Finishing Line - April 2009

Out of Touch — Opportunity
and Value through Change
By Robert Roman


When times get tough, people often point fingers and blame others for their problems. When something bad happens with the economy or financial markets, the people most affected often accuse Congress and other leaders of being out of touch with them and reality. When things go sour in the car wash industry, complaints often arise that the International Carwash Association (ICA) has grown out of touch with the needs of the independent operator. By independent, I am referring to small business owners who typically own one or two car wash sites.

Over the years, car wash operators have complained that a lack of stewardship has allowed equipment distributors to backfill markets to the point of over-saturation. Others have complained that education should not be provided to gasoline and convenience store merchants or lube operators to help them become better car wash operators. Others have blamed the ICA for not doing anything to stem the proliferation of low-priced express exteriors, which dilute their customer base. Others disagree with the ICA philosophy that more car washing is good for the car wash industry. And so forth.

Throw in the current economic and financial environment and unfavorable weather patterns and it is no wonder some car wash owners are not happy with their lot or believe that they have been betrayed in some manner through a lack of leadership.

The car wash industry has evolved considerably since the 1980s and the small independently owned and operated car wash is no longer the backbone of the industry. According to ICA estimates in 1999, there were almost as many car washes in gasoline stations as there were full-service, exterior, and self-service facilities. This did not occur as the result of a conspiracy but rather from changes that occurred within the marketplace. Similarly, there have been significant changes in the investor base.

Over the last decade, there has been a growing number of new investors who are not of the “mom and pop” variety. This includes doctors, attorneys, stockbrokers, real estate agents, high-tech employees, and other white-collar professionals who are looking at car wash as an alternative to the stock market and fixed, low-interest investments.

Consumer demand has also changed significantly. Today’s consumers are more hard-pressed. Many of them have become sensitized to price; they have grown more concerned about the safety of their vehicles and security of their passengers; and they are demanding more convenience, quality, and value for their money. The fact that the new wave of investors often chose business models other than full-service or self-service is attributable primarily to their understanding of changing marketplace dynamics.

Independent car wash operators who believe they are being hung out to dry, so to speak, need to understand that marketplace dynamics are forcing everyone in the car wash industry to adapt and change. No one is immune.

In order to combat the number of sources that are giving away investor guidance on the Internet for free, including the ICA, I have had to revamp my consulting services. I have also diversified into pre-engineered buildings and have begun writing articles in other business sectors. With this in mind, independent car wash operators may find opportunity and value through change. Does change work?

Last week, I came across an old article in Exhibitor Online that described how Paul Fazio, president of Sonny’s Enterprises Inc. improved his company’s performance at the ICA’s Car Care World Expo by utilizing the services of a consultant. According to the article, Fazio met Martin Smith, president of Ethnometrics Corp, a six-sigma-based research and analysis firm, in 2004 when the ICA hired Smith to help improve stagnant trade show attendance. Impressed with his work, Fazio hired Smith on his own for the 2005 show. Working together, Smith and Fazio developed nine improvements to Sonny’s trade show exhibit that led to a doubling of leads and a tenfold increase in orders.

If you are an independent car wash operator and you are struggling with the pressures of the economic and financial environment, you should consider reaching out for all of the quality help you can get. There are advisors and car wash consultants that understand the business and the intricacies of individual car wash markets that can work with you to help improve your store’s performance. Trade journals, the ICA, and regional associations are further resources that can help.

Quite frankly, car wash operators who complain that they are being let down by industry leaders aren’t getting it. Over the last decade, powerful forces have forever changed our country and the car wash industry is being sucked along for the ride. Surviving and prospering in this new environment will require adaption and change. Operators who cling to the way things have always been done and are adamantly opposed to change should recall a line by actor Clint Eastwood, “Tomorrow is promised to no one.”

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises - Consulting Services ( and vice president of Bubble Wash Buildings LLC. You can reach Bob via e-mail at

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