Profile in Success - April 2002

Showplace Car Wash
Exhibits Size, Speed, and Quality

By Jim and Elaine Norland

Enter on the right, exit on the left, vacuum islands straight ahead.

Double tunnels, each 180 feet long, are able to turn out as many as 400 cars an hour.

Showplace, live exhibition, prototype, or test site. Those terms could all apply to kywash Car Wash in Hammond, IN.

For starters, this wash, site of tours during the 2002 ICA Car Care World Expo in Chicago, dazzles with size alone. Its double tunnels, each 180 feet long, may set hard-to-beat records, able to turn out as many as 400 cars an hour.

Adjoining one of the largest Amoco stations in the country, Skywash opened in late 1999 to capture wash business from some of that station's 3,000 to 4,000 daily customers. The exterior-only wash gives drivers a "McDonald's" or drive-through treatment, delivering a quality wash in about 2.5 minutes from start to finish.

"The reason for choosing this approach is to go for the volume," explains Mark Ellis, operations manager. A veteran of 16 years in the car wash industry, Ellis joined Skywash just a few months ago and is not only giving this wash a sense of direction but also helping manage new locations operated under the same Luke Oil Co. ownership.

The company owns several gas stations, including three other high-volume stations within a stone's throw of the Amoco/Skywash site at 850 N. Indianapolis Blvd. None of those have a car wash, but Luke has opened another wash at a station nine miles south on Indianapolis Boulevard. A single, shorter (100-foot) tunnel handles exterior-only washes there.

A third Luke's car wash location, at a Shell station 15 miles away from the second, in Portage, IN was in the process of being redone as we spoke to Ellis in late February. New equipment there will be up and running soon. The company is looking at three other sites it hopes to have up and running with car washes in the next two years, Ellis says.

Skywash, so named because it's just off the Chicago Skyway, is in a growth pattern itself. Preliminary plans call for the addition of a four-bay quick lube and an express detail area on the same five-acre site where the gas station, convenience store, and car wash are located.

"One benefit of the lube and detail additions would be to create multiple profit centers," Ellis observes, "and a super center for car care. We could also use the waste oil from the lube center to heat the car wash and save gas costs. The lube center would also lessen the impact of bad-weather days at the wash."

Entrance one and two. The uncomplicated menu board is a quick read.

While visitors oriented to the car wash industry won't usually come by the busload as during the 2002 ICA Expo, Skywash serves regularly as a spectacular demonstration site for the latest in car wash technology.

Its two tunnels feature A.V.W. machinery installed and maintained under the watchful eye of A.V.W. Equipment Co. reps based in Maywood, IL, less than half an hour away. The soft-cloth gear in each tunnel includes three mitters, three sets of wraps, and wheel blasters and undercarriage blasters. A.V.W. uses Skywash to demonstrate its equipment to car wash professionals.

Royal Sheen chemicals are used in the wash, and Ellis reports good customer feedback on the results. Heated dryers, replacing unheated drying equipment originally installed, were expected to be in operation by the time of the ICA Expo, turning out what Ellis calls "the driest car possible" without labor-intensive toweling.

Spot-free cars will be further assured with reverse osmosis equipment that removes impurities from the rinse water. The system being installed at Skywash is the first of its kind in the US. Already working well in The Netherlands where it was developed, the system is expected to remove well over 99 percent of dissolved solids from the rinse water. Ellis says it is more tolerant of operating temperatures and much more efficient than typical RO systems. A representative from The Netherlands manufacturer has spent considerable time engineering the Skywash installation, he reports.

Every process at Skywash is designed to assure the customer of a thoroughly clean vehicle while operating with a minimal labor overhead. "With myself included, our labor runs less than 10 percent a month," Ellis observes, "and most full-serves run 25 percent and some as high as 40 percent. We keep more of what we make."

He acknowledges that some customers prefer full-serve washes. "There's room for both." Northwest Indiana is blessed with good full-serve washes that contribute to the professionalism of the car wash industry, he feels.

At Skywash, customers do their own vacuuming at convenient islands outside the wash, and often purchase cleaning supplies from equally handy vending machines. Skywash is adding more vacuums and vending machines this summer.

Skywash is open 7 to 9 every day, and is closed only on Christmas day. Those hours enable most drivers to wash their cars at a time convenient to them.

Many customers come from the immediate Skywash neighborhood, but the location is convenient for anyone traveling on the Chicago Skyway or on Indianapolis Boulevard, which is US Highway 41. The traffic count past Skywash is about 70,000 cars daily.

Side by side: double tunnels.

Still more business comes from the densely populated neighborhood surrounding the wash. "Just across the Skyway are the South Chicago suburbs," Ellis notes. "There are a lot of rooftops there, and that's where most of our business comes from. Ninety percent of our business is Illinois customers."

Even the building housing Skywash is a showpiece. Constructed of prefabricated rigid plastic forms that are filled with concrete on site, the Royal Building Systems structures have a glossy, easily cleaned surface both inside and out that adds to the clean look and feeling of the wash. The surfaces hold up well to chemicals and cleaning, Ellis says. The roof is also of the same rigid plastic forms, but filled with insulation to minimize seasonal temperature extremes.

Luke Oil Co. plans to use the same structural approach in any washes it builds from scratch, according to Ellis.

The interior of the tunnels is brightly lighted with the uncluttered stainless steel of the A.V.W. equipment adding to the clean ambiance. Ellis hopes to add to the bright look with skylight panels, which may be in place "very soon." Royal is using Skywash during the ICA Expo to show some of the options on their buildings, Ellis says.

Light blue walls with dark blue trim predominate now at Skywash, but gold and red will be added to the color scheme here and at other Luke Oil locations to enable motorists to easily recognize the company's operations. Ellis is writing a process and operations manual governing not only the twin-tunnel operation now known as Skywash but also all other car wash and related car-care sites.

The corporation is undergoing an image change to achieve the same goal. With many stations and operations spread over a wide area, all will be called Luke's. At present, the company calls many of its convenience store/gas station locations "One-Stop Food Marts," but that, too, will change. While structural appearance of some purchased locations may not look the same, uniform signage and colors will identify Luke's sites.

Ralph Luke, the founder, is CEO of the corporation, which also includes Luke Transport. Tom Collins, Sr. is president and Tom Collins, Jr. is vice president.

Company-wide identity is further assured by uniforms (pants and shirts) of employees at Skywash and other sites. Workers must be well groomed and exhibit no excess facial hair or tattoos.

Ellis seeks applicants with a positive or winning attitude and improves his odds with recommendations from outstanding present employees.

"We'll pay to get the very best," he says. That includes above average wages, employee benefits, and opportunity for advancement in a growing organization. Benefits for hourly employees include options for insurance, dental and eye care, and 401(k) retirement savings. They also earn vacation time and birthdays off. Management employees have a few additional perks such as company-paid insurance.

Marketing and promotion at Skywash is another area that's undergoing change. The wash was introduced to gas and c-store customers with free washes. A variety of incentives are now used to encourage repeat business, including heavy emphasis on greeting regular customers by name. (Ellis doesn't have any automated equipment to assist employees in that task, and customers know it, he says, making such recognition all the more gratifying.)

The wash also supports local community groups with wash donations and similar contributions.

Customers have three wash options, paying $5.99 for the express wash, $7.99 for the deluxe, and $9.99 for the works. Purchase of any gas at the Amoco pumps earns a $1 discount on any wash. Ellis may also turn that around so that any car wash customer will get a discount on their gas. Generally, Skywash's non-discounted wash prices are about $1 to $2 lower than those of other exterior washes in the area.

Skywash customers heretofore could join the Car Wash Club and get their tenth wash free. Ellis wants to make the sixth wash free and put a time limit on the card. He also plans to introduce manager's specials on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, especially during the summer months.

"If we give them a reason to come early in the week, such as a works wash for half off or a deluxe wash for the price of a basic wash, they may come in for those and then return on Friday or Saturday," he believes. He also provides upselling commissions to the cashiers in the convenience store, where 60 percent of Skywash washes are sold.

Ellis also plans to use another technique that has worked for him in the past to promote Skywash and Luke's image. He made himself available as an expert on car care, and that earned lots of "free advertising" in local newspapers and other media. "The last wash I was at in Portage, the mayor invited me onto a show on the local cable TV outlet and then invited me back for two more."

With a prime location, a wash that's already a showplace for the car care industry, improved corporate imaging, and ambitious promotion and marketing, Skywash seems poised to make full use of its potential for business volume.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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