For several years I have seen 10 pins at the end of a long lane, waiting only for me to knock them down. Once the ball was thrown, returned to me, and the pins reset, I never thought much more about the experience. Recently, the manager in charge of maintenance at a bowling center invited me behind the scenes. Immediately, stories of what could easily have taken place at any car wash in America came flowing from the man in charge of making everything, and I mean everything, run properly, promptly, and according to its intended purpose.

Earl Toliver has been with the bowling center in Knoxville, TN for over 20 years, and his work is a labor of love. In 20 minutes, he proudly showed me improvements made in organizing the workspace, told tales of training, and spoke of his commitment to safety. All lessons that easily can be applied to any express tunnel car wash.

Clean, clear, walkway in equipment area.
Every part has a place.
Sixty-year-old pin setters running like new.


When Toliver was first charged with the maintenance of the center, there was a system for finding tools and small parts known only to the previous manager. Every time there was an issue that required either of these two things, the team would have to call the manager or, in some cases, the manager would have to travel to the center and find the correct tool or part needed. It is apparent after one look at the current system that Toliver has implemented a system in which anyone, at any time, is able to find what they need for a repair. We should have the same goal in our equipment rooms.

The struggle in most express tunnel car washes is not keeping an inventory of replacement parts on hand, it is organizing that inventory in a such a way that any part can be found quickly when needed. Not all tunnel equipment and back room spaces are the same. Methods maydiffer, but it only takes a short time to determine if an organizational system is “manager-centric” or “function-centric.” When it comes to finding parts or tools, the easier the better. Tools and parts are properly organized when all team members can find what is needed to make repairs in the least time possible.


The effort for getting equipment and parts organized was made in large part to maximize the efficiency of training. Rather than spend time training on a vague system for finding what a new team member needs, time is spent training on how to complete tasks needed for the operation and repair of the 60+ year old machines. Training includes taking a bearing apart that is essential to the operation of the pinsetter. There are 172 balls in the bearing and if the new team member drops even one, they get to explore the whole machine looking for the missing item. Toliver has the patience to let a mistake be made, and corrected, by those he is training. We should invest in people the same way.

At times, there seems to be as many books on training as there are team members to train. Theories range from collecting an extensive personality profile to understand a team member, all the way to simply handing a trainee an adjustable wrench and saying, “Go for it.”

What I know about Earl Toliver is this: He understands that what he does is important, he understands that what he does takes time to learn, and he understands he has more to learn himself. This makes Toliver, as a trainer, value the people he is training, develop a tolerance and appreciation for questions, and it keeps him focused on continuing education for himself and his team. In short, he is proud and yet still humble. Which is where any trainer needs to start, regardless of what training theory is used.


There are moving parts, high voltage, and a need for areas to remain clear in the back of a bowling center. Toliver and I discussed how safety for team members is a shared responsibility of every team member. We discussed how having the right safety equipment available helps teams take safety more seriously. We spoke about instilling in team members an understanding that safety is the main priority when diagnosing or repairing an issue and that safety-compliance steps should be taken even when no one else is looking. We should foster this environment in all aspects of our work, but especially with regard for safety. And while this is good advice for any industry, a bowling center and/or car wash can benefit from this type of determination and concern for safety in measurable ways.


For nearly 50 years, I have gone into this bowling center and have seen only the “front end.” There are stories that have been told about many experiences in this place from years ago and from last week, as well. It is a gathering place, and the teams that have worked there through the years seem to be entrenched in my own family’s history. Always, if I am in town on a Saturday night, I will be bowling there, most likely not giving a thought to how well the back room is run. What I will know, however, is if anything goes wrong, Toliver will have it under control.

My hope is that around some dinner table or over some cup of coffee, there is a good story being told about a team member from a car wash. If a customer is willing to pay a certain price to have a clean car, and a team member is willing to accept a certain wage for making that possible, they will be in the same place at the same time. It makes “business” sense, as well as “people” sense, to create a reason for teams and customers to smile. Like the bowling center, the team there makes the difference.


Toliver was proud to show me the back of the bowling center. It made me wonder how many car washes out there would be proud to show someone their equipment room. I suspect there are several express tunnels that are organized, with great training programs, that have safety as a main priority, and that have loyal customers based as much on the way they “feel” at a car wash, as on the way their car shines after experiencing the process. In the same way that Toliver was proud of what most do not think about when they bowl a game or two, we can be proud of the work we do behind the scenes. Not because it is recognized, but because it is the best way to provide a fast, efficient, and quality service where both the team member, and the vehicles washed, are safe. And where a quality product speaks well for an individual car wash, it also speaks volumes about our industry.

There have been advances in our industry with equipment. There have been advances in our industry with data collection and payment methods. There have been advances in support for owner/operators. The progress I see and that I am most proud of, is the attention paid to, and the genuine concern for, the team and the customer. This is the reason Toliver is proud of his bowling center. And for the same reason, the future of car washing will have as much to do with the way in which we deliver a value, as the value we provide.

Kevin Thompson is a district manager with Zips Car Wash in the Knoxville, TN market.