Conversion - Self Serve to Mini Express

By Scott Glover

04/01/18
Before: the three wand bays were demolished to make way
for a row of free-vacuum spaces.

It was right around 2011 or 2012 that I started weighing out the advantages and/or disadvantage of selling my flagship car wash that was built and opened in August of 2004. I had a number of reasons for considering selling, but mainly I was concerned about my health situation. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about two years earlier and I was still grappling with how my overall health would effect my entrepreneurship and my family’s ability to sustain any downturn in my health situation based on what the car wash operations required of me daily. I also became very mindful of the loan obligations, and the difficulty in possibly meeting them if I took a turn for the worse. I was, in effect, “getting my affairs in order” based on what this nasty disease can sometimes cast on people who fall victim to it (I’m glad to say that my health remains stable now nearly six years later).

Once I decided to move forward with the sale of my flagship wash, I reached out to many current car wash owners in the area. I sent e-mails, I sent out old-fashioned physical “snail mail” flyers, and also ran free advertisements on Craigslist and paid advertising on Loopnet. I was mindful that the selling process could take years. Interestingly, after the word was out that I was selling, I learned from a local banker and friend of mine that a car wash had recently sold in a nearby community to an operator who had multiple locations. This is where I first learned of Chuck DeLullo and his wife Shelly (who also is very active in their business) and their chain of then seven car washes (now nine locations).

After: additional free-vacuum slots replaced
the old standalone vacuums.

While Chuck showed some interest in my wash from the beginning, a couple of years had gone by with light negotiations on both sides but with both parties being too far apart regarding what would be an acceptable price for the wash. In December of 2013, Chuck had just secured the purchase of a wash that I had a previously had ownership in, and he contacted me to discuss what might be his final offer for my car wash. In my mind, I was ready. I decided that his offer was fair and that it would be a win-win. I never imagined what he had in mind for my wash. I am not sure that he did either.

In January of 2014 we closed on the sale of my wash and in October of 2014, Chuck closed the wash for a radical conversion to an express-exterior. To be brutally honest, it left me scratching my head as to what his reasoning for the conversion would be. After all, the wash was only 10 years old, it looked modern, and it performed at a reasonable level. The equipment was in need of an upgrade, but a radical overhaul seemed like overkill to me. I was curious and interested to learn about his reasoning for the radical transformation. The first day he opened his new express exterior, I was privileged to take my car through his newly transformed conveyor wash while he rode in the passenger seat. I was blown away by the experience and the total transformation my former wash had gone through. I knew it was among the best car washes in the Pittsburgh area, something I always aspired to be.

Chuck and I remained friends through the sale, the entire transformation of the wash, and even now a few years later.  He was kind enough to allow me to interview him for this article.

The left lane gives access to the touchfree in-bay automatic,
while two auto pay stations provide entry to the express exterior.

How and when did you get started in the car wash business?

I got started in 1996. My dad owned a convenience store with a small tunnel when I was growing up. Shelly and I bought our first wash in Dubois, PA, then we bought an old shut down Wendy’s location in Dubois. This was our second wash. We continued to buy land and build washes throughout western Pennsylvania thereafter until now we own nine washes.

When you bought my wash you decided to convert it to an express-exterior wash. What led you to the decision to convert it?

We wanted to try this newer concept for one of our washes and decided this was a good location to do it in. 

It was a radical overhaul; how long did the conversion take and what were the biggest hurdles during the construction?

I’m not exactly sure. I think the total construction time was around three or four months. The biggest hurdles in my opinion were getting the permitting from the local government based on the meetings they needed to have and the time it takes to get through the permitting process.

The lanes to the in-bay automatic and the express
exterior are clearly separated.

You own eight other washes, that are all in-bay automatics, and now one express-exterior wash. How would you compare this wash to the others with regard to performance and day-to-day management since converting?

Obviously the throughput is much greater, but you also need to hire and manage full-time employees. Managing the full-time employees at this location is more time consuming than managing the part-time attendants at my other locations.

How do you think the free vacuum strategy works for you in this location?

I am not completely sold on this as a concept, I know it drives traffic but as mentioned, I am not necessarily sold.

If you were to build another wash today, would you build an IBA or an express exterior wash and why?

I would consider building another express exterior wash but I would need to consider a few factors before deciding whether I would choose an express exterior wash or an IBA. Mostly, what is the market for the wash, how many homes, and what is the population nearby. Who and what are the competitors in the area, and does the land that I am looking at purchasing have enough room to be constructed as an express exterior wash that requires more room than an IBA.

What would your advice be to current owners who were considering upgrading their current in-bay automatics, and would you recommend considering converting to an express exterior?

Not necessarily, it depends on the market, the room they have to work with, and whether they want to manage employees at a greater level.

On the left, the exit from the express exterior;
on the right, the in-bay automatic exit. 

What are the biggest advantages that the express exterior has over your IBA washes?

Obviously the throughput that it offers. But the quality of the wash is also better with tire shine as an option and better cleaning and drying.

What are the biggest disadvantages the express exterior wash has over your other washes?

The requirement for hiring, training, and managing full-time employees. Managing an express exterior operation can be more difficult than managing part-time employees at my IBA locations.

How did you finally decide on an equipment manufacturer when you converted your wash and why?

I traveled to manufacturers in both North Carolina and Florida. I finally settled on Sonny’s because my primary local distributor and Sonny’s seemed to have the most experience when it came to tunnel washes.

How would you compare the throughput of your express exterior vs. your other washes on those 20 to 30 great car wash days that Pennsylvania winters will allow you?

Once again, it’s the throughput. As a general rule you can put about as many cars per hour through your tunnel as you have feet in the tunnel. So if you have a 55-foot tunnel (which is what I have) you should be able to wash 55 cars an hour. My IBAs cannot do nearly this many and the volume I do with my IBAs varies based on the wash package customers choose.

How does the reliability and maintenance of your new express exterior compare to your IBA locations?

I do not think the express-exterior wash requires much more if any additional maintenance than my IBAs. I have a crew on the road that stays up with routine maintenance for all my washes, and I do not think the express-exterior wash requires much more maintenance than any of my other washes.

How did you come up with a pricing strategy for your express-exterior wash location that differed from your other locations and why?

I consulted with my distributor and the manufacturer on what successful pricing strategies were for other express-exterior washes they had built and/or managed. My Innovative Control Systems entry units also gave us quite a bit of flexibility to design wash packages that could have a multitude of upgrades and up-sells for our customers. 

Chuck and Shelly DeLullo, continue to manage and operate nine car wash locations spread out over a large geographical area in western Pennsylvania. Chuckstates on his website, The company’s quick growth is something the couple did not plan. “We were only ever going to build one car wash. That was the plan. But opportunities for growth to standing out among other car washes in the area, particularly because of the cleanliness of the sites allowed us to grow into a substantial operator in the area.”

 

Scott Glover is the author of “Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash Start-Up Guide” available on amazon.com and a downloadable version at www.carwashbusiness101.com. Buzz is also available for consulting for new car wash start-ups and can be reached at sglover@carwashbusiness101.com



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