Auto Laundry News - May 2013

Us and Them — Where Have All the Members Gone?

By Robert Roman

In 2005, the International Carwash Association had 2,600 members. Today, membership is 1,896.

In 2005, I interviewed Mark Thorsby, the then executive director, about membership struggles. Thorsby explained the culprit as the Internet, which rendered the association membership paradigm obsolete and led groups to become industry-driven or -centric.

In the past, groups would send members a package of literature and business tools and gauge success of an association by the number of members it had. However, with the Internet you now have folks who believe if they search right, they will get the “right” answers for free. So why join and pay dues?


After writing about this, I received e-mail from operators. Most comments regarding not joining or relinquishing membership centered on the ICA’s participation at the NACS (National Association of Convenience Stores) and Chevron/Texaco North American Marketing Conventions. Of course, the ICA must participate at such events.
Convenience and petroleum retailers are represented chiefly by the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMA) and NACS. In 2005, PMA numbered over 8,000 independent petroleum marketers. PMA’s mission is to nationally unify petroleum marketers to further the common business interests of the industry.

In 2005, NACS had 3,700 members accounting for 130,000 stores, an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent having a wash. NACS’s mission is to represent the convenience store industry and assist members in increasing value, effectiveness, and profitability.

Today, the ICA’s stated purpose is to promote and secure mutual benefit, improvement, and cooperation of those engaged in operating automatic washes and supplementary businesses.

For example, the ICA has partnered with the Western Petroleum Marketers Association in the production of its (ICA’s) Petroleum Marketer’s Seminar (2010). Of course, the ICA must take such initiatives.

In 2005, Big Oil such as BP, the world’s largest integrated oil concern, had 14,700 gas sites in the U.S.; Exxon/Mobil had 16,000 sites; and Chevron had 19,000 sites. Today, Big Oil is out of the retail gas and convenience selling business, creating a big knowledge gap. Industry-centric also seems to be the tone for the ICA’s 2013 exposition — The Car Wash Show™.

In 2004, there were a variety of sessions at the ICA show including operations, labor issues, car wash economics, Internet use, websites, profit centers, marketing, water use, detail, and more. The presenters included operators, suppliers and dealers, consultants, brokers, and others.

In 2013, the show’s focus is brands, customer experience, social media, online marketing, growth, teamwork, and traits of managers and franchisees. With the exception of the operations session, most presenters are high-paid consultants. Virtually all of them are certified sales professionals. There is a separate investor seminar led by the car wash school folks. Notably absent is self-service and detail. Of course, the association must take such initiatives.

Show attendance is down. Moreover, with an estimated 80 percent drop in equipment spending since 2005, allied and supplementary firms that function in a supporting capacity have taken it on the chin. Fallout has taken down suppliers, dealers, and journals.

Arguably, this is cause for ICA initiatives like updating the trade show format, WaterSavers program, equipment sales report, WashCount™ program, and publishing a car wash magazine. While some operators may lament the ICA version 2013 as well as the new “normal,” there is no denying gravity.

For example, in 2008, self-service and in-bays accounted for 25 percent of ICA membership, conveyor 37 percent. Since then, self-service industry revenues dropped 30 basis points, automatic washes up 60 basis points. Along the way, the number of self-service units thinned by 20 basis points.

Today, signs point to an industry entering another business cycle that will belong mostly to automatic car washing and consolidation. Arguably, it will not be business as usual.

If the ICA’s more holistic approach isn’t the right cup of tea, car wash operators have few reasons not to embrace their regional associations. Today is no time to stand alone.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises – Consulting Services ( You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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