On the Wash Front - April 2009

Back to Basics Automation, Innovation,
and Car Care World Expo
By Anthony Analetto

Getting back to basics seems to be the battle cry of many businesses trying to navigate our current economy. The mood of our country seems to have changed overnight. Reckless speculation has been replaced by cautious deliberation — and, it’s show time!

Professional car washing’s biggest event of the year is upon us. The International Carwash Association’s Car Care World Expo in Las Vegas, NV opens April 1. It’s professional car washing’s annual opportunity to re-evaluate, recharge, and learn from other operators what is and isn’t working to grow our businesses.

Each year I sit down to write this article, outlining ways to maximize the productivity of your time at the trade show. And this year I’m wondering what to write. I do not yet have grandchildren, but can say with absolute confidence that they will one day be studying this current blip in the global economy. But does it really impact what you should be looking for at the Expo this year? Although it feels like it should, a recession actually doesn’t have as much influence on an industry that is as focused on efficiency as ours is. Let me explain.

In an odd way, car washes are inherently better equipped to deal with disruptive changes than most industries. Each day we have to adjust staffing and make hundreds of other modifications to our operation depending on what the weather is that day. I can imagine how stressful this economy must be for a business accustomed to steady traffic flow and predictable revenue. For a car wash, handling unexpected and unpredictable change is second nature. Survival demands knowing how to make hay when the sun shines on a 1,000-car day and being able to stay alive when there is either too much or too little rain.

All of a sudden, many businesses are starting to seriously look at automation to shave labor and provide better flexibility to handle unpredictable volume spikes. Car washes have been refining automation since the mid 1940s when the first conveyorized car wash was introduced. Look around you. I can think of no other retail business that uses automated video kiosks to promote to customers and complete hundreds of transactions at a single location every day. Can you think of any other retail industry that is already using RFID technology to automate its loyalty programs like you see at a growing number of express exterior car washes? Car washers are often the earliest adopters of new technology because we have to be in order to survive weather changes, let alone economic changes.

So what drives innovation in the car wash industry? The answer is simple. It comes from car wash operators sharing ideas and solutions to their problems with each other and vendors. This occurs most often at association meetings and trade shows. All those conversations on the show floor that start like “wouldn’t it be great if” or “why doesn’t someone make” or “it shouldn’t be that hard to” are what ultimately inspire the new equipment and operating innovations that bring our industry to the next level.

So, for car wash operators, getting back to basics means getting together and pushing for new ways to reduce expense and increase revenue. Whether it’s a new product to eliminate labor or a new practice to improve operating efficiency, it often starts with conversations at a trade show event. With that, let’s take a look at planning your time at the 2009 Car Care World Expo to come home with at least one thing that will make your time there well spent.

GET IN CONTROL OF YOUR PRODUCTION

After several years of horrible car wash weather, our friends in the Northeast have finally caught a break. The snow is falling, the salt is pouring, and sunny days are inspiring strong car wash volumes in the region. For some car wash operators, it’s also inspiring a mad race to bring poorly maintained or inadequate equipment up to the task. Others have lost days of revenue trying to make repairs just when things were starting to go their way.

It’s easy to understand pushing wearable items like cloth, chain, and rollers past their prime when trying to survive a downturn, but skipping scheduled preventive maintenance can be suicidal. Whether it’s an automobile, an airplane, or a car wash, all mechanical equipment must be maintained and exercised regularly. Inspecting, documenting, and maintaining equipment on a daily basis is even more critical when times are slow. You have to be prepared to maximize the potential revenue of that volume spike about to happen, regardless of whether it’s due to a change in weather — or a government stimulus package. There’s more to preventive maintenance than meets the eye, otherwise it wouldn’t be the source of so many problems for so many operators. Make a task list of areas you struggle with. Document the life span of wearable items in your wash in terms of the number of vehicles processed. Bring these two lists and talk to vendors and other operators at the show about them. Search out at least one practice, procedure, or product that can help you extend your equipments reliability, longevity, and consistency. Do this, and you will return home from your tradeshow experience with money in the bank by the end of the year.

GET IN CONTROL OF YOUR EXPENSES

Labor, water, electricity, and detergent. Find just one way to control your consumption of any of these variable expenses and the cash flow projection of your business can change dramatically over the year. Fortunately, the big push for greener technology means you can expect a wider variety of new innovations than ever before.

I expect to see water management take a prominent position at the show this year. Most of us know our chemical expense per car off the top of our head, but do you know how many cents per car you spend on water?

Is the condition of your water increasing your chemical consumption? Does your water condition increase your electric bill or labor expense by requiring more energy to remove it from the vehicles’ surface than it should? Combine regional droughts, environmental concerns, rising utility, water, and chemical costs and you have the perfect storm to see some real innovation from the water treatment equipment manufacturers. Seeing as this segment of our industry has advanced in only a few short years from trash pumps and cyclonic separation to the 100-percent odor-free reclaim solutions readily available today, you can expect to see some really neat stuff from these vendors on the floor.

SUMMARY

Don’t limit yourself to only finding new products that directly reduce expenses. Keep an eye out for new ideas and ways to capture, report, analyze, and control the consumption of resources at a car wash in a meaningful way. Also, attending an event like this is about more than just listening to seminars and evaluating new products. Spending three days with thousands of people with similar interests, facing related problems, generates enthusiasm to make things happen. To maximize the return on your investment from attending the show, you want to capture that wave of energy and ride it as long as you can.

If you’re bringing your management team, hold daily meetings to create and update an action plan that prioritizes everything you want to do when you get back. If you’re attending by yourself, plan to hold a show wrap-up meeting with your staff as soon as you return. Take lots of pictures and involve everyone who stayed home in creating a vision to improve the wash. It’s a lot of work, but hey, if it was easy everyone would be washing cars.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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