Profile - August 2002

Leadership in Innovation

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 Award.

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.

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