Profile in Success - February 2002

Lessons Learned:
Theory Put to Successful Practice

By Jim and Elaine Norland

The finishing area. The tunnel exit can be seen on the left, the lube bays on the right.

New and even established car wash owners and operators figure they're "going to school" every day, learning more about their business and helping it grow. They're happy if their business plan gets a passing grade from bankers or investors and then proves itself in operation.

Calvin Winton Jr. went to school first, in a college classroom, before opening his car wash. His business plan for a car wash earned him a disappointing "C" and some snickers and chuckles from classmates, but he was the only member of his economics class to actually open a business.

Lanier Superior Car Wash and Lube at 5015 Friendship Road in Buford, GA is that business. It opened last May under the ownership of Winton and his father, Calvin Winton, Sr. The wash, lube and express detail operation has fulfilled the younger Winton's academic projections and filled an apparent void in quality car care in the booming area near Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta.

Even Calvin Winton Sr., whose background is in aerospace engineering, at first thought his son's ideas for a car wash were "funny," Calvin Jr. says. Before moving to Georgia in the early 1990s, the Wintons had lived in Southern California, where car washes are abundant. (The elder Winton left the aerospace industry to become director of engineering for Federal-Mogul Corp.)

"I always enjoyed going out and looking at car washes, and wanted to have my own," says the younger
Winton. "When I first mentioned the idea to my father four years ago, he didn't show much interest. But then he spent a lot of time investigating the business and got more interested and involved." Father and son both learned more by studying washes, particularly in Orange County, California, "which seems to be the car wash capital of the world."

The result of their study and investigation shows up beautifully in Lanier Superior Car Wash and Lube. Located on a relatively new but well-traveled road that is the principal access route to Lake Lanier and Lake Lanier Islands, the wash occupies 1.33 acres in an area that is growing fast with commercial and industrial as well as residential development. The site is just half a mile off the 985 freeway that feeds into Atlanta from Gainesville.

The process begins.

"The (Friendship) road will expand to four lanes soon, and a six-lane bridge was finished in December," Calvin Winton Jr. says, "and we'll also get a stoplight right in front of our car wash."

New or incoming neighbors to the wash include several fast-food chains. Rumored development on a 188-acre adjoining land parcel includes a medical arts building and a small business park.

The building housing the wash and lube center is built of masonry blocks covered by stucco. The lower three feet of the building is clay red, and above that is sand-colored stucco. A smoke-gray shingle roof gives a look that fits well into the neighborhood. The entire structure is "lit up like a football field at night," says Calvin Winton Jr., and the lights are on all night, even though the wash closes at 5:30 (winter) or 6 p.m. daily.

A Bentley comes off the wash line.

Landscaping occupies about 70 percent of the total site. Calvin Winton Jr. prepared it all, including planting of Virginia and loblolly pines and 24 pallets of sod. Pansies were recently planted on all of the islands. An irrigation system was installed along with the landscaping.

The interior of the wash has a comfortable feeling for customers, with resilient flooring, rocking chairs, a Vermont Castings wood stove and gourmet coffee. Interior walls are finished in a tan or sand color. Lobby merchandising is handled by Ron Levy of Lobby Works.

Area demographics include a lot of two-income families, Winton says, and the vehicle population reflects a taste for quality. "Seventy-five percent of the vehicles we wash are SUVs," says the younger Winton. "We have a lot of minivans, Suburbans, Excursions, and high-dollar luxury vehicles such as Mercedes Benz, Bentley, Rolls Royce and Jaguar."

To properly care for such vehicles and to set Lanier Superior apart from possible future competition, the Wintons chose N/S Autohandwash(tm) equipment, set in a 100-foot tunnel. The AHW-100 equipment incorporates Lammscloth(tm) super-soft synthetic material in its mitters, which the younger Winton says gives their wash a competitive advantage.

"All of my customers love that (Lammscloth)," he says. Use of that same material in washes at Atlanta Classic Cars, a big Mercedes Benz dealership, and at dealerships for Lexus, Jaguar and LandRover as well as at a local Honda dealership gave the new wash an identity with those quality-minded car centers, he believes. "We want to offer the best service in the area."

"We spent a lot of time at ICA shows and talking to a lot of players in this business," Calvin Winton Jr. says. He and his father also looked at hand washes in Southern California that had converted to the N/S and Lammscloth approach.

"It's finish-friendly and customer-friendly," says Mike Levin, national marketing manager of N/S, asserting that Lammscloth equipment "washes cars instead of beating the dirt off them. Lammscloth gives a wash brand identification and builds customer loyalty, creating a marketable difference."

Levin and others in the N/S organization were impressed by the Wintons' research and planning.
Larry King, A-1 Supply and Car Wash Systems, Marietta, local N/S representative, also worked closely with them to develop and launch the wash.

While the quality of the wash at Lanier Superior has been of paramount concern, the wash presently has relatively little nearby competition. "I have one rollover up the street from me about half a mile," Winton says, "and the closest wand wash is about six miles away." The nearest full-serve car wash and lube center is five miles away.

Complementing the wash equipment itself are a Stealth dryer (also from N/S) and a water recovery system from an N/S subsidiary, Liquid Recovery Corp. The reclaim system recovers 80 to 85 percent of water used for each vehicle, and fresh water is used only for the final rinse, Mike Levin explains.

The three-bay lube center.

The Stealth dryer removes most of the water from vehicle surfaces, but two-person crews finish off each vehicle with hand toweling and vacuuming. Vacuuming has been moved to the finish line to reduce personnel turnover and assure customers that their vehicles are being thoroughly cleaned on the inside. Customers who wish to tip will give the gratuity to one person on that crew, and the team splits the tips at the end of their workday.

Washes are priced from $7.99 (exterior only) and $11.99 for a basic full-service wash through $29.99 for a "Superior" package. Lanier Superior doesn't offer any frequency discounts.

A "Super Express" package can be added to any of the wash packages to add Blue Coral express wax
and tire-dressing services for an additional $14.99. Other detail services include express hand wax, polishing and interior shampooing. Express detailing accounts for about 18 percent of total dollar volume of the wash/lube center. Zeev Josman, representing Blue Coral chemicals, has worked closely with the Wintons, and "played a big part through his service and support," says Calvin Winton Jr.

During the warm-weather months which have dominated most of Lanier Superior's operations since opening, wash revenue accounts for about 37 percent of total volume, but that percentage increases during colder weather.

A three-bay lube center featuring Pennzoil products contributes about 45 percent of sales dollars at Lanier Superior. In addition to oil changes and chassis lube, the lube center offers transmission flushes, fuel injection cleaning, power steering flushes, serpentine belt replacement, wiper blades and air filters, breather filters and PCV valve service.

Although it opened last May, the wash and lube center had its grand opening on Nov. 17, with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Number 8 Winston Cup NASCAR vehicle on exhibit just the day before the Atlanta 500, a major NASCAR race. A local restaurant catered food, and reps were on hand from Pennzoil and other major players in the new car-care setup.

Lanier Superior Car Wash and Lube has already garnered a strong following among commercial and fleet customers as well as individual car owners. "We now accept Enterprise fleet accounts, and we have a total of about seven national accounts plus several local companies," Calvin Winton Jr. reports.

Electrical and landscaping contractors and other construction companies are among the commercial accounts already established. "They tell me their time is too valuable to change their own oil or wash their own vehicles; they'd rather be out on the job making money, and they feel it makes sense
to contract that (vehicle) service out," he adds. Such commercial customers benefit from both a 10 percent discount and 30-day terms.

A look inside the equipment room.

The 23 Lanier Superior employees are loyal, hard working and well- groomed. "All of my lube people have been with me from day one," says the younger Winton, "and that goes for the wash side, too. The key to keeping people is to treat them well," he believes. The Wintons pay above the minimum wage scale, the average employee on the wash side starting at $6 to $6.50 per hour. Every employee wears shirts, caps and sweaters provided through a local uniform company.

At least one of the Wintons is present at the wash during its operating hours. "It's a hands-on business," Calvin Winton Jr. explains, "and a new business is something like a newborn baby. One of us is always here."

Such close personal supervision also helps the Wintons see what can be improved in their business, not only for better results at Lanier Superior Car Wash and Lube but also for use in another location, which they might well undertake.

While the concept and plan for their first car wash may have begun as an academic undertaking, real-world experience will help guide their future enterprises. The success of Lanier Superior Car Wash and Lube, the plans for which got a so-so grade in college, seems to deserve an "A" grade in customer-satisfying excellence and meeting bottom-line expectations.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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