When it comes to milestones, veteran car washer Dave Koerner has two that will make even long-time operators jealous. His Kerner’s Car Wash and Quick Lube Centers have washed two million cars and sold one million quarts of oil.
Koerner started in the New Hampshire car wash business in 1973 when he was just 19 years old. He worked as a part-time gas/car wash attendant, and once it became clear that he was mechanically inclined he took over equipment maintenance duties. Soon after he was promoted to the position of manager at Rifky’s Car Wash and Quick Lube Centers, a company he would one day own part of.
In 1982 Rifky’s owner decided to sell, Koerner and Steve Rifkin (Rifky’s owner’s son) bought the business and the 50/50 partners began to expand. During their time together Koerner and Rifkin owned and operated a 110-foot tunnel, five self-serve bays, an in-bay automatic, and the lube center they opened in 1986.
In order to put in the quick lube bays, Koerner and his partner took out their gas pumps, a decision that quickly became genius. Within six years of putting in the bays, the quick lube business alone was grossing over one million dollars a year.
Koerner and Rifkin were partners for 25 years, and in 1999 went their separate ways, dividing up their holdings. Recently Rifkin went out of business, as did another of Koerner’s competitors, and Koerner bought up the pieces and is now the sole owner of five facilities.
“We had to take those properties out of bankruptcy,” Koerner says. “It was a challenge. We went from having four employees to having 25 in 60 days. We reopened them in February and are starting to see an increase in car counts.”
Koerner operates his newly expanded business under the name Kerner Car Wash and Lube. The “o” in his name is silent and he thought the simplified spelling would be easier for customers.
The flagship of Koerner’s car care empire is right where he got his start helping customers 40 years ago: Manchester, NH.
With a population of over 100,000 Manchester is the biggest city in the state. Kerner’s has two locations in the city, including the flagship location on busy South Beech Street. South Beech is the second most travelled street in the state, and the wash features a 110-foot express tunnel, five self-serve bays, quick lube center, and a detailing bay. The other Kerner’s Manchester location on Second Street features five self-serve bays and an in-bay automatic.
The South Beech location’s tunnel is of the express exterior variety. Unlike most other locations in New Hampshire however, a full-serve option is offered. The service is offered offline. After the car finishes its trip through the tunnel it is pulled off to the side and vacuumed, wiped down inside and out, and the windows are cleaned in and out. The full-serve treatment sets the customer back $23.
“Nobody else does it in the city,” Koerner says. “I don’t even know how many people do it in the state. I know that is expensive. But it takes us 15 to 20 minutes, and we are doing it offline by hand.”
In addition to his Manchester locations, Koerner has three more facilities: a four self-serve bay, two in-bay automatic in Franklin, NH; a one self-serve, one in-bay, and four lube bay facility in Merrimack, NH; and a eight-bay, 3,000-square foot quick lube center in Exeter, NH.
“Manchester is my base,” Koerner says. “I have an office here. I come here everyday. I travel to the other locations that have employees everyday, but this is home base.”
Koerner does a bit of driving to make appearances at his other facilities: Exeder is 20 miles away (east), Merrimack is 10 miles away (south), and Franklin is 20 miles away (north).
With four decades in the business Koerner is in the unique position of being able to provide some perspective on how the industry evolved over the years.
“One of things that happened is that the market has become saturated,” Koerner says. “There was a guy on Second Street that put a wash in right across from me. When I started in Franklin there were six in-bay automatics in town, now there are 18.”
With that much competition is makes it tough to stay relevant, but Koerner knows how to compete. “We haven’t gone up in price for a basic wash in seven years. We haven’t been able to. The expenses have gone up significantly, but the competition has really been tough.
“All of my facilities are paid for. I don’t have mortgages on any of them. Keeping your expenses low is important, especially in this market. I’m not saying it is easy, I have been doing this a long time, in the beginning I had debt and I didn’t like it.”
As Koerner’s market becomes more and more crowded it becomes increasingly important to effectively market the washes. “Years ago I found that the customer would be loyal to you,” he says. “It is not like that now. Customers just go wherever it is convenient. They are not going to drive across town to go to you. People have changed their spending habits.”
Kerner’s Car Wash has advertisements in the local newspaper every week, in Valpak, and on the back of register tape at the grocery stores. In addition, the wash sells coupon books — selling five regular washes for $25, a $15 savings off of regular price. “We used to just sell the wash books around the holidays,” Koerner says. “Now we offer them year round. They have been very successful.”
Fuelled by the success of the coupon books Koerner is planning to up-grade his washes to automated wash cards in the next year. Going digital will enable Koerner to follow his customers spending habits more thoroughly.
One thing Koerner has never done is rest on his laurels. He has found ways to improve, expand, and market his businesses throughout the de-cades and kept Kerner’s thriving through the bear and bull markets. One way to ensure customers keep pulling into the drive is providing a consistent, quality product: at Kerner’s, consistency starts with the staff.
“I am not an investor, car washing is my business,” Koerner says. “My wife (Loraine) works here. My son (Shawn) works here. I have an office manager who has been with me 14 years. I have a lube guy who has been with me 16 years. My maintenance guy has been here for eight years. You need to have good people behind you to make things work.”
Helping fuel Koerner’s consistency and four decades of success, is the fact that he has been a member of ICA for 30 years. “I go to Car Care World Expo every year. Obviously attendance has been down the past few years, but it is still a great show and great organization. It is important to be around like minded people and stay current.”
Koerner has kept his washes and personal philosophy fresh throughout the years by refusing to stand pat. That dedication to expansion and improvement has allowed him to keep the cars flowing into Kerner’s and reach the business’s most recent milestones. After talking to Koerner for a few minutes it becomes clear that another couple of million customers opening their wallets at a Kerner’s Car Wash is not out of the question.