|Archie Johnson (left) receives
the Leadership in Innovation Award from Bill Sartor, ICA president.
Archie Johnson is having fun again. Recent changes in the management
lineup at Phoenix, AZ-based Superior Car Wash Systems Inc., the
company he founded more than 30 years ago, has given him the opportunity
to devote more time to developing new products - his first love.
"I really enjoy solving problems in the car wash industry through
equipment design," he says. Those very designs earned him the
International Carwash Association's 2002 Leadership in Innovation
In May 2002, Johnson stepped down as president of Superior, handing
over responsibility for the day-to-day management of the company
to 17-year Superior veteran Mike Hudson. This change in leadership
was just what he needed to free him up to concentrate on the creative
aspects of the business. "I like to think of myself as an artist
of machinery," says Johnson jokingly, "and by creating
machinery I believe I can make a bigger contribution to the success
of the company than by managing it."
Johnson did not always have the luxury of choosing how he'd spend
his time. He started Superior in 1971 with a stake of $3,000. "I
can remember, in those early days, going out and selling a deal,
coming back to the shop to build it, taking it out and installing
it, and then collecting the money, hoping that I had enough to get
me to the next deal."
The first products to come out of the company's shop were self-service
related. It was, quite simply, the easiest segment of the industry
to get into and also required the least amount of capital. Within
a few short years, however, the company was also producing equipment
for conveyor tunnels. Dryers are a natural part of that lineup and
Superior has been manufacturing them for close to 26 years.
The early dryers were the follower type with the top vent on wheels
that rolled over the top of the car,
Johnson recalls. In 1992 his company started manufacturing touch-free
dryers. At the time, Johnson says, many companies were building
high-pressure, low-CFM (cubic-feet-per-minute) dryers. "We
have always been advocates of high-CFM and low pressure. As nobody
was making a high-CFM touch-free dryer, I took on the task of building
one and developed what I call a direct-discharge nozzle, which is
so popular today."
Johnson's next innovation was a patent-protected nozzle design
with a unique oscillating method that allows for near 100 percent
efficiency. "There is no pressure drop," he explains,
"because we don't 'bend' the air by some mechanical means like
everyone else." The number of times Johnson has had to
protect his patent rights through legal action testifies to the
value of this innovation. "I hold five patents," he says,
"but it is this one that seems to get tested on a regular basis."
Another of Johnson's patents relates to the dual-port nozzle. This
nozzle actually has two openings with a gate inside that shifts
the air stream from one opening to the other. Johnson explains that
for a dryer to work correctly, the air stream has to hit the vehicle's
surface at 10 to 15 degrees to keep peeling back the water. So one
opening of his invention guides the air towards the front of the
car at 15 degrees like a normal dryer, and then on command the gate
shifts and the air stream moves at 15 degrees the other direction
which dries the back of the vehicle.
Johnson's other patents protect various design elements in his
pendulum wrap-around brushes. And he's had to defend these a couple
of times as well. "There may be a compliment in there somewhere
and I try to see that part," he muses, "but when you spend
$40,000 to $50,000 dollars defending a patent, it's not much fun.
It's a drain emotionally and financially when you have to litigate.
The last one I was involved in took almost a year [to resolve].
As a youngster, I was taught that you don't take what isn't yours.
Unfortunately, not all business people feel that way. "
Drawing from experience, Johnson offers an example of how such
issues can be settled amicably. A few years ago, Johnson got a call
from Tom Ennis of N/S, an old friend, who told him that he (Johnson)
was infringing on one of Ennis' patents in the manufacture of a
water reclaim system. Johnson took down the details from Ennis,
got a copy of the patent, and discovered that Ennis was right! "I
called him up and said, 'Tom, you're right. I apologize. It won't
happen again,'" Johnson recalls. "And I stopped making
that equipment. To me, that's the way gentlemen should handle these
matters." When new products are being developed, Johnson allows,
it is quite possible for more than one person to have the same idea.
The question then is who was there first, he says.
With more time to devote to his creative instincts, Johnson is
sure to deliver many more firsts
in the industry. In fact, he suggests that in the next two or three
months the car wash market might get a little excited about a couple
of products that are about to move from Superior's R&D department
to the sales floor.