The car wash landscape continues to reinvent itself. Local and regional chains are becoming the norm as independent operators are acquired, rebranded, and repositioned at supersonic speeds.

Waters Car Wash is a pivotal piece of Summit Wash Holdings’ growing empire.

            These new mega-chains are helping to redefine what a car wash operator is and can be. However, rapid expansion and advancement bring many new challenges as operations are stretched across diverse markets and geographies. But by starting with a well-established foundation and smart bolt-on growth, new car wash investors can overcome these hurdles and set themselves up for long-term success.

The Waters’ tunnel entrance.

            Summit Wash Holdings was established in 2022 by New Mountain Capital to build on the firm’s automotive aftermarket services portfolio. Summit’s first major move was the acquisition of Russell Speeder’s Car Wash, a family-owned, 21-site chain with a large presence in the Northeast and Midwest markets. The Shullman family had owned and operated Russell Speeder’s for 60 years, building a thriving multi-state chain from the ground up. 

            “Rich Schullman was an amazing car washer, and he had a couple of sons that got into the business,” says Summit CEO Dan Pittman. “They made a phenomenal name for themselves. They are a scrappy group that knows how to buy, build, and renovate car washes. And they really provide a superior consumer experience.”

Unlimited wash members make up the majority of Waters’ customers.

            Since the Russell Speeder’s deal last year, Summitt has increased its holdings to 50 washes with the strategic acquisition of several well-run brands across the Northeast, Florida, and the Midwest. Summit has added Big City Car Wash, Express Car Wash, Car Wash Palace, Squeaky Car Wash, and Waters Car Wash to its portfolio over the past year to bring its holdings to the half-century mark.

            Summit’s most recent acquisition was the addition of 11 Car Wash Palace and Squeeky’s sites in the greater Orlando area, which are in the process of being retooled and rebranded as Waters locations. To help provide the superior service Summit is known for, Waters will hire around 80 new employees in and around Orlando, bringing Summit’s total employee count to more than 1,000 across the entire organization.

Auxiliary services provide the next level of clean.

            “We see Orlando as a very exciting market,” says Pittman.

“It is no secret what is happening with Florida’s population growth, and Orlando is a central hub. We had the opportunity to grow our footprint, become a key player in Orlando, and really get brand recognition. We think we can be a leader in the Orlando market.”

            While Summit was formed from various pieces, there is a common experience present across its holdings. “Our sites have a certain mojo,” says Pittman.

Plenty of staff is onsite to ensure a differentiated customer experience.

“Our COO, Kevin Matthews, grew up in the car wash business and is great at helping us define the wash experience and get it just right.”

            Around 90 percent of Summit’s washes are express exteriors, with some full-service sites sprinkled in for those customers who prefer a do-it-for-me experience. While the vast majority of sites are expresses, a Summit express is different from the typical in vogue low-labor model.

            Summit makes sure there is plenty of staff on hand to cater to customer needs and ensure an enjoyable experience. A greeter, or entry-ride operator as Summit calls them, meets retail customers as they pull up to the pay station, as unlimited wash members sail through the members-only lane. A lot concierge is on duty at the tunnel exit and finishing area to provide customers with everything they need to finish off their cars after a ride through the well-appointed tunnel.

            Unlimited wash customers are encouraged to use the free vacuums and finishing supplies, including chemicals, rags, wipes, and scents to take their vehicle to the next level of clean. Furthermore, the lot concierge can answer any questions customers might have and pitch in to help them give their cars the finishing touch.

Unlimited wash members are treated to free vacuums.

            In addition to the abundant opportunity to make their cars perfect after riding through the tunnel, when space allows, there are pre-treatment areas open to customers as well. For example, in Florida, some Summit sites are equipped with self-serve bug prep areas that allow customers to pre-treat their cars before entering the tunnel to ensure they come out the other end bug-free and sparkling clean.

            “Our customers take pride in their cars,” says chief strategy officer Jason Baumgartner. “Many people actually want to clean their car themselves versus having somebody else do it for them. It’s all part of the experience.”

            Pittman and his team have spent a lot of time thinking about and refining the Summit experience, taking inspiration from across the industry, and leaning heavily on the well-established Russell Speeder’s approach. “When I toured the Speeder’s sites and talked to customers they would all say things like ‘this is my wash,’ or ‘this is my place to go on Tuesday,’” Pittman says. “They did a really good job achieving a kind of third or fourth place in these people’s lives and routines.”

The typical Waters’ Car Wash has plenty of room for stacking, prepping, and finishing.

            Turning a car wash into a third or fourth place — a location between home and work where people spend their time — is not an easy feat. But Russell Speeder’s, and now Summit, achieves it by providing a hip, friendly atmosphere catered to the consumer.

            “Our sites have a great vibe with superior service,” Pittman says. “There is music playing, our employees are outgoing, we have plenty of amenities. It is just a fun place.”

            Building a fun, unified vibe is not easy, but maintaining that atmosphere over the years as employees come and go can be a monumental task. Employees must be expertly vetted for the right attitude, and a comprehensive training program must be in place to ensure that the brand’s superior customer service is on display each and every time a customer turns into the drive.

            “There is a significant amount of effort that goes into training our customer service attendants,” says Baumgartner. “And the amount of data that goes into our tracking and reporting on the success, training, and development of our customer service attendants is unlike anything I have ever seen.”

            Summit has succeeded in taking Russell Speeder’s long-established, customer-first approach and scaling it across its growing chain. As the organization continues to expand, its commitment to a memorable and differentiated experience, highly trained employees, and a superior end result should serve it well as it continues to open new locations.