Profile in Success - January 2009

Rated Top in Topeka
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Substantial signage assures visibility.

Tom Enstrom was so picky about his own car’s finish and appearance that he equipped the garage in the new home he was building 25 years ago so he could wash his car indoors.

Before he moved to Topeka, KS, Enstrom, an insurance executive, had come close to buying a car wash on the East Coast. Not long after his westward move, Enstrom began building a full-service tunnel wash to provide professional car cleaning for others. His Eagle Auto Wash has been thriving ever since and consistently wins community recognition as the area’s “Best Car Wash.”

Eagle’s main business is car washing, but the variety of detail services on its menu tells motorists that its specialists can meet every need in vehicle appearance. Exterior signage and the wash’s website now identify it as Eagle Auto Wash and Detailing Salon.

While detail work comprises a small percentage of Eagle’s total volume, it attracts motorists who want or need more than basic wash-line services. Many customers choose an upgrade or special service of some type, perhaps shampooing a stained rear seat or carpet. Mini-detail or “While-U-Wait” options include hand wax, leather or tire treatment, and packages combining those and similar services.Complete details can range from $139.95 for compact cars to $229.95 for conversion/passenger vans.

Plenty of sacking space.

Washing equipment at Eagle combines the best of high-pressure and soft-cloth dirt removal and vehicle finishing. A correlator for the 120-foot conveyor aligns each car, SUV, or pickup as it moves from the vacuum area into the wash. Prep guns (fed by tankless water heaters) at the start of the tunnel are followed by a flooder arch to soften dirt and grime, including bird droppings. A high-pressure arch then dislodges most dirt and debris.

“We follow that with the soft wraps and lower wraps as we put on the detergents and things of that nature,” Enstrom explains. Rocker panel wraps and two sets of tall wraps also clean the vehicle and apply waxes. Finally, a mitter curtain cleans the top of the vehicle while nylon tire brushes clean the wheels. Another set of rocker panel wraps, a rinse arch, and a reverse osmosis rinse complete the liquid treatments before a Stripper dryer begins its work. Every vehicle gets towel drying, and most get separate window cleaning by the finishing crew at the end of the line.

Eagle Auto Wash has been well ahead of the current wave of “green” thinking, always recycling wash water so that only 30 gallons of fresh water is used for each vehicle. With the growing public awareness of water conservation and environmental matters, Eagle now makes more prominent mention of its strides in that realm, including using biodegradable soaps, detergents, and waxes. Eagle Auto Wash is located on a 400-foot-by-120-foot site, a narrow strip of land at the west end of Fairlawn Plaza, a combination strip and indoor shopping center in Topeka. The wash borders a heavily traveled east-west road, 21st Street. It is about a quarter mile from a bypass Interstate and a mile or less from the community’s major mall. Topeka is small enough, Enstrom notes, that access is quick and easy from any part of the community.

Central vacuum station at the tunnel entrance.

The masonry block structure, painted white with Dryvit surfacing on the front, is about 45 feet longer than the 120-foot conveyor. That includes a finishing area that can accommodate as many as six vehicles at a time so employees can finish cars completely inside when outside weather may be harsh. The same finishing area is used for detailing operations. Outside, the shape of the building and property allows for lengthy two-wide stacking of incoming vehicles.

Customer waiting areas include an array of bay windows allowing owners and their children to watch washing operations as if they were in the tunnel itself (but dry). Comfortable seating and current magazines are in a lobby where customers can also purchase greeting cards, impulse items, car-related goods, and beverages. Eagle also provides free wi-fi access for those who need to keep in touch electronically.

An exterior wash costs just $5.95 (choice of soft cloth or touch free cleaning), but the most popular choice among Eagle customers is the basic full-service wash, priced at $10.95. All washes include hand drying. Motorists choosing the $10.95 wash often ask for some add-on service, Enstrom notes.

SUVs and most trucks incur extra charges because of their size and the wear and tear they cause on wash equipment. Extremely dirty vehicles also may be charged more.

The second most popular choice of washes is the Three Star Special ($14.95), particularly during winter weather when drivers want to remove road salt from underneath their cars. The three-, four- and five-star specials all include that underbody wash, rust inhibitor, and varying degrees of sealants and waxes. Full-service wash packages range as high as $29.95 for the Eagle Supreme Special, which includes a Five Star Special package plus wheel and whitewall brightener and tire treatment.

Walkway with bay windows on the right.
Bay window close up.

While owner Enstrom isn’t involved with the day-to-day aspects of operating Eagle Auto Wash, he’s been continually involved in marketing and promotion to commercial accounts. The facility was designed to operate with an absentee owner.

“I was CEO of a small insurance company,” Enstrom explains, “and we’ve had good management at the wash over the 21-plus years we’ve been in business. My wife used to call this my weekend job, but I’ve always been more involved in the marketing than specific operations.” When he started the business, he had a vested interest in making it go so he was often either at the wash or out developing new business. Now retired from the insurance business, he spends more time promoting the wash.

That “good management” that Enstrom references includes Bret Bartley, current manager who has been with Eagle Auto Wash for five years. “Micah Slusser, assistant manager, has been with us six or seven years,” Enstrom notes. “He left for a time and then came back. Shelby Ruetzel is our next principal in the management chain and is also an assistant manager. Our chief detail person, Renato DeLaCruz, has been with us about 17 years.” Bartley and other managers have come up from the ranks of line employees.

Long-time employees abound at Eagle. “Our greeter, J. P. Smith, is the face of the company,” says Enstrom. “He’s been with us over 16 years, and knows most of our customers by name.” Other long-timers include one with more than 20 years service who handles towels and does general work at the wash. A veteran of the prepping area retired last year after 20 years with Eagle. One of the two semi-handicapped workers at Eagle has been there for eight to 10 years.

The total work force at Eagle, spread over shifts as necessary, numbers 30 to 40, depending on the season. About 25 are full-time employees, fill-ins coming from students working after school. All workers have company T-shirts, caps, and windbreaker jackets, with managers garbed differently from line employees. The Eagle color scheme of two red shades and an aqua color is evidenced on their outfits, shown in outside signage and building trim, and also seen on the company’s website.

Most new employees at Eagle are friends of people already working there, Bartley and Enstrom say. New hires are reviewed after 30 days, and again at three- and six-month periods during their first year, with appropriate raises. Annual reviews follow.

Training is performed by a handful of veteran employees who stress that “if they are hard working and get down on every car, they will make a decent amount in tips.

That’s where the majority of our employees will bring in most of their money,” Bartley notes.

Tips are given at each customer’s discretion to individual workers. As vehicles are finished, an employee explains to each customer what services have been performed and invites their inspection. Some customers prefer to have their vehicles finished by a particular worker. Eagle Auto Wash management doesn’t handle the tips in any way.

A well stocked corner of the retail area.
Finishing can be done indoors if needed.

New, ongoing and repeat business is encouraged with discounts to employees of major Topeka employers such as the big Good-year plant and to AAA members. Eagle also offers a bounce back coupon for customers who return within a certain time after a wash. Customers can save also by prepaying for a “Gift Pak” of six full-service washes or a “Super Gift Pak” of three Five Star washes and three full-service washes.

Enstrom has developed strong commercial business in a variety of ways. At the beginning he went calling on the Kansas Highway Patrol headquarters in Topeka, inviting officials to tour his wash and see that their vehicles, filled with sensitive equipment, would be safe at Eagle Auto Wash. A number of federal and state government agencies use the wash regularly.

Car dealerships, used car dealers, and auto service shops are other connections that Enstrom has courted. Eagle doesn’t do any mobile servicing to wash cars on their lots, but brings customers of those businesses in for free or discounted washing.

A program with car dealers gives new vehicle buyers a certificate good for unlimited free washes the first 30 days they own the vehicle. As a thank you for their service customers, a number of dealers also give them a discount coupon to come to Eagle.

Eagle Auto Wash times advertising and promotion to fit market conditions. “First of all we try to emphasize the seasons because our business is so weather driven,” Enstrom explains. “If we get a snowstorm or something of that nature, we do some couponing and promotion to get people to come in and clean off their cars.” He uses newspaper, TV, radio, billboard and direct response media to promote business, but varies the amount of advertising from year to year so as to not oversaturate the market.

Eagle supports community needs and organizations by giving away what Enstrom describes as “a ton of free washes,” which groups offer in silent auctions or other fundraising activity. Those giveaways directly help such groups and their programs, and also benefit Eagle by bringing in drivers who may not have experienced its services previously.

Quality washing and detailing service tailored to individual car owner needs; steady promotion; environmental awareness; community support; and tie-ins with government, industrial, and commercial entities in the Topeka area all contribute to Eagle Auto Wash’s success. Little wonder it has been voted, year after year, “Best Car Wash” in the Kansas capital city.

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

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