Profile in Success - February 2008

Wash Adapts and Thrives
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Market preference — a hand car wash.
Final drying touches are accomplished along with post vacuuming.
Drive-through fast-lube bays.

Understanding and adapting to driver preferences brings continued success. Mountain View Car Wash in Upland, CA, has changed, added new services, and dropped those no longer needed, to become one of San Bernardino County’s most popular car service centers.

Owner Sam Desai has kept his eye on evolving opportunities and needs since he launched the car wash in 1991. He bought a one-acre property on Mountain Avenue that already had approved plans and permits for a car wash. As a result, he could immediately build his own full-service tunnel wash along with a detail center and a gas station.

Today, the enterprise is far different from its beginnings. Attractive landscaping, a legacy of the original site plans and permitting, frames the businesses, but the services have evolved to better reflect customer needs.

The machine-equipped tunnel wash has become a hand car wash. The gas station is gone. A complete oil change facility has been added, and the detail business with its own dedicated staff is thriving.

While Mountain View Car Wash is his first and so far only step into vehicle cleaning and maintenance services, Desai is watchful for other opportunities. His business background includes an MBA degree and experience in real estate development and retailing.

Monitoring customer satisfaction and productivity at the car wash and related services commands most of Desai’s time. The wash is open seven days a week; 8 to 6 during summer or “daylight saving” hours and 8 to 5 during the shorter-day parts of the year. He is there five days a week.

Before he bought the property and opened the wash in 1991, Hanna had done some studies to help determine its feasibility, adding to Desai’s own business judgment. The 110-foot tunnel was outfitted with Hanna equipment. The Chevron gas station was a convenience to customers.

“About seven years ago I got rid of the gas station and some vacuums because they were interfering with my street exposure and weren’t contributing that much to our volume,” Desai said in a recent interview. “We added the express oil change at that time.”

The oil change center at Mountain View Car Wash offers many related vehicle maintenance services, including radiator, transmission, differential and fuel filter upkeep or replacement.

Competition for quick lube business isn’t as fierce in his area compared to other parts of the country, Desai says, and people prefer his Chevron-branded service to freestanding independent lube locations. His nearest oil change competitor is a Jiffy Lube three miles away on Foothill Boulevard. Two car wash competitors — one a machine wash and the other a hand wash — operate at a similar distance.

A full-service oil change at Mountain View Car Wash is priced at $34.99. For that, motorists also get a 14-point vehicle inspection, all fluids topped up, tire pressures checked, plus a full-service hand car wash.

Mountain View is located on a business-packed street running north and south in the heart of Upland, a city on the border between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Mountain Avenue and some side streets have many small- to medium-sized businesses of all kinds. In addition to signage on the buildings themselves, Mountain View Car Wash has a monument sign right on the busy street, and gleaming cars out front also beckon drivers.

Some shopping centers are also located on Mountain Avenue, which is “one of the most commercialized streets in the city,” Desai reports. Lots of residential property are to the north of Foothill, “and east and west of Mountain is all residential.”

Desai converted Mountain View from machine wash operation to conveyorized hand wash about five years ago. “In the California market many people prefer that type of wash, and our customers have been pretty satisfied with that change.” Hand washing requires two or three extra people working on the wash line, he says.

At the same time, he changed to post-vacuuming. Instead of vacuuming at the entry of the wash near the service writer, “we moved the vacuum system to where the cars are being finished.” Everything of that nature, vacuuming and finishing, is in the front, he explains, “and that has improved our productivity also.”

Desai’s wash staff includes two managers and a supervisor. Employees are strongly oriented to good customer relations, encouraged to “go all the way and give them whatever they need, and deliver the best possible quality in the shortest possible time.

“The car wash is so much of a service business, and it needs a lot of attention to make sure everything is running smoothly.” With more labor involved, productivity must be watched, and “everything needs good supervision and management.”

More than half of Mountain View’s car wash customers choose a package upgrade from the basic full-service wash. The most popular choice is the “Gold” at $18.95. The Gold package includes rainbow wax, clear-coat sealant, air freshener, and tire treatment.

“Diamond” ($21.95), “Platinum” ($25.95) and “Supreme” ($29.95) packages each offer additional features. The top Supreme package includes “Super Express hand wax, Super Express Rain-X and Super Express Tire Dressing.”

A $2 “Manager Special” discount is available on all packages every Wednesday, and a “Senior Special” on Tuesdays offers the hand wash and rainbow wax for $9.99.

Customers can get a free wash if they buy a book of 10 washes, and computerized customer tracking (keyed to the license plate) gives regular customers their 12th wash free. “Our cashiers also give car wash and lube customers coupons toward their next visit,” Desai adds.

Fleet or commercial business is a negligible part of Mountain View’s business, Desai says. Many major companies give fleet cards to their employees, however, and the Chevron credit card system he uses will accept most of those along with Chevron and all major credit cards.

Lube center customers get a free car wash with their oil change. The service combination has proven very popular with customers who often go to one of two nearby restaurants to dine and then return to pick up their fully serviced cars.

Car wash customers can relax in a comfortable lobby and enjoy free coffee or vend their choice of soft drinks. The wash does good business in Blue Mountain greeting cards and also sells auto-related accessories including air fresheners.

Detail customers can drop off their vehicles and be transported back to home or work locales (within a three- to five-mile radius) free of charge, and then picked up when their car is finished.

The level of detail services each customer chooses is often dictated by the time he or she has. Express detail choices include a basic package with hand wash for $44.95, leather conditioning for $55.95, and other specific services priced at $79.95 and $89.95.

Complete detail offerings range from “Deluxe” at $145.95 to a “Luxury Detail” at $249.95. Prices for all detail services may vary depending on size and condition of vehicle.

Desai has regularly advertised and promoted his business to new and previous customers since he started his business. He relies on direct marketing through a couple of companies, and also has coupons on the back of supermarket register tapes. Twice a year, Mountain View Car Wash has an insert in the local Pennysaver newspaper.

From the start of his wash 17 years ago, Desai has been a strong supporter of community causes. He’s helped charities, Little League teams, schools, churches, and other local groups raise funds for their recurring needs. His wash is a good steward of natural resources, too, thanks to its water reclaim system.

The level of service offered to car wash, detail and lube customers at Mountain View has gained both business growth and community acclaim. One example: “A few years ago our local newspaper, The Daily Bulletin, did a survey of all the car washes in the entire county, and we won an award” based on quality of services and customer satisfaction, Desai reports.

Such recognition attests that Mountain View Car Wash excels in the type and quality of car care that local motorists want. Owner Sam Desai is watching for good opportunities to take over an existing operation, he says. His record to date suggests that his customer-winning ways will succeed wherever he expands.

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

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