Profile in Success - January 2002

Renovation Revives Oregon Wash
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Much has changed in the car wash industry in the past three decades, but some locations seem stuck in the past. Many, however, have great potential for a rebirth.

The new owner of a Pendleton, OR wash originally built in the early 1970s renewed that location with up-to-date equipment, services, and convenience for northeastern Oregon drivers. He's also given it landmark status with a prominent clock tower and a name, Time to Wash, that suggests up-to-the-minute technology as well as 24-hour accessibility.

Don Russell, who spent much of his business life operating or helping run gas station/convenience store combinations in the region, bought the wash at 820 Southgate Avenue in Pendleton in October of 2000. Its owner wanted to retire, and he worked out a price with Don for an aging wash with four self-service bays and a 54-foot tunnel for full-service washes. The location, however, was good, surrounded by nearby fast food franchises, with a daily traffic count of 20,000 vehicles.

Russell, who was a CPA before joining his father's business, recognized that Pendleton, a city of 15,000 perhaps best known for its annual Pendleton Roundup each September, needed updated wash equipment, but that a full-service option was probably not economically feasible. Under the old ownership, four employees were required to run the tunnel wash, and it was open for limited hours. Whatever revenue it realized was pretty well taken up by labor costs.

He gutted the wash from below ground level to the roof. The renovation included covering up the old conveyor track in the tunnel and constructing an entirely new gabled roof, topped with a cupola and an eight-foot clock that can be easily seen by passing motorists.

The entrance to the automatic bay.

A pylon-mounted sign and the building itself bear the green and yellow colors of Pendleton's only high school, giving the wash more community identity. Bright Scottsdale lights, triggered by a photocell to come on when needed, make Time to Wash easily seen and safely visited at any hour. "We're the brightest candy wrapper on the shelf," says Russell.

Between ground level and roof, Time to Wash incorporated the latest in wash technology both in its self-service bays and in the tunnel. Russell converted the latter to a rollover, equipping it with the newest touchless wash equipment from PDQ, the LaserWash(r) G5(tm). The tunnel provided not only enough room for the LaserWash, but also space for a stand-alone dryer, so that one car can be washing while another one is being dried.

The automatic washes start with a base price of $4, advancing at $1 increments through a $6 package that includes undercarriage wash, wax and spot-free rinse plus drying, and a $7 package that includes all that plus triple-foam polish. Rollover washes represent about 60 percent of Time to Wash business.

On the self-service side of the 20,000-square-foot wash location, Russell chose Jim Coleman equipment to give motorists a much wider range of choices than they had before and also enable them to budget their total cleaning time.

"With the old self-serve equipment you had high-pressure soap, high-pressure rinse, and a brush as
choices, that's all. Now we offer tire cleaner, low pressure presoak, high pressure wash and rinse, reverse osmosis spot-free rinse, and triple-foam finish conditioner," Russell explains.

"In the old wash, you had no warning of when your time was going to run out. Now we have an electronic countdown timer so that after you've deposited your $1.50 for the first four minutes of operation, you get a warning beep when you're down to your last minute and you can add as much more time as you need, a quarter at a time."

The new options, though, mean customers are much more likely to stay a little longer. Russell has been surprised at the enthusiastic reception by customers. The triple-foam conditioner attracted one woman with kids about 8 and 10 years old who so enjoyed its colorful display that she spent $10 letting them "paint" the car with the foam. "She said, 'I know this is good for my car, but really it's good entertainment as well,'" Russell reported.

In addition to basic washing equipment, Russell added important options that increase the safety and convenience of Time to Wash, and in some cases protect his equipment as well. An example of the latter is the infrared heater tube incorporated in the automatic wash area, minimizing the impact of severe cold weather on equipment there.

Credit card acceptance, now accounting for 14 percent of volume, is a customer-friendly feature that may grow further in importance. Cards can be used in both the self-serve and the automatic bays as well as the eight-column Jim Coleman Autovendor, thanks to readers and acceptors Russell has provided.
The Hamilton entry system on the LaserWash accepts credit cards as well as ExpressKEY, the latter a convenience for fleet owners and other business users of the wash. Russell has recently begun marketing the ExpressKEY program, which he learned about at the first International Carwash Association convention he attended a little over a year ago.

(Time to Wash's fleet customers already include county, city and state patrol cars as well as U.S. Forest Service vehicles. The wash is just across the street from offices of the Umatilla National Forest unit. United States Postal Service delivery vehicles also use the LaserWash.)

While he's surrounded by fast food restaurants - he shares an access driveway with Wendy's, and is located between a McDonald's and Burger King -- Russell also provided a Pepsi vending machine as a service to customers. The machine is provided by the area Pepsi franchisee on a revenue-sharing basis, and Russell estimates he probably gets enough from its sales to cover its electricity cost.

To further protect the automatic wash from severe weather, Russell also bought Airlift polycarbonate doors which can be linked to the entry system to open and close as needed.

All the new equipment in Time to Wash was purchased through Northwest Pump & Equipment Co. Gerry Kern, sales manager, worked closely with Russell. Kern was impressed by Russell's close attention to detail and quality. "Don definitely stepped up and did it right," he said in a telephone interview.

"When Don was first talking about this, he was going to build a brand new site, but then he and the owner of the old wash got together and settled on a price, " Kern recalled. Russell told ALN he was glad to work out that deal rather than build more self-serve bays and possibly overload the Pendleton market with such facilities. He knew the community demographics didn't warrant additional bays.

While he kept some vacuums from the old setup, Russell relocated them and provided them with a facelift to make them more attractive. Four J.E. Adams vacuum-only units have now been joined by two combination units, both from Jim Coleman Co., a combination vacuum/shampooer and a combination vacuum/freshener.

"In the old wash, they had been right in front of the wash bays," Russell says, "but we moved them all to a more prominent front location closer to the street. We put colorful green and yellow awnings on top of everything, including the vacuums and trash receptacles. Now when people drive by, that's the first thing they see. Our thought was that people taking time to wash and clean their cars want their neighbors and friends to see they're taking care of their vehicles."

Easy-care landscaping keeps operating costs low while maintaining an attractive site for Time to Wash. On the street side of the lot near the vacuum island, four different areas accommodate plantings, all served by an automatic sprinkler system. Even the lighted signature clock that ties in with Time to Wash's theme employs the latest technology. It's tied in with the Global Positioning Satellite so it can resume telling the exact time automatically after a power outage. It also resets itself properly during the twice-yearly switchovers between daylight and standard time.

Russell recently installed a digital video surveillance system, "trying to enhance the locks and other security safeguards we already have." He made that move after some locks were drilled on two different occasions in October, once while he and Dale Baker, a longtime friend who attends Time to Wash, were at the Western Carwash Association meeting.

Signage for the renovated wash includes a 10-by-10-foot main sign with a small reader board underneath it. The sign is mostly green with a yellow outline of a car and the name of the wash.

Russell wanted to make sure all of his new equipment was working properly before any big promotional push, so he chose a soft opening last March and then launched a radio advertising program about six weeks later. "By that time, however, we had enough word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers that we didn't need to do a lot of advertising." He maintains an ongoing radio ad
program that comprises the bulk of his mass media activity.

Russell has already demonstrated his community support and involvement by providing free washes for all the sponsors of the annual Pendleton Roundup, the Roundup Court, and the shuttle vans that provide transportation to and from Roundup events.

The Roundup creates lots of business for Time to Wash. Pendleton's population balloons from its normal 15,000 to about 100,000 during the September event.

July, August and September business has exceeded Russell's expectations by a little bit, and he believes those months plus June will probably be his best on a year-to-year basis, even though he doesn't yet have an entire year's operation to review.

The renovation and improvements seem to be paying off well for Time to Wash. "We have records from the old wash, and it looks like our revenue is about the same or slightly higher, and we have really slashed labor costs. It takes a little of my time, and Dale is here just 30 hours a week."
Every tick - or hum - of its big clock seems to portend more recognition and more use of Time to Wash and its many features.

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

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