Exterior Challenges CA’s
W. Herschel Kilgore
| The substantial monument sign enjoys lots of traffic
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
| 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.