Profile in Success - July 2009

From Brownfield to Greenhill
By Timothy Denman

Greenhill Car Wash features an express tunnel, two self-serve bays, and a detail center.

After years of neglect, a decades-old site got new owners and a ground up makeover and is well on its way to recapturing its long-lost market share.

When rookie operators John Richmond and David Shepherd bought the dilapidated gas station/ full-serve wash in Wilmington, DE in October 2007 they knew they would have their hands full rebuilding the site into an ultra-modern express wash.

The site was not only in disarray from a business perspective, it was also an ecological disaster in need of a rescue. A state mandated Phase 1 environmental study was conducted because of the gas tanks on the premises and high levels of arsenic in the soil were found. The arsenic dates back to the site’s use as a tannery over a century ago — before construction on the new wash could begin the contaminated soil had to be removed.

The 25,000 square foot lot was declared a brownfield site and over 40 tons of material was removed — some sections of the excavation were over 10 feet deep.

“We had a lot of work to do before we could even start building,” Richmond says. “We were lucky though. There was money available from the Department of Natural Resources for the remediation of the property.”

Once the ecological problems were rectified the partners and general contractor Brian Tait of Tait Builders were free to begin construction of what would become Greenhill Car Wash.

The readerboard promotes the specials.

Ninety percent of the old building was torn down — only the old tunnel walls and its concrete roof we preserved. Where once stood a worn-down full-serve would soon be home to a 3,500 square foot express tunnel, two self-serve bays, and an express detail center.

The new wash site is host to a slew of firsts for the Wilmington market: first express tunnel, first express detail service center, and first wash to feature solar panels.

The wash is in a prime location — its closest competitor is a ten-minute drive away and the new location has already begun capturing customers from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Wilmington is a diverse city and Greenhill Car Wash is smack in the middle, located on Greenhill Avenue, a crossroad between two main roads that go to downtown Wilmington. The wash is surrounded on one side by million dollar homes, and a thriving commercial center and apartment buildings on the other.

Traffic is steady on Greenhill Avenue, and over 10,000 cars pass by the wash each day. Although only open a few months the wash is already enticing between 100 and 300 cars a day to turn into the drive.

“This is a very diverse neighborhood,” Richmond says. “We get each economic level going through our tunnel. People are willing to spend money on their cars in this area, and we try to have a choice for everybody.”

Customers can pay with cash, credit, or gift card.
A car makes its way through the Belanger-equipped tunnel.

Those choices include four express exterior options. The entry-level $8 Quick Clean wash features an Enviro-Soft Wash, spot-free rinse, and a power dry. The $11 Blaster wash improves on the Quick Clean with wheel cleaning and underbody wash. The $14 Protector adds Rain-X and rust inhibitor. The top-of-the-line $18 Best wash features all of the add-ons of the lower levels plus triple foam and tire shine. Rain-X, tire shine, triple foam, wheel cleaning, and rust inhibitor are available upgrades at any wash level.

Customers looking for the next level of clean can purchase express detailing services performed in two separate bays. The interior package costs $12 without a wash, $10 with, and features vacuuming, dash and console protectant, window and mirror cleaning, and door panel and door jam wipe downs. The Exterior package costs $25 and features Black Magic tire shine, exterior trim shine, spray wax, and a tire inflation inspection. Both interior and exterior packages can be purchased together for the discounted price of $34.

En lieu of the express tunnel, customers can choose to wash their cars themselves in one of the two self-serve bays, with $5 getting things started. Pay vacuums are available for both express and self-serve customers.

Tait Builders supplied and installed the tunnel’s Belanger Equipment, Carolina Pride in the self-serve bays, and Pur Clean and Pur Water’s reclaim and spot-free rinse systems.

In addition to producing a clean, dry, and shiny car every time, Greenhill’s owners are dedicated to running their business as environmentally consciously as possible. The wash uses recycled water in all phases of car cleaning except the rinse cycles, features solar panels on the roof to help offset high energy costs, and utilizes full electric drive in the tunnel with VFDs to help curtail energy consumption.

Cars are guided onto the conveyor by an ever-present attendant.

The 50-plus solar panels are producing 20 percent to 25 percent of the wash’s electrical needs and are expected to generate between 28,000 and 30,000 kilowatts of power annually. To help offset the high cost of solar panel installation the partners once again received aid from the state. Delaware offers a 50 percent rebate on commercial solar panel investment.

“We decided early on that we wanted to be as environmentally friendly as we could,” Richmond says. “We are both environmentally conscious in our personal lives. From a business perspective it might be a requirement in the future, so why not go ahead and do it now?”

In addition to the environmental benefits of being green, Greenhill uses its ecological consciousness as a marketing tool. The wash features its water recycling and solar panels in its marketing efforts on menu boards, advertisements, and on its website (www.greenhillcarwash.com).

Greenhill’s marketing efforts include direct mail postcards, Valpak coupon packets, and newspaper advertising. “Our whole advertising and promotional objective is to let people know that we are here,” Richmond says. “We are going to start using radio in the next month. We are trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

One thing Richmond knows definitely works is word of mouth. “Up to 50 percent of new business can come from word of mouth,” he says. “We want to make sure that everyone’s experience is positive and that they tell their friends about us.”

Over fifty solar panels on the tunnel's roof help power Greenhill.
The concrete slabs are equipped with ice-melting power.

Although new to the car wash business, the partners knew early on what kind of facility they wanted to own. “We looked at the full-serve model and the number one issue is labor problems,” Richmond says. “That was the last thing we wanted to deal with. We wanted to use technology to its fullest and eliminate as much labor as possible.”

Labor is kept to a minimum at Greenhill with only three to four employees on site at any one time. There is always a manager on duty, an attendant to help guide customers onto the conveyor, and one or two employees in the detail center depending on the day.

Greenhill is unique in the Wilmington area, it is the market’s only express wash and express detail center, and is the only wash that recycles all its water and features solar panels.

“Some people come because of the green stuff,” Richmond says. “But most people come for a quality wash.”

As long as Greenhill stays committed to providing its customers with the clean cars they desire it will surely continue to recapture what the previous owners lost: a loyal customer base.

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