So you want to get into the car wash business? Looks easy, right? Just send dirty cars through the tunnel and they come out clean. Customers drive away happy and you make money, lots of money. Right? Sometimes.
There are many factors that contribute to a successful car wash operation. According to Thomas Ennis, owner of Inglewood, CA-based NS Wash
Systems, it starts with understanding the ins and outs of the business, deciding what type of wash, finding the best location, conducting market research and studying traffic patterns, looking at the pros and cons of buying an existing wash versus new construction, and evaluating equipment options.
“Some owners make decisions the hard way, through trial and error, while others take advantage of the myriad resources that are available,” says Ennis, who was inducted into the International Carwash Association (ICA) Hall of Fame in 2015. Over the years, Ennis has seen the value in participating in trade shows, from connecting with customers to staying current on marketing trends, legal, and environmental concerns. Ennis has been a member of ICA for 52 years, attending his first show in 1963 — and he hasn’t missed one yet, including exhibiting every year since 1967.
I WANT TO BUY A CAR WASH
If you are new to the car wash industry, a good place to start is regional and national trade associations. The ICA website has an entire section devoted to new investors, www.carwash.org/for-operators/invest. In addition, the ICA conducts an annual new investor seminar in conjunction with The Car Wash Show, scheduled this year for Nashville in May.
According to Megan Clark, ICA director of membership, “Our goal with the seminar is to answer any question a new investor would have about getting into the industry, including type of wash to build/purchase, how to get financing, insurance, technology, human resources needs, and more.”
Brad Sorenson, director of training for Sonny’s CarWashCollege, reports that the last three years has seen an increase in new owners entering the car wash business. Banks are willing to lend money and more and more owners are building multiple sites, creating regional chains. At Sonny’s CarWash College in Fort Lauderdale, FL, quarterly new investor seminars are packed and training classes are sold out months in advance.
Regional and state car wash associations are excellent resources, as well, especially for networking and learning about codes, permits, and environmental issues. For a complete listing, visit www.sonnysdirect.com or consult the annual Auto Laundry News Buyers Guide.
Do Your Homework
Sorenson says that buying a car wash is like buying any other business, and it starts with due diligence. “Conduct market research and study traffic patterns. Location will be the single most determining factor in your success. Even one block can make or break your business,” he explains.
INDUSTRY NEWCOMERS WELCOME
Ten years ago, industry newcomer, Patricia Knott, met Thomas Ennis at a business mixer and, while car wash ownership was not something she had thought about, ever, the idea of owning her own business, revitalizing undervalued commercial real estate properties, creating a fun, family-friendly experience, and supporting the environment had crossed her mind.
Today she is the owner of the Green Forest chain of express car washes in Southern California, with locations in Hawthorne, South Los Angeles, and Bell Gardens, and opening this year in Baldwin Hills and San Pedro. She is putting to good use her background in accounting, corporate finance, and real estate evaluations.
“This industry really rolls out the red carpet to newcomers,” Knott says. “Everyone has been very nice and helpful.”
Every Day is Training Day for Car Wash Owners
Some existing owners believe in on-the-job-training, while others take classes and find information via trade shows, and industry magazines. Whichever way you prefer, experts agree that savvy owners and operators are always learning. “This business teaches you something new, every day,” Ennis notes.
For owners, operators, and employees, trade shows are a great way to meet industry leaders, network with others, and see first-hand innovations in equipment and chemicals. For example, Sorenson notes that operators in the Northeast have been slow to embrace current trends such as automatic pay stations and free vacuums. Those that have are “tearing it up,” he says.
On the ICA website, www.car wash.org, there is a section dedicated to operators and provides industry resources, information about the association, upcoming events, and The Car Wash Show in Nashville, May 9-11.
Ennis, who started washing cars at 12 and purchased his first car wash on a handshake when he was only 20, recommends that anyone interested in owning or investing in a car wash should meet local operators, observe their operations, and ask lots of questions. Seeing a car wash operation up close will teach you a great deal about this business.
BACK TO SCHOOL
As an industry newcomer, Knott attended trade shows looking for resources and found Sonny’s CarWash College. She and her senior technician have taken their repair and maintenance classes, and she sent her manager to the management class. Knott, who is based in Southern California, wishes the college were closer. “I would send people to Sonny’s non-stop,” she says.
“I highly recommend the CarWash College for all newcomers, existing operators, and employees. The hands-on labs really help operations run more smoothly when you get back home.”
While the classroom time and instruction were great, Knott felt the added value was spending a week exchanging information and sharing ideas with others in the industry.
Sonny’s CarWash College offers group training and labs in Sonny’s CarWash Factory. Sorenson said the repair classes are capped at 15 participants and other classes can accommodate 24 studen
Four management classes are held per year, and eight repair and maintenance classes. Classes span an entire week. For more information about the college, visit www.sonnysdirect.com. One-day investor seminars are offered quarterly.
“We train on Sonny’s equipment, right here in our factory,” explains Sorenson. “It’s easy to transfer the information to another manufacturer’s equipment. We also have maintenance videos on each piece of equipment, which can be found on our website.”
Sorenson says there are no plans for webinars or virtual training sessions, preferring the hands-on approach. He says they are looking at taking the show on the road and may be offering three-day mini courses throughout the country at local car wash locations. He notes they are looking at adding new classes covering multi-site management and marketing, safety, and insurance issues.
Stay in Touch with Your Equipment Manufacturer
While Sonny’s CarWash College covers the basics of repairs and maintenance and is familiar with most manufacturers and their products, Knott recommends having good relationships with your equipment manufacturer and chemical supplier.
Ennis agrees. “We stay in touch with our customers and we want to hear from them. Many problems can be diagnosed and solved over the phone, often saving thousands of dollars in repairs or equipment replacement. Just as important, we want to hear about anything that is frustrating our customers or a reoccurring problem. If we don’t know there’s a problem, we can’t fix it.”
INVEST IN WORKFORCE TRAINING
It’s no secret that car washes tend to have a high labor turnover rate. Interestingly, Sorenson says there is more turnover in full service locations than in express washes. Many employees are part-time, high school students; some work during summer vacations. Hiring, training, and retaining employees are expensive parts of the car wash business and crucial to overall success.
“Employees are expected to operate the equipment, conduct routine maintenance, be personable and outgoing with customers, and understand day-to-day operations, “ says Knott. “It’s a challenge to make sure that all employees know how to operate the car wash.
“We invest in training our managers and introducing them to all aspects of the business. They, in turn, help train our part-time, seasonal workforce, and new employees,” Knott adds.
Knott takes employees to trade shows, whenever possible, so they can better understand the industry and meet the players.
When you invest in your employees, invest in their education, you will get a return on your investment,” adds Sorenson. “One of the biggest comments we hear from owners is that employees who attend our CarWash College return home excited and confident, fired up and ready to get back to work.”
Sorenson recommends investing in your employees, not only by sending them to classes and trade shows, but also by making them responsible and accountable for the successful operations of the car wash.
“We have a customer who has put the attendants in charge of a piece of equipment and it has been a win-win for the business. Anytime the student becomes the teacher, you build their confidence and loyalty and give them a sense of ownership. It’s an investment that will pay off, big time,” Sorenson notes.
Whether you attend the “school of hard knocks,” trade shows, or a car wash college, learning the business from the inside out and staying current is the best training for newcomers, owners, and employees.
Sydney Sullivan Knott is the president of The PR Group, a full-service communications firm based in Las Vegas.