Auto Laundry News - February 2013

Generations of Washers

By Timothy Denman

Lee’s Magic Tunnel Car Wash has been servicing the Huntsville, AL community since the 60s.

Mike (left) and Ronnie (right) Brown.

Steve Brown pretreating a car.

The express features two entry lanes.

The full serve entry lane.

Sonny’s equipment adorns both locations.

The express location offers a $6 wash option

The final touches.

Car washing is a family business. Very often a location is passed down from one generation to the next. It is rare however for one site to be family operated for 45 years, spanning three generations.

The Browns have operated Lee’s Magic Tunnel in Huntsville, AL since 1968, catering to the community with hands-on service and personal attention.

Brothers Mike, Steve, and Ronnie have expanded their father’s, Lee, one-location full-serve operation to include a second express exterior site just down the road.

All three grew up in the car wash business, scrubbing fenders for as long as they can remember. Mike and Steve stayed in the family business as the trio became adults, while Ronnie went to school for auto body and ran a repair shop for 20 years before rejoining his brothers in the family business.

Ronnie’s time in the auto body business served him well upon his return to his roots. His intimate knowledge of a vehicle’s construction and interior components allowed Lee’s to take its detailing business to new heights. The detailing center specializes in flood repair, overspray removal, and severely damaged interiors.

When Ronnie first reentered the business he built up a large dealer business, bringing in upwards of $40,000 a month in revenue. Over time however the brothers’ realized that the time and resources dedicated to the dealer business could be better spent focused on car washing. Large-scale dealer work, and the associated costs with running such a large operation, were not bringing the returns that a focused effort on car washing and retail detailing would.

The brothers decision to take a step back from their dealer work coincided with their decision to open an express location 1.5 miles down the road from the full-serve wash.

When the Browns opened the express wash eight years ago the location quickly built a large and loyal following. But repeating a common theme throughout the country, express competition quickly followed. Two other express sites built in around the Browns and the piece of the pie had to be shared. The express site still does solid business, fueled by the Browns’ dedication to quality service. There are always two or three employees on site at the express to prep, touch up, and guide customers into and out of the wash.

“The whole town has been saturated with express washes,” Ronnie says. “But nobody does it in the magnitude and speed that we do it. We offer a good service at a good price.”

Having been at the same location for over 40 years, the Browns have built countless relationships in the community, relationships that keep customers coming back wash after wash, year after year.

“We take the old time gas station approach,” Ronnie says of the wash’s philosophy to customer service. “We know about our customers, their children, sometimes three generations. We talk to them about their kids, sports, whatever subject interests them. We know a lot of customers by name. We think we are one of the few places that really gives personal service. We even get our fair share of hugs.”

The Browns built that strong community bond through hard work. The brothers can be seen each and every day out on the line cleaning cars and interacting with customers.

“The customers love the fact that us as owners are out there working,” Ronnie says. “We are there to give the final approval of the finished product and they like that. We could be out doing other things and taking it easy. The customers see us getting our hands dirty and they respect it.”

The next generation of Browns is coming home with dirty hands as well, as Ronnie and Steve’s sons have entered the family business. Ronnie’s sons, Ryan and Michael, work alongside their father at the full-serve location. Steve and his sons, Tyler and Blake, man the express exterior.

The Browns definitely take and old-school approach to car washing, with a large staff dedicated to going the extra mile to ensure that each customer drives home happy. On a busy Saturday afternoon 30 employees or more will be on site at the full serve, while 15-20 man the location the rest of the week.

Lee’s relies heavily on its finishers; or servers as they are called here, a gentle reminder to the staff that they are in fact in the service business. The servers dress the vehicle, blow out the interior, wipe the dash, etc. and present the finished product to the customer. Over the years customers build relationships with their favorite finishers and often ask for them by name.

Dedicated customer service has kept Lee’s thriving over the years, despite running outdated and homemade equipment until just 10 years ago. The full-serve location received a full equipment overhaul a decade ago that included replacing the old hook and chain conveyor and all the equipment in the tunnel with Sonny’s products. Sonny’s equipment also adorns the express location.

The full serve menu sport five wash options, but the Manager’s Special receives the lion’s share of requests. The service costs $24 ($25 for larger vehicles), and features a wash, tire treatment, window cleaning, dash and door wipe, leather treatment, dressing, bond wax, and an interior blow out.

Although the Browns and Lee’s are well known throughout the community, the wash continues to market itself to
keep in the minds of current customers and draw in those who have yet to experience Lee’s service. The wash advertises on traditional billboards, traveling billboards, coupons, etc.

Ronnie, following in the footsteps of his late father, is a member of the Optimist Club. The organization is committed to servicing underprivileged youth, and Lee’s holds three charity washes a year to help raise money for the cause. For over 40 years Lee’s has been helping raise money for Optimist by selling charity wash coupons. The Browns are currently involved in raising money to purchase basketball uniforms for a six-team local youth league.

With decades of experience servicing the Huntsville area, the Browns, and Lee’s, are certainly a well-respected community fixture. As the next generation of Browns builds experience and primes itself to one day take over the family business the family has eyes on expansion.

“The market is pretty saturated right now,” Ronnie says. “I don’t think it could support another wash. But we are definitely open to the idea of purchasing an already existing location.”

No matter what the future holds for the Huntsville market, as long as Lee’s is open and there is a Brown at the helm, quality customer service with a smile will always be on the menu.

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