The large successful car wash chain is a rarity. There are countless operators with small chains numbering five or six locations, but once you start getting into double digits that number drops off considerable. When it comes to chains with over 50 successful locations the number of organizations can be counted on one hand.
With 65 locations and counting, Charlotte, NC-based Autobell Car Wash is an example of a large regional chain that understands its customers and what it takes to operate and thrive in today’s changing marketplace.
Autobell has locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, with its newest location opening in late September in the SouthPark section of Charlotte.
The newest location sports all of the chain’s signature touches — Spanish styling, bell towers, red roof — but also a few details that set it apart from the other washes under the Autobell banner.
“Each project has its own obstacles,” Carl Howard, Autobell’s chief operating officer says. “When you are dealing with so many different municipalities it can be difficult. Challenges are always there.”
The SouthPark location was no different. The location was not originally zoned for a car wash and had to be rezoned before construction could begin. One of the biggest obstacles to the rezoning was a mid-rise condo development located across the street. The condo was concerned that the wash would be too noisy and would damage the area’s aesthetic appeal.
To counter the residents’ concerns Autobell proposed a roof covered with low growing plants to help beautify the view from the higher floors of the development. The wash also agreed to install an elaborate fountain in front to match a prominent water feature on the condo property. To address the noise concerns the wash agreed to install muffled dryer and vacuum systems to keep the decibel level to a minimum.
Once the condo association was satisfied, the site was rezoned and construction commenced on the company’s 65th location in its 43-year history. Autobell is unique in the car wash chain business in that it has never sold any of its locations — it just continues to grow. Charles “Charlie” Howard started the business back in 1969 with the help of his son Chuck. The family owned and operated business model continues to this day with Chuck the CEO and his son, Carl, the COO.
Autobell was designed as a chain from the very beginning with Charlie owning and operating a handful of express exterior locations offering gasoline in the early 70s. The gasoline embargo of the mid-70s forced the Howards to reexamine their model in the face of disappearing gas margins. What emerged was a flex-serve model and eventually the full-service locations the chain is famous for today.
In the boom times the Howards were building and opening five or six washes a year. Although not currently expanding at that rate, Autobell has opened two new locations in 2012 and is currently in the market for new and existing washes. What do the Howards look for when evaluating a potential location?
“Primarily the right demographics, that’s number one,” Carl says. “Second is a location that is easy to get into and out of with good traffic counts, We don’t want overwhelming traffic counts, just strong and steady. The biggest thing is visibility and access.”
When it comes to expansion there are two options: ground-ups or rebuilds. Autobell employs both models and there are advantages and disadvantages to both. According to Chuck, existing washes have a ready permit so you can start quickly, but oftentimes the company has to spend a little bit of time and money to convert to its operating model. It is not only signage, but can also be a complete remodel. Cost wise, at the end of the day, it ends up being the same; it is just faster with an existing site.
When converting an existing site to an Autobell location, the company tries as much as possible to adhere to the company’s basic architectural standards without breaking the budget.
None of those concerns were present at the SouthPark location as the site was built on a previously undeveloped lot. The sparkling new facility sports all of the bells and whistles in its 95-foot Hanna-equipped tunnel. The Howards distribute Hanna along with other brands through their Howco distributorship. Most of Autobell’s ground-up locations sport Hanna equipment.
The wash is located on a busy intersection that sees 60,000 cars pass by each day. The aforementioned fountain adds a bit of class to the wash site and greets passing motorists.
The most unique feature of the SouthPark location is the plant-covered roof. The 100-foot by 35-foot flat roof features a grid of plastic troughs designed to allow water drainage. A 4-foot gravel walkway surrounds the plants to allow easy access for maintenance. The three inches of top soil, the gravel, and the plants themselves add quite a bit of weight to the roof and stronger trusses had to be engineered to handle the additional load.
“Obviously the roof added a substantial expense,” Carl says. “We would do it again if the situation was right and called for it, but it is not something that is going to become the standard.”
What is standard for Autobell is their dedication to the environment. The newest location features a bio-reclaim system under the building that cleans and recycles the wash water through natural means. The reclaim system consumes all of the surfactants, and Carl boasts that the water the wash releases back to the city is about as clean as it was when it came in. The wash averages about 90 to 95 percent recycled water. It only uses fresh water for the final rinse. All soaps are biodegradable.
Quality employees are the backbone of all Autobell locations. The new store employs about 50 workers, and the chain employees about 2,000 overall.
“I always say that the store managers are the most important people in our company,” Carl says. “We give them a lot of autonomy. They do all of the training, hiring, and promoting within their stores. We structure it so each store manager is kind of running their own business.”
Running the SouthPark store is Nate Edwards. Edwards has been with Autobell for over 15 years.
He had experience managing a different location in the chain and was used to handling a large crew. According to Carl, “he was a natural pick.”
With over 60 locations and growing does the company have an ideal number of sites as a goal? “We don’t have a specific number of washes in mind,” Carl says. “Our goal for the short term is to fill out the markets where we currently operate. As the economy gets better we will probably look at other markets as well.”
With over 40 years of experience building and maintaining the third largest car wash chain in the country, whatever municipality the Howards expand to next will be treated to top-notch, family-oriented service. The same kind of service Charlie gave his customers when the family’s locations numbered in the single digits.