When it comes to labor the trend is less, less, less. It seems like everyone is looking for ways to cut labor through increased automation.
There was a time, not too long ago, when large numbers of employees swarming a full-serve wash was the norm, but those days are mostly in the past. One stop at a Cactus Car Wash in the Southeast and one thing is clear: the old way of cleaning cars is alive and well.
The chain of locations in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina is expanding and dominating the marketplace wherever they open. There are 15 Cactus locations either open or set to open in the near future.
“We have a system to make sure that we go into the right location,” owner Frank Lynch says. “We don’t place a Cactus wash in a marginal location. It has to be central and have a demographic that can support the wash. A lot of operators tend to miss that point in their desire to expand. They often overlook the location.”
Cactus got its start in 1996 when Lynch opened the first location in Charleston, SC. Since opening his first flex-serve 15 years ago, Lynch has seen his brand grow into one of the most successful chains in the country. The two flagship locations in Atlanta gross a combined $9 million a year, and have been routinely named “The Best Car Wash in Atlanta” for over a decade.
“I was in the hospitality industry for years,” Lynch says. “When me and my wife came to the United States [from their native Scotland] we had a different perspective on the business. Most automotive places are very macho. We wanted to design a female-friendly environment. A place where customers can get comfortable.”
All Cactus locations sport a Southwestern theme and feature well-equipped lobbies, complete with the company’s trademark wood-burning fireplace. The facilities are designed to be eye catching from the street. The goal is to make sure that if a passerby saw a Cactus wash once they would remember it. Despite all of the creature comforts Cactus offers, Lynch is quick to point out that turning out a clean car quickly is still the most important aspect of success.
“You can build the nicest building in the world and if you don’t provide quality service it is not going to mean anything,” Lynch says. “We have a quality control system. A car is going to go through a minimum of two, and probably three quality control checks before it leaves the lot.”
The two tenets at all Cactus Car Wash locations: quality and speed. In order for both to be accomplished consistently large amounts of labor is needed.
“If you squeeze on labor, you are in effect squeezing the customer,” Lynch says. “What we are selling is our ability to organize the labor in such a way to produce a clean car quickly. An accountant does not run the business. The people that are on site interacting with customers run it. Customers know if they are getting value for their money.”
Cactus employs over 100 at each of its Atlanta locations, and at any one time 50 employees can be on site helping to process the 1,000-plus cars that fly through the tunnels daily at those sites.
“Customers trust that they are going to get a quality product in a short amount of time, Lynch says. “We aim for 15 to 20 minutes for a full-serve wash. If you take longer than that customers get irritated because they fell that their time is being wasted.”
In addition to its large number of line workers, Cactus relies on its managers to make sure a satisfied customer pilots every car that drives off the lot. Cactus managers are incentivized and typically energetic and youthful, which helps keep them motivated and spreading that energy to the rest of the staff.
“The managers make sure that the customers are happy because it is in their best interest,” Lynch says. “I see myself as the custodian of the customer. Senior management and myself visit each wash and imagine we are a customer and view the place through their eyes. We make adjustments based on our visits.”
Cactus processes cars with mach-ine-like precision, a trait noticed by more than just its happy customers. Recently, Cactus CEO Lennox D. Bundy was invited to speak to Ford Motor Company employees about customer service and attention to detail. The talk will take place in the first quarter of 2012 at one of the corporation’s monthly meetings.
“We take Ford’s interest in us as an amazing compliment,” Lynch says. “When an international company built on quality comes to a little car wash and says we think you have something to offer, it is quite special.”
Four years ago, Cactus began to offer its Henry Ford like production as a franchise and has once again found resounding success. The newest franchise to join the Cactus family is in Gainesville, GA and is owned and operated by Pat McCabe.
McCabe opened his wash in October 2005 under the Mr. Clean brand. Following the end of his franchise agreement, McCabe operated independently for a while as he combed the country for the best franchise opportunity for his location. Eventually he settled on what he calls “the gold standard” and began operating as a Cactus wash in mid-August.
“I went around and looked at all the successful franchises in the country,” McCabe says. “The Cactus franchise just really knocked it out of the park. Their Atlanta locations are great. They process so many cars, and they get everybody out so quick. They are doing over 1,000 cars a day and get everybody out in 15 minutes, I was just in awe of the process.”
The adoption of the Cactus brand has paid immediate dividends for McCabe’s wash, as the location saw a significant spike in car counts as soon as the month-long conversion was complete. The Cactus model is heavily reliant on both express and full-serve details to help swell the bottom line, and McCabe has seen a bump in that area as well.
“We do very well on express details,” McCabe says. “It is something you can actually see and feel. It is a good value. Right now around 35 percent of customers get some kind of detail. We want to get that number to up over 40 percent.”
Despite the economic downturn the country is experiencing, Cactus Car Wash is attempting to expand its way out of the recession, and it is working. In a down economy, the chain has almost doubled its operation in the last year. The company opened a corporate store in Fort Lauderdale, FL at the end of summer, and it is already the highest grossing car wash in the county.
The Southeast juggernaut that is Cactus Car Wash is not slowing down — in fact it has its foot on the gas with numerous projects planned for 2012. Despite the current expansion plans, Lynch is cautious not to expand too quickly.
“We don’t want to lose our identity,” Lynch says. “We want to continue to provide a quality product. You can get a bad reputation just as easily as you can build a good one.”
If the current state of the organization is any indication, Cactus Car Wash doesn’t have to worry about developing a bad reputation, its only concern will be fighting off the horde of underperforming wash owners clamoring to become part of the Cactus empire.