On the heels of its steady, impressive growth during the last two decades, Charlotte-based and family-owned Autobell® Car Wash, which began in 1969, is poised for even more significant expansion.
By Bruce Hensley
On the heels of its steady, impressive growth during the last two decades, Charlotte-based and family-owned Autobell® Car Wash, which began in 1969, is poised for even more significant expansion. Now the fourth largest car wash chain in America, Autobell has added just over three stores per year on average since 2000, growing from 21 washes in North Carolina to its current 78 stores in five states (North Carolina, South Carolina Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland). More stores are in the pipeline, as the company continually has new washes under construction or on its radar. From 2007 to 2010, during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, Autobell added 15 stores and over 400 employees. In fact, just a year ago, Autobell was ranked the second largest American car wash company.
Now larger, more aggressive companies with considerable corporate or private equity backing have significantly increased their holdings (Mister Car Wash with 251 locations) or surpassed Autobell in total number of units through acquisitions (International Car Wash Group with 126 stores and Zips Car Wash with 94).
“Obviously, the American car wash market is ripe for growth,” says Autobell COO and third-generation car wash owner Carl Howard, “and we will continue to be a significant participant in that. We’d like to add about 10 stores per year going forward and hope to increase that as we expand. It would be nice to be the largest car wash company, but our focus is on being the best and growing at a steady pace that makes good sense for our time-tested model and procedures.”
REAL ESTATE PROFESSIONALS
Autobell first engaged a real estate consultant in 1990 and now employs two full-time real estate professionals and a full-time project manager totaling 45 years of car wash experience in acquisitions, conversions, and new construction. The company is aggressively seeking car wash sites for both new builds and conversions in its five-state area and beyond.
“We are looking to buy single and multiple car wash sites in our current geographic footprint,” continued Howard, “and will also consider multi-unit opportunities outside of that. Furthermore, we are exploring co-tenant arrangements.”
“All Autobell locations are full-service car washes and require at least a one-acre lot,” explained Autobell vice president of development Thomas Mussoni, the real estate professional who began working with the company in 1990 and has been involved with nearly every new Autobell since brokering its 12th store that year. “We’ve converted a car dealership; a Dollar General store; full-service, flex, and express car washes; and are presently transforming a former bank building into a full-service car wash,” Mussoni continued.
“We prefer to purchase the property but will consider a ground lease in unique real estate situations where opportunities are scarce. And we provide a corporate guarantee on long-term ground leases, backed by the fact that Autobell has never closed a store since its inception in 1969. Landlords see the company as an opportunity to obtain favorable shopping center financing while providing a reputable service to customers of its center. We love to complete multiple leases with the same developer.”
As for the potential challenges of entering new markets, “Our years of development experience have found us working very closely with various planning and zoning departments in each municipality to produce accord and excellent results for all parties,” Mussoni concluded.
Autobell’s other real estate professional, Trevor Hopkins, added, “As a testament to Autobell’s ability to work with communities in getting new stores open, we successfully obtained five different municipal approvals to open new washes in the greater Atlanta market following closely after the 2007 drought and the subsequent water restrictions. Moreover, our well-documented procedures and processes as well as standardized equipment configuration and chemistry help us replicate Autobell in any market and with any architecture.”
“Autobell is viewed as the Disney or Chick-fil-A of the car wash industry,” proclaimed Benny Alford, owner of seven Benny’s Car Wash locations in Baton Rouge, LA. “They are simply the best. They treat their employees, communities, and our industry with profound respect and support and elevate the industry with their innovativeness.”
Wes Culbertson, owner of four Greenville Car Washes in Greenville, SC, adds, “I’ve known the Howard family for close to 50 years and watched their company grow from the beginning. They are the best at creating and maintaining a high standard of performance and uniformity across all their operations, no matter how far flung. With their pioneering practices in employee recruiting, hiring, training, and promoting to their building design, environmental conservation, and community involvement, they have gained tremendous respect throughout our industry.”
Autobell has intense employee recruitment efforts in every market, seeking the finest local high school and college students who are well screened, drug-tested, and thoroughly trained in Autobell systems and procedures. Professional appearance and personal hygiene are sought out and coached. At the grand opening of the first Atlanta-area store in 2008, a new customer inquired, “What’d y’all do, hire the local Boy Scout troop?”
“Those are comments we love to hear,” stated COO Howard, who oversees more than 3,000 full- and part-time employees.
Management training is taken a step further and orchestrated by company veteran Pedro Briceño, a former Autobell crewmember and manager who became a schoolteacher and assistant principal before rejoining the company in 2005 as management development coordinator. Briceño has developed a multi-step, two-level program that has trained and certified hundreds of Autobell managers, several of whom have advanced to district managers or operating partners within the company.
“My dad has always said that we are in the people business; we just happen to washcars,” said Mike Dahm, second-generation car wash owner of Mike’s Car Wash, a Cincinnati-based company with 22 locations that is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. “It’s the people in this business that set you apart, and Autobell is top-of-mind when I think about great people.”
In addition to support of various local and national organizations and causes, Autobell offers a fundraising program that benefits non-profits in each community and helps the environment by discouraging wasteful and polluting parking lot car wash fundraisers. This program has helped organizations raise over $8 million since 1998.
“We tweaked the program a bit this year,” explained Carl Howard, “by now offering qualifying organizations $20 gift cards that they sell for that amount and keep half the proceeds. The program works so well for repeat participants that many groups can pre-sell the cards easily. It’s a win-win-win proposition that we are proud to offer.”
Autobell’s conservation, business, and philanthropic prowess has garnered the company more than a dozen environmental and civic awards since 2000.
One of Autobell’s more intriguing programs was the 2015 creation of the Autobell Creek Challenge®, an educational curriculum and competition developed in conjunction with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for third, fourth, and fifth graders interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (known as STEM) programs and activities.
The program includes classroom and on-site creek education for teams of students at participating schools who later compete for prizes such as medals, trophies, gift cards, and electronics. This exciting, colorful event is thoroughly enjoyed by the students, teachers, and parents and has proven in its short existence to improve participating students’ interest in local creeks and water and their related scores in end-of-grade testing.
“We created this program for multiple reasons,” explained Autobell CEO Chuck Howard, who serves as a quizzer and hands out prizes at each competition. “We wanted to further educate and impact our young citizens as to the importance of our most valuable natural resource, water. The program further drives home the message publicly about the environmental responsibility of using professional car washes that treat and recycle their water. It also enhances our branding message to our next generation of employees and customers — today’s youth.”
“Our industry has tremendous upside potential.” - Carl HowardThe program, along with various waterway clean-up efforts in which Autobell’s employees participate, reinforces Autobell’s environmental stance of treating 100 percent and recycling up to 100 percent of its wash water. All new-build Autobell car washes are equipped with a water reclaim treatment system in which enzymes break down and consume oil, dirt, and other pollutants to produce clean, clear water ready for reuse, with no harmful byproducts or residuals. Many older Autobell locations have also been retrofitted with the system.
“The Howards have always been on the front end of industry innovation,” stated Bill Dahm, a second-generation car washer and CEO of Indianapolis-based Crew Carwash, with 30 locations throughout the state of Indiana. “I admire their ability to scale with the most challenging car wash business model — full service. Chuck and Carl make decisions with a long-term mindset that sets Autobell up for a bright future.”
“I grew up in the car wash business watching my grandfather and father expand Autobell in a steady, methodical, successful fashion, working with excellent employees who become part of our ‘family’,” concluded Carl Howard. “I’ve enjoyed working in this business since I began as an early teenager, and I really believe that our industry has tremendous upside potential.”
Bruce Hensley is a partner in Hensley Fontana, the public relations agency of record for Autobell Car Wash Inc. and Howco Inc. since 1999.