Filling a Need
One of the tenets of business planning states: find a need and fill it. Gunnar Hildemann did just that when
he and wife Pam opened up Coconuts Carwash in Palm Coast, FL in 2008.
The Hildemanns owned a vacation home in Palm Coast and when they moved to the area full time in 2005 from Greenville, SC they knew they wanted to open up some sort of business but weren’t sure what. They were sitting on a prime piece of real estate in the center of town and entertained all sorts of business ideas until it dawned on the couple that there weren’t any viable local car washes.
Sure there was an outdated, underperforming wash in town, but it was nothing compared to the quality of washes the couple was used to in South Carolina. With that the Hildemanns had identified the need, and now had to figure out how to capitalize on the obvious opportunity.
Gunnar started where many eager car wash newbies get their start: walking the isles of the ICA’s annual Car Care World Expo.
“I went to the show and saw that car washing was a full-fledged industry,” Gunnar says. “Over the next two years I talked to everyone I could, got prices, quotes, and came up with the design. I was literally learning the business like I was going to a college class.”
The 1.1-acre lot is pie shaped which of course was a challenge during the planning stages. Luckily, the lot has two means of ingress and egress, helping make the site flow more organically. Over a six-month period Gunnar designed the site himself and was able to utilize all of the corner lot. In fact, Coconuts’ site layout was so successful Gunnar was recently hired as a consultant for a wash site being developed in Massachusetts.
After two years of homework and planning the Hildemanns were ready to begin their car wash adventure. Their plans were accepted by the city and funding was acquired, but according to Gunnar one more obstacle stood in their way: “We didn’t know the first thing about washing cars.”
Gunnar and Pam had plenty of business experience in their background and were confident in their business model, but simply lacked the fundamentals of cleaning a car. The couple’s first step towards gaining that critical car wash base was enrolling in Sonny’s Car Wash College. The two completed all of the courses offered and had planned to run the wash themselves, but soon decided that hiring a knowledgeable manager would be their best bet.
Luckily for the Hildemanns the two meet Chaz Lines. Lines was fresh out of college in Ontario Canada, and had six years of car washing experience behind him. Lines and the Hildermanns hit it off and Lines was offered the management position at Coconuts while the place was still being constructed, and has been there ever since.
“Chaz is as good as you are going to get,” Gunnar says. “If he stays with us and helps us grow the business we will make him a partner one day. He has been a great asset.”
Coconuts opened its doors in January 2008 and quickly began building a loyal following in the primarily retirement community. Gunnar believes that producing a clean car is the number one characteristic of success followed very closely by making sure the customers are comfortable. In order to make sure that everyone that chooses to get their car washed at Coconuts leaves completely satisfied, the Hildermanns made it a point to instill a positive culture at the wash, which starts with positive employees.
“We try to recruit the best people,” Gunnar says. “They don’t have to have any knowledge of car washing. All they have to do is have a good upbringing, have manners, and treat our customers as they should be treated.”
Of course, all the manners in the world won’t keep the customers coming back if the end product at the tunnel exit isn’t top notch. Coconuts’ 120-foot tunnel is equip-ped with the latest Sonny’s equipment, two ICS Auto Cashiers, and Tunnel Master software. Eighty percent of Coconuts’ customers opt for one of four express exterior options, ranging in price from $6 for the entry-level wash up to $13 for the top-of-the-line.
In addition to its four express exterior options, the wash also offers a full-serve option branded the mini detail. The service costs just $21 for cars and $23 for SUVs, vans, and trucks. The thorough service includes a complete wipe down, including door and trunk jambs; an interior and trunk vacuum; rocker panels cleaned; and a complete interior cleaning.
When Coconuts first opened, the menu included a la cart full-service offerings, but that model has since been abandoned for the one-size-fits-all approach of the mini detail. “With all the add ons it became difficult to train the staff,” Gunnar says. “What we were doing was training our staff to do a really good job on one car and telling them not to do as good a job on another car. The new system ensures that everybody that comes in knows exactly what to expect.”
At just $21 the mini detail is a bargain, and Gunnar says it was designed to be one. “The service is so reasonable because of the demographics,” Gunnar says. “We have a small population here, but it is on the rise. We have a lot of resort people and retirees, so we had to keep the pricing low. It was a survival technique for the first five years.”
The wash is located on a corner lot. Each day 52,000 cars combined from the two streets pass by the site during the winter and 42,000 in the summer. In the next year or two a Walmart will open just down the street from Coconuts and will bring with it an expected 25,000 car-a- day boost to the local traffic count. Once the Walmart opens its doors Gunnar expects to be able to raise his prices to reflect the quality of the product being offered.
Coconuts is thriving in Palm Coast, and owns over 75 percent market share. The only competition in town is a slightly renovated version of the lone wash that was in place before the Hildemanns opened up shop. The Hildemanns’ dedication to providing quality at a reasonable price has captured the market and has the couple thinking of expansion and possibly franchising the brand.
“We set the business up with the possibility of franchising it,” Gunnar says. “We have everything packaged already with employee and maintenance manuals. If we get an opportunity to act as an advisor to someone, they could use the logo, concept, etc. If that never happens that is fine too.”
One thing is certain: there will be more Coconuts Carwashes, either under the Hildemanns’ ownership or through franchise opportunities. “We are going to build another one; it is just a question of when or where.” Wherever the next Coconuts lands it is sure to be staffed with courteous employees, have reasonable prices, and of course fill a need.