Auto Laundry News - February 2011

Community-Centered Business Walks the Talk

By Bill Paris

Drive-through lube bays and a car wash.

Giving back is the part that Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash CEO Pat Wirth likes the best — not only in discounts for her customers, but also in empowering her community.

Hers is the only female-owned fast lube/car wash business in Virginia, but Pat feels that the auto, car wash, and lube industries lend themselves well to women; 50 percent of her customers are female. She believes that she can present things in a way that is comfortable for them.

This was the impetus for offering free education about the car wash industry. Last year, throughout the month of October, the car wash celebrated Car Care Awareness Month by offering a new community education series called Women’s Car Care Clinics. These were free to the community and took a hands-on approach, allowing participants to familiarize themselves with their own vehicles and gather important tips to winterize their cars. The clinics also educated women car owners on green practices and the benefits of choosing green products to maintain and protect their vehicles.

Pat Wirth welcomes veterans with a free wash on Veterans Day.

Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash also provides education courses to local high school students structured around top tips and key issues that young adults should be aware of when driving and maintaining their cars.

Since opening her store in Loudoun County in 1994, Pat has been a dynamic leadership force within her local community, the Washington, DC business region, as well as within her industry. In her current position as president of the Automotive Oil Change Association, Pat has influenced policy-making within the fast-lube and preventive-maintenance industries overall. She practices what she preaches, investing in PureGreen re-refined oil products as a brand option for customers. The re-refined oil products also reduce dependency on foreign oil.

Being green is so important to Pat that when she built the car wash, she added a reclaim system and sustainable cleaning products to the wash despite the fact that the county did not require it. As a result, Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash uses 75 percent less water per car than the average driveway car washer, and half the water a car wash without reclaim would. In the future, Pat wants to get a wind turbine to help power her property. Her efforts have earned some recognition: SmartCEO magazine has named Pat a finalist as ECO/CEO of the year, an honor that acknowledges environmental excellence in business.

Currently, and over the coming months, Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash is participating in numerous community-centered events, including operating as a collection site for MadHatter’s Hat and Wig Donation Project for Breast Cancer Awareness month. This is a community-wide collection of hats, wigs and scarves to benefit women and children afflicted with the visible signs of cancer treatment.

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High-tech fluid exchange equipment.

Whatever the car needs is within easy reach.

A shuttle service adds one further customer convenience.

Every year in November, the car wash participates in a program for all U.S. military veterans called Grace For Vets, which provides them with free car washes on Veteran’s Day. No military ID is necessary on Veterans Day, but it is required to receive military discounts for the remainder of the year (from Tuesday through Thursday it is 15 percent off any service, while the rest of the week yields 10 percent off any service). The support of active military and veterans has its roots in Pat’s family history. Her dad and three uncles were World War II veterans, and her mother worked for Westinghouse as part of the war effort. Pat’s dad, Milt Depew, was a founding and lifelong member of the Newton, NJ, VFW; her mother still belongs to the VFW Auxiliary, served as its president/treasurer, and was also an officer in the state VFW.

Other, non-military, discounts are also available at Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash. Preferred customers receive $5 off their next oil change if they bring the vehicle back within 500 miles of the 3,000-mile interval. AAA, Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, and senior citizens 60 years or older receive 10 percent off of Express Lube’s 18-point oil change. Finally, Loudoun County firefighters receive the same 15 percent/10 percent discount that the military receives off of any service.

“We are a community-centered business and it has always been our top priority to provide trusted, quality service, educate our customers and their families throughout the year and in a variety of ways, and to lead within our industry — particularly to promote environmentally sustainable best practices,” says Pat.

Currently, the operation enjoys a passing traffic count of 75,000 cars per day on a divided four-lane highway. It is reportedly the busiest area in the county, and despite the recently increased speed limit, Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash maintains lots of visibility. Members of the Washington Redskins team have frequented her wash, due, in part, to its proximity to the practice field.

Neighboring franchises include Burger King, Applebee’s, Subway, KFC, and Borders. Due to space restrictions, Pat cannot accommodate a c-store or a dog wash, or offer detailing services, but she feels that they are wonderful profit centers.

The wash is comprised of a PDQ LaserWash 4000 touch-free in-bay automatic housed inside a 36-foot bay. Lustra soap and wax products are utilized — they are in keeping with her earth-ready product philosophy. In addition, Lustra was recommended to Pat by the people who sold her the car wash equipment. Most importantly, her customers are thrilled with how their vehicles look.

When the cost of advertising on cable television in her market went up, Pat surveyed her customers, asking them what brought them into her wash — 96 percent of them said the building brought them in. As a result, she put her cable television advertising dollars into improving her wash. However, Pat does advertise through networking, Constant Contact, the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s bulletin board for members (which contains a membership of “a couple thousand”), reminder cards for her lube business that cross-markets car wash services to her existing database of customers, local high school programs, banners, and on her website (potomacfallsexpresslube.com).

For the latter, Pat employs social networking to build her business. She uses Facebook to let people know about specials within the business itself, while tweeting on Twitter only if she has a slow day. YouTube is used primarily for testimonials. On her agenda is to tape mini sessions with car care tips that are tied to the seasons.

Window treatments provide a classy touch to the waiting area.

The recession has had an impact on the business. The first effects were felt mid-2007. “We had a huge decrease in car count, and didn’t know why,” says Pat. “I did some research and discovered that AOL [headquartered near the store] let go 5,000 employees. That was when the subprime-lending issue just started bubbling up.” Sterling, VA, which is close to the wash, earned the dubious distinction of being one of the top 10 areas in the country with regard to foreclosures.

However, Potomac Falls Express Lube & Car Wash has held steady since then, and is slowly starting to see an increase. The car wash business never declined, says Pat, only the quick lube business. She employs a staff of 10 that has been with her for years, and has had no employee retention issues.

Pat truly runs a unique wash, from recycling oil and antifreeze, to providing nitrogen tire inflation to keep the pressure in customer tires stable longer and reduce a vehicle’s carbon footprint by reducing gas consumption. Her commitment to the community sets her wash apart from others and shows that it cares about the customer and their vehicles.

Bill Paris, a former Auto Laundry News staffer, is a freelance contributor based in Paramus, NJ.

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