Exhibits Size, Speed, and Quality
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
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
"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