I recently had the opportunity to dine with a group of 25 savvy businesspeople. Some had no car washing experience. Several operated other wash styles and were looking at building an express tunnel.
Flashback 15 years to the construction of my first express exterior: I don’t remember the complaint exactly. I think it had to do with retention pond requirements. Or it might have been some frustration about needing to secure a bond to pay a “state approved” contractor $20K to relocate a light pole a couple of feet. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the sage advice a dear friend gave me at the time: “Anthony, only an idiot would think this was easy.”
Now this dear friend went on to build nearly a hundred express-exterior tunnels. And I won’t deny technology advancements have simplified many things. But never confuse easier with easy. My friend’s insight still stands: only an idiot would think building a car wash was easy. So, I got with some other dear friends and colleagues to assemble a list of what we feel are the most common misconceptions about our industry.
#1: A car wash is a “cash cow”
Sure, it can be. With work. The cow needs to be fed in order to produce.
Attracting and retaining customers will require leadership, planning, and perseverance along with creativity and innovation. Ensuring wash quality and customer satisfaction will be a daily challenge that demands hands-on maintenance, training, and procedures. Master those two challenges and you will be so successful that competitors will enter your market to steal the business you proved to be there.
That’s life. That’s business. And car washing isn’t exempt.
The only thing I can assure any new car wash investor is that you’ll never be bored. Over your career in this industry, you’ll become part chemist, part computer programmer, part electrician, part engineer, part technician, and a full-time marketer. Your car wash business can generate predictable growing income for years, or even generations.
#2: I’ll steal an existing wash’s business
Many markets are underserved. Multiple car washes can absolutely thrive in close proximity. Sure, you want to know your competition. In fact, you need to know your competition. But you also want to get your own unique selling proposition defined, your menu, your staff, your marketing, and your quality all to your standards.
You also must understand that a car wash is typically considered a “single-use property.” If you build across the street from another wash and are successful putting it out of business, the bank takes over the other property when it fails. They will then try to get rid of it fast, often to an experienced operator below market value.
Now you have a competitor across the street with a lower debt service that can retrofit the wash and reopen with newer equipment at a lower price to steal market share. Believing you’ll build across the street from a busy wash and steal their business is a misconception that rarely turns out well.
#3: A car wash is an absentee owner business
With cashflow only as predictable as the weather, making quick decisions demands ownership of the process — game-day decisions like when to capitalize on volume spikes and strategic decisions like who to partner with to deliver a consistent product. When you choose to build a car wash, you’re not investing in a business, you’re embracing a lifestyle. Believing you’ll find a manager that functions with the passion of an owner can happen, but more often than not it’s a misconception that normally results in failure.
#4: Hiring, training, and retaining staff will be easy
Labor at an express wash is limited, but it remains a challenge to train a crew to keep things running safely and customers satisfied. Plan to be part leader, part parent, part therapist, and part babysitter. Over time, with effort, you will cultivate a loyal team that grows to love our business. But few new hires start off appreciating how amazing it is to be a professional car washer, so don’t expect it to be easy.
#5: Build it and they will come
Conduct a demographic study and create a proforma to predict capture rate and breakeven. Car washing is not a commodity. You’re not in an alternate universe. And only an idiot would believe they’ll attract and retain the potential volume in a proforma without a carefully crafted value proposition, customer experience, comprehensive marketing plan, and effort to implement it.
#6: It’s easy to build multiple locations
Yes, there are numerous examples of express-exterior operators quickly expanding their brands and opening multiple locations. I assure you there was a lot of analysis, conversation, and negotiation — and it wasn’t easy.
Changing weather, temperature, water quality, and vehicle profiles, among other things, make it incredibly difficult to replicate a consistent customer experience across locations. Believing you’ll open your first wash and finance a quick expansion from cashflow is rarely true.
#7: It can’t cost that much to build a car wash, it’s just soap and water
Most ground-up car wash projects cost from $3 million and up. Believing you’ll be able to save on skilled trades or shave other construction costs along the way is a misconception that normally results in project delays and poorly timed grand openings.
#8: It will be easy to get a property approved for car washing
The modern car wash is an automated marvel combining safe chemistry, minimal labor, and careful water reclamation to perform a valuable service. It’s sad that many townships still have our industry zoned with as much affection as a dry cleaner or adult bookstore. This is changing, but the words “car wash” continue to conjure images of environmentally un-friendly, labor-intensive dirty tunnels that attract transient labor. Believing your car wash project will sail through zoning and permitting without a hiccup is a misconception that can cost thousands of dollars in unplanned delays.
#9: Car washes provide a predictable revenue stream
Yes, and no. Weather cannot be controlled. Weather will absolutely impact volume. Believing you can reliably predict weather related volume spikes is a delusion; hence a hands-on owner needs to be present to “make hay when the sun shines.”
All that said, a successful monthly wash subscription program can smooth out revenue hills and valleys. So yes, but only with effort to acquire and maintain club members.
#10: Equipment alone cleans the car
Getting a consistently clean, dry, shiny car is an art form that marries chemistry, water quality, consistent chemistry dispensing, ambient temperature, wash material, road grime, and conveyor speed with moving equipment. The problem is that each part of the equation changes seasonally, or even hourly. Believing that delivering a clean car is as easy as buying equipment is a misconception that will result in frustration and dissatisfied customers.
Of course, as with most things in life, being passionate, focused, hard-working, and a learner who works with the experts can help you achieve your goals faster.
Good luck and good washing.
Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.