Tunnels - August 2006

Express Exterior Challenges CA’s
Hand-Wash Mindset

By W. Herschel Kilgore

The substantial monument sign enjoys lots of traffic exposure.
 

Tom Ennis, Jr. began his pursuit of building a full-service car wash in El Segundo, CA early in 2000. The entitlement process, preparation of plans, and permitting process took nearly four years due to the complexity of the location — a site owned by Southern California Edison, where high-tension electrical transmission lines span the property. The site also has two petroleum pipelines passing through the property. Although the site measures more than 52,000 square feet, the actual area that structures could be built upon was relatively small. The site was also in the City of El Segundo, long known as a very strict and demanding municipality with regard to development.

The original operational platform was to be a typical Southern California conveyorized hand wash with a large boutique. Permits were finally obtained and construction was started in the fall of 2004 with an anticipated opening of early summer 2005.

CHANGE IN PLANS

There are 23 free vacuum positions. Note the overhead power lines.

In 2004, California Assembly Bill 1688 was signed into law, requiring car wash operators to register with the California Department of Labor, to post labor bonds, and to comply with a host of other restrictions on car wash labor. As a result, a tactical decision was made to change the operational platform at El Segundo to a standalone, express exterior car wash with only vending machines and free vacuums.

The change in operating platforms required plan revisions and submittals to the City of El Segundo, the California Department of Transportation, Southern California Edison and both of the petroleum companies that had pipelines passing through the property. Construction was essentially halted until early fall of 2005 when approvals were received for the design change. The changes included increasing the water and electrical service, a redesigned traffic flow at the site, and the addition of a deceleration lane in front of the property on Sepulveda Boulevard. Construction and installation of state-of-the-art car wash equipment were completed in April 2006, with final adjustments and testing completed during the last week of April. Almost six years from the original date of conception, the El Segundo 5 Minute Express Wash was opened to the public in May 2006, and currently operates seven days a week, from 7:00 am until 8:00 pm, rain or shine.

PLANT

The facility is believed to be the largest express exterior car wash in California, with a tunnel structure that is 190 feet in length housing a 175-foot conveyor. The equipment package was designed for and tested at a 200-car-per-hour production capacity. Clean, dry, and shiny cars are produced even at rapid conveyor speeds. The wash utilizes three Auto Sentry™ tellers and gates from Innovative Control Systems. The NS Wash Systems equipment washes the vehicle three times in three distinct wash processes in a tunnel controlled by Integrated Services Inc.’s new iTC™ tunnel controller. Chemicals are supplied by EcoLab-Blue Coral™ and Simoniz™. Customers can choose from 23 free vacuum positions powered by three 20-hp turbines.

Just beyond the menus, customers use Auto Sentry tellers to gain access.

During construction, several local Southern California car wash operators visited the site and candidly shared their reservations about the express wash model. Lack of acceptance by consumers was their main fear. Many felt that Southern California motorists would only accept a full-service car wash platform as their desired “standard.” The second major concern was the use of automated wash equipment. Currently, the “conveyorized hand-wash” is the prevalent method of washing in the market area. They believed that consumers would not accept the automated Lammscloth™ and foam wash process because of the fear of damage to their vehicles. The third most frequently expressed fear was the potential lack of profitability. “How can you make money at $5 per car?” was frequently asked.

OPERATION

El Segundo 5-Minute Express has three managers, two of whom were drawn from former military personnel returning from service. Returning military personnel were targeted because they share ideal management qualities — they are accustomed to training and discipline, they are conditioned to chains of command and defined procedures, they are comfortable with operating and maintaining highly-sophisticated equipment, and finally, they are generally “unflappable” when dealing with the unexpected. They rose to the occasion. The operation of the car wash consists of one manager and two attendants on duty at any one time. One attendant is located at the entrance of the car wash to guide customers safely onto the conveyor. The second attendant is located at the exit in the vacuum area to police the area and assist customers. The manager is in control of all of the operations and is present to assist customers and to assure satisfaction.

The employees all work full-time. On slow or rainy days, they perform normal equipment maintenance, they clean the tunnel and maintain the facility, and they hold training and safety meetings. There is a conspicuous difference at El Segundo because the employees are a cut above normal car wash employees. The managers are salaried and receive a performance bonus, and the attendants are paid well above minimum wage. Employees are always in uniform lending an air of professionalism to the operation and reinforcing the image of the brand. They are offered advancement opportunities instead of traditional dead-end car wash jobs. We look for the best and expect nothing less from our employees.

PERFORMANCE

The cleaning process starts at the tunnel entrance.

The wash opened the first week of May, which is surprisingly one of the worst months of the year in the Los Angeles basin for car washing. The El Segundo car wash is less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean, and during the months of May and June, the “marine layer” — meaning low clouds and fog — generally engulfs the area until late afternoon. These weather conditions might remind one of Seattle or Portland. During May, known as “May Gray” — the first month of operation — El Segundo washed the vehicles of over 7,300 paying customers and financially broke even. For the month of June, the facility washed the vehicles of 12,048 paying customers. The wash offerings are $5 for the basic express wash up to $11 for the top-of-the-line wash. There has been an unexpectedly high number of $5 washes purchased primarily due to a high percentage of livery vehicles. We believe this is due to the close proximity of the Los Angeles International Airport, which is less than two miles away from the car wash.

El Segundo’s managers spend time talking with customers at the tunnel’s exit end while the customers are vacuuming their vehicles. The most common customer observations include their satisfaction with the quality of the wash, their delight with the speed of the wash (less than the promised 5 minutes), the extended hours of operation that allow them to wash their vehicles on days other than Saturday and Sunday, and the most common benefit being the exceptional value of the wash. For only $5 they can get a clean, dry, and shiny vehicle, in less than five minutes, and a free, self-vacuum.

Clearly, the El Segundo 5-Minute Express Carwash doesn’t fulfill everyone’s desires. We have a few customers who come to the site looking for full-service and turn around and leave. We have customers who come to the site looking for a “hand wash.” The most memorable customer was a gentleman who drove up in a van and asked if we were a full-service car wash, to which I replied no. He explained to me that his son had just thrown up in the back seat and he needed to have the seats cleaned and deodorized. I cheerfully referred him to the nearest full-service wash. We are certainly not “one size fits all.”

EASE OF MANAGEMENT

The final step — drying.

On a personal note, after more than thirty years in the car wash business, I can tell you that from the development side, this has been the most demanding car wash project that I have been involved in. From the operational side, I have owned and operated full-service car wash models, and this is the easiest start-up I have ever experienced. The equipment is the most complex in my experience, but the easiest to operate. The express model is the easiest to manage of those that I have operated. El Segundo has surveillance cameras everywhere. The computer system is accessible from remote locations, and I can watch what is going on in real-time, anytime. I can remotely log into the system, count my cash and credit card intake, and view detailed real-time wash statistics from anywhere, without the employees even being aware that I am “on site” — virtually.

Given the opportunity to operate an exterior express platform versus a full-service platform, I prefer the express model because of my management style and personal preferences. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for good full-service operators and owners, and my hat goes off to them. They are willing to deal with the labor headaches and other demanding issues unique to full-service operations that I find unnecessarily onerous. For me, personally, the exterior-express wash model is a joy to operate, unlike the labor-intensive, full-service car washes that are a constant struggle to operate profitably.

It would be relatively easy to replicate the El Segundo 5-Minute Express Carwash many times over. Management would only become easier with multiple locations. Multiple locations would allow one to take advantage of economies of scale regarding marketing, service, maintenance, chemical supply, and human resources. With the technology available today, a centralized office could easily and effectively operate multiple locations with a minimum of staffing. This would result in profits in orders of magnitude.

LEARNING EXPERIENCE

As many of you know, I wear two hats. I am the general manager of the new El Segundo 5-Minute Express Carwash, and I’m also the director of sales and marketing for NS Wash Systems. The El Segundo car wash is more than merely a profit center for its owners — it also houses the new NS Wash Systems’ training facility, aptly named “Carwash University.” This facility provides training in and access to the newest, state-of-the-art wash equipment, to architects, contractors, owner/operators and service personnel. Seminars will also be conducted discussing various ownership and operational formats for prospective investors. You are invited to come visit us and see for yourself what the exterior express wash platform is really all about — profits!

W. Herschel Kilgore is general manager of the new El Segundo 5-Minute Express Carwash and also the director of sales and marketing for Inglewood, CA-based NS Wash Systems. He can be reached via e-mail at herschel@nswash.com.

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