Auto Laundry News - March 2013

Express Expansion

By Timothy Denman

Mike’s Carwash is the largest exterior-only chain in the country.

Vehicles are pre-treated before entering the tunnel.

The standard Mike’s layout.

The new vacuum offerings from Vacutech.

An associate takes an order.

Cars exit the tunnel bone dry due to round-the-year heated air.

The new building design offers plenty of room for signage.

With the ever-rising cost of labor and the general population’s obsession with speed and convenience, express exterior has grown exponentially over recent years. Any conversation about the segment would not be complete without discussing Mike’s Carwash.

Mike’s was one of the originators of the concept back in the 70s and has grown into the largest express chain in the country.

Joe Dahm founded the company with his brother Ed in 1948 with some seed money provided by their father. Back then there weren’t many options for equipment manufacturers and Joe decided on Minute Man equipment. He liked the alliteration of Mike’s Minute Man (although there was no Mike in the family at that point) and the company operated under that name for its first three decades.

Joe and Ed expanded to include three highly-successful full-serve locations, and the company operated in the full-serve model until in 1978, after some convincing, the founders agreed to let Joe’s sons Bill and Mike test out what at that time was a novel concept: express exterior.

“We thought ‘why don’t we let customers stay in car,’” Bill says. “We gave them a quick experience with high quality on the outside. Having been in business as long as we had we knew how to provide quality quickly. We changed the name to Mike’s Express Carwash, and opened up for $2. We never looked back, realizing that that business model was conducive to the kind of growth we had in mind.”

Joe and Ed, the first generation, were open to advancements as long as they were thoroughly tested. A tradition that Mike’s current leaders Bill and Mike have kept alive and well. Mike’s concept is constantly being perfected and evolving, no part of the organization is safe, including the name. Three years ago the chain shortened its name to Mike’s Carwash in a response to the changing times.

“Now you have to fight for signage,” Bill says. “Municipalities rarely allow large signs anymore. We wanted to get the wash’s name down to two words. Now we are simply Mike’s Carwash.”

The signage situation also fueled another innovation at Mike’s: the redesign of the standard building. The past five locations that the chain opened featured a large tower with plenty of signage space built right in.

The new building is on display at the wash’s newest facility in Florence, KY. The 42nd Mike’s is the chain’s first foray into the state. The other 41 sites are located in Indiana and Ohio.

Over the past 10 years, Mike’s has averaged two or three new locations each year, and that trend looks to continue in 2013. Bill credits the dedication of his over 700-employee strong staff for the success the wash has enjoyed.

It isn’t easy to get a job at Mike’s. For every 150 candidates, the chain hires just one new associate. “We sweat the details on hiring,” Bill says. “We learned the hard way over the years about the importance of hiring the right people.”

Those lucky enough to land a job at Mike’s soon learn that the company’s success is directly linked to their performance. Workers at Mike’s receive some of the most comprehensive training in the industry headed by HR director Joe Rice.

All new employees spend three full days with a manager including online module training and 10 hours of workshops on customer service. As employees move up the ranks to supervisor, shift manager, assistant manager, and manager intense training follows them. For instance, those employees up for a supervisor position must complete a 13-week online curriculum including 16 hours of workshops, and pass a certification test upon completion. Each promotion brings with it another set of intensive training to ensure that each and every employee is qualified for the position.

“We really step up with our checkbooks for training,” Bill says. “Quality employees are the key to Mike’s success. The key to quality employees is a solid training program. The more time, effort, and money we put into training,
the more we get back in repeat customers.”

In addition to the training modules, each employee receives a performance appraisal every six months, allowing both management and the worker to assess an employee’s skills and identify areas of needed improvement.

Employees are rewarded for their hard work, with new locations opening on a rolling basis there is always an opportunity for advancement at Mike’s. Even those that don’t covet a career in car washing can benefit from Mike’s corporate culture. The company offers a tuition reimbursement plan to help offset the high costs of education for its employees. Last year over 100 associates took advantage of the plan, with the company spending well over $100,000 on the reimbursement plan.

Happy and well-trained employees are the backbone at Mike’s, ensuring that each and every customer drives off the lot in a clean car, satisfied with the experience. Mike’s is constantly evolving to stay in front of the competition in terms of service, equipment, and offerings.

The company manufactures about half of its own equipment including conveyors, arches, and brackets. The other half of the necessary equipment is purchased from outside vendors. Mike’s has a strict philosophy when it comes to equipment: build and buy everything oversized. That way the equipment doesn’t have to operate at its highest capacity to handle the workload, ensuring it will stand the test of time.

In keeping with the tradition of the first generation, Mike’s is constantly testing its systems and processes to keep up with the times. When an innovation is discovered, the Dahms are not shy about going back and implementing the improvement at all locations.

For instance, the newest location in Florence features a new vacuum system that will soon find its way throughout the chain. The central-vacuum system has two nozzles at each station allowing ease of use for the customer and duel cleaning should the customer have a willing passenger.

As a family owned and operated business, the second generation of Dahms is already preparing itself to turn over the reigns to the next generation when the time comes.

“We have a family rule that you just don’t come into the family business; you have to work elsewhere first,” Bill says. “Both mine and Mike’s kids will one day take over the business and hopefully turn it over to their kids one day.”

Bill’s daughter Sally already holds a key role at Mike’s, running the marketing and advertising for the chain. Mike has three sons: Joe, Jack, and Brian. The brothers are still in school but their father and uncle envision them running the chain someday should they choose. “We are running the wash as a legacy business,” Bill says. “But it is not about entitlement. They will have to work for and earn their positions here.”

Mike’s has a mission statement that is meant to inspire both the employees and owners alike. “To create lifetime customers by delivering a clean, fast, friendly experience through engaged and valued team members.” That motto will guide the next generation of Dahms as it takes control of the nation’s biggest and constantly expanding express-only franchise.

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