In the ever-evolving world of professional car washing, standing pat is never an option.
By Timothy Denman
In the ever-evolving world of professional car washing, standing pat is never an option. Technology and customer demand are constantly in flux and only those operators that are willing and able to transform with the times will enjoy continued success.
When Nancy Bergfield founded Finish Line Car Wash back in 1999, the rookie operator built with the times — constructing a traditional full-serve location. But as the car wash market evolved over the following two decades, Finish Line smartly evolved with it, morphing into an express exterior chain focused on customer experience and ease of service.
Today, Finish Line is a seven-location express exterior brand, with locations spanning from Paris, TN in the south to Marion, IL in the north. In addition to the change in format and scale of the business, there is one more key difference between the Finish Line of today and the wash that first opened nearly 20 years ago — Chris and Casey Presswood.
Nancy’s son and daughter in-law were always involved in the business, filling management roles since the wash’s early days. However, a few years into the life of Finish Line the couple made their affiliation with the wash permanent when they bought into the business and invested in its growth and development.
“Casey and I bought in in the early 2000s,” Chris Presswood says. “We were buying and flipping houses and had the opportunity to buy into the business and help develop new locations. I was working as a manager, and helping run the family business. Once we had accumulated enough money in real estate we had the opportunity to buy in. We started adding sites and never looked back.”
Finish Line’s growth from a single-site operation to a multi-location chain took a traditional trajectory. Growth came from both acquisition and ground-up build, but as the number of Finish Line sites increased and their experience in the industry grew the owners realized a change in the operational model was in order.
“We started off as a traditional full serve,” says Presswood. “It was very stereotypical. Customers got out of their car, we vacuumed it, and they walked down the lobby. Over the years we evolved. We added exterior lanes, became flex serve, and started to add on express exterior washes. Over time we transitioned all of our flex serves, until today all seven sites are express exteriors.”
Interestingly Finish Line operated as a single location wash for its first nine or 10 years of existence, and only over the past decade expanded into the express exterior chain it is today. While much of the industry was scaling back during the lean years of 2006 through 2008, Finish Line was embarking on an expansion course and enjoying some of the greatest success of the company’s existence.
“We actually grew during that time,” says Presswood. “During the Great Recession we were growing by double digits annually. That was a time when it was really unheard of to do that.”
While Finish Line enjoyed growth as much of the industry was struggling, its wins were hard fought. The brand made investments in its infrastructure, training, processes, and HR functions during this time to increase its efficiency and prepare for rapid growth once the economy righted itself.
“We tightened our belts and became a lot more lean in how we do things and run things,” Presswood says. “All of us have benefited from that in this industry.
It has affected how we approach car washing, how we try to create value for the customer, and forced us to look for innovations in equipment.”
It is those advances in equipment that fueled the owners’ decision to go all-in on the express exterior concept and abandon their full-service roots. Advancements in tunnel equipment, controllers, the point of sale, and more allow operators to turn out a high quality wash quickly and efficiently.
“It is not like we woke up and all of those things happened in two months, ”says Presswood. “They occurred over time as we upgraded facilities, remodeled, and expanded. The express exterior model for us was a model that we felt we could expand and scale and add additional locations.”
While the express concept has allowed Finish Line to scale its operations across Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois, it has also allowed it to significantly reduce its reliance on labor. In its full-serve days Finish Line employed a complete staff of greeters, cashiers, preppers, and finishers to ensure each car drove off the lot shiny and clean.
Today, Finish Line employs around 70 workers across all seven of its locations. Just two to three employees are needed on site during a regular business day, with as many as five needed to handle the workload on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Since Finish Line employs a relatively small staff, it can afford to be ultra selective during the hiring process. In fact, each person hired at Finish Line has beat out over 40 applicants for the position.
“We have a very specific process we utilize for our hiring process,” says Presswood. “We conduct multiple interviews, do behavioral based assessments, and have a standardized orientation and a curriculum that we utilize during on-boarding.”
Another key factor in the growth and success of Finish Line is its widely popular unlimited wash club. The program allows members to wash once a day for as little as $12.99 per month for the entry-level wash. For $34.99 per month customers can enjoy unlimited access to the top-of-the-line Manager’s Special wash. The Manager’s Special includes hot wax, rain shield, lava bath, tire shine, triple foam, and dry n’ shine. The Manager’s Special costs $18 per use for non-wash club members.
“There have been a lot of people before us that have paved the way for us with the concept,” says Presswood. “The Amazons and Netflixes of the world have prepared our customer base for the idea that it is okay for a reoccurring charge to come out of their checking account. The reoccurring revenue source has removed the lows and the highs from car washing, which is obviously great.
“Like most people we started with very reasonable membership numbers. We were just trying to cover the cost of our mortgage. That was the beginning. But membership has exceeded all of our expectations.”
To help draw awareness for its membership club, as well as its standard car wash offerings, Finish Line relies on a modern cross-channel marketing strategy. The wash utilizes e-mail, text messages, social media, radio, television, and billboards to increase its car counts.
Wash behavior of non-unlimited wash club members is still extremely weather sensitive. To help capitalize on good car washing days Finish Line directly messages to its customer base with awareness campaigns and promotions to spur the sale when weather permits.
Success in today’s ultra competitive environment requires car washers to embrace changes in the marketplace and a fluid operating model that reflects the wants and needs of modern consumers. Finish Line Car Wash has been able to scale its operations and continue to grow its user base thanks to continued investment in technology and systems as well as a willingness to change its course to meet demand.