gerry, at my prompting and with a contribution from my company, spent the afternoon with the local junior high school jazz band, working with the band as a whole, then with the drummers one-on-one. What a cool guy and what a fun day. If you like jazz, look up Gerry — you won’t be disappointed.
• Takeaway: Remember your other passions besides detailing. Use your company resources to make a positive impact on your community.
Back on the plane, this time to the East Coast. I spent four days at a car dealership in Virginia, training up the 10-person detailing crew at a newly constructed vehicle reconditioning center that included an eight-bay state-of-the-art built-in detailing system. The dealership had made a serious commitment to its recon department, pulling its detailers out of the typical crappy, dark, dirty detail “hut” at the back of the dealership and putting them in a multi-million dollar facility.
The trainees were very receptive because they understood this wonderful opportunity that had been handed to them, plus the recon manager made it very clear that they were to learn the new procedures that go along with the built-in detailing system. So it was a pleasure working with these guys.
The frosting on the cake? The recon manager agreed to pay for the IDA Certified Detailer exams and I was able to administer them during the training, certifying yet five more professional detailers.
• Takeaway: If you enjoy teaching other people how to do things and you have any kind of teaching experience or natural skill, be ready to teach others in the industry. Detail training can be quite profitable and can give you a paid break from the heavy labor involved in our trade.
On the plane again. This time to Oregon, where I met with a car wash owner who wants to add express detailing to his new car wash. It is exciting to be able to help set up a new detailing operation from scratch with someone who has no experience and virtually no knowledge of detailing. By the way, the car wash owner saw a presentation I made at a trade show on behalf of the IDA a couple of years back and kept my card for just this situation.
• Takeaway: Get involved as a presenter in the detailing industry. I know this is not for everyone, but if you have any kind of speaking skills, use them. You never know who’s in the audience — maybe someone who is willing to pay you a lot of money to help them in their operation.
One More Thing . . .
In the middle of all of this activity, I was approached by a manufacturer in the industry, who was looking for someone who can help them with written content, like press releases, web pages, and product descriptions. Having spent seven years in higher education, I learned how to write pretty well, so this is a natural intersection of my detailing knowledge and writing skills. Oh, by the way, I met this person at an ICA show years ago, and I always at least say “hello” every time I see him at various trade shows.
• Takeaway: Keep up with your contacts and friendships in the industry as best you can. You never know when that contact will lead to a bigger opportunity for you.
Re-reading this month’s column, I realize that it may come across as a “me-me-me memoir.” Sorry if that is the case for some readers. That’s why I added the “Takeaways” as an afterthought, because really what I was trying to accomplish is to show that there are many opportunities available to us detailers. Professional detailing by itself can be quite rewarding, and adding “higher level” activities can enhance that sense of accomplishment.
Realize that most of the activities that I mentioned in this article were compensated. And my detail shop stayed open and many vehicles were detailed. Yeah, Mom and Dad, I like “washing cars” and all of the opportunities that this industry has afforded me.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or email@example.com.