Profile in Success - July 2010

Lightening Overhead
By Timothy Denman

King Car Wash as seen from busy Cass Ave.
Cars are pretreated before entering the tunnel.

The war with rising utility costs is a stark reality for wash owners around the country. Frank Trilla can claim a victory.

Trilla owns and operates King Car Wash in Westmont, IL and recently overhauled his lighting system, lowering illumination energy consumption by 75 percent.

King previously employed 22 fixtures that consumed 450 watts of power each and cost a small fortune to maintain — $80 for replacement bulbs and $80 for ballasts. The new setup uses just 11 fixtures that draw 225 watts each. The new units cost about $9,000 and should pay for themselves in two and a half years through lower utility and upkeep bills.

“We are saving a ton of money on maintenance and utility costs,” Trilla said. “Believe it or not, the wash is actually much brighter than it used to be.”

The decision to update the building’s lighting was fueled by two major factors. First, the obvious economic benefit of reduced energy consumption. Secondly, the opportunity to continue King’s long-standing tradition of environmental stewardship.

King has been reclaiming its wash water for over 15 years, and currently uses a non-chemical wastewater treatment system that utilizes bacteria to recycle the water. The system recycles 85 percent of the wash’s water — fresh water is only used in the final rinse and in the mixing of chemicals. In addition to water recycling the wash captures rainwater from the roof runoff to help augment the fresh water supply.

King Car Wash opened its doors in 1953, 20 miles from its current location. The wash was just the second automatic car wash in the city of Chicago at the time. Back then the business was owned and operated by Frank’s father and uncle. Frank became a partner in the business in 1986 when the business moved to its current location, and became the sole owner before his father’s death in 1998.

Full-serve customers have come to expect a perfectly finished car.
Employees hustle to get customers on their way as quick as possible.

King Car Wash is located just off a corner on busy Cass Ave in Westmont, a suburb of Chicago. The wash sees over 40,000 cars pass by daily, 100,000 of which pull into King in an average year.

That number began to dip about seven years ago — the wash serviced about 80,000 vehicles that year. In response to the drop in throughput Trilla decided to alter his pricing structure. The wash features four full-serve offerings and an express exterior option.

At its low point, the express was only generating 3,000 washes a year. The exterior wash was priced at $7.95 and was obviously producing very little in terms of revenue for King. Trilla decided to drop the price to $4.95 in the hopes of bringing in new clientele. The plan worked.

The new pricing strategy helped boost throughput to as high as 112,000 cars a year at its peak. The best part of the bump in the numbers was that the full serve customers weren’t switching to exterior — the increase in cars was coming from newly acquired customers.

“By changing our pricing on the exterior we added a second market without changing the building or adding more help,” Trilla says. “It comes down to an extra 10 to 12 cars an hour. Everyone in the community can afford to come to our place.”

King employs a dual-pricing structure for its express exterior. In the spring and summer the service cost just $4.95. In the fall and winter, the price is increased to $5.95 to help offset the high costs of heat and increased labor needs during the cold seasons.

As a full-serve wash, labor is obviously a major expense. King has 15 full-time employees and 10 part-timers. Among the part-time staff are four members of the Illinois State Champion Montini Catholic football team, to which Trilla donates his time as an assistant coach.

For those customers looking for more than an express wash, King offers four full-serve options: the Full Service car wash, the King’s Choice, the Royal Treatment, and the Castle.

The Full Service cost $15 and features an exterior wash, window cleaning in and out, dashboard wipe down, and a full vacuum front and back. For $18 the King’s Choice improves on the Full Service with whitewall cleaning, rim cleaning, poly sealant, clear coat protectant, and a three-day rewash guarantee.

The Royal Treatment cost $20 and adds an air freshener, floor mat cleaning, rust inhibitor, undercarriage wash, triple foam polish, and a five-day rewash guarantee. The top-of-the-line Castle wash costs $25 and adds Rain-X surface protectant and King’s tire dressing.

“We are known as a full-serve wash and a high-quality location,” Trilla says. “People that are coming in aren’t necessarily here to save money. They want a very good wash.”

The most popular full-service option at King is the Royal Treatment. Thirty percent of customers opt for the $20 wash.

Customers can watch their cars travel through the glass-enclosed tunnel.
The lobby offers all of the impulse standards.

“Not everybody wants to spend $25 for the top package, Trilla says. “I think psychologically there are people who will buy the best regardless of whether it is $25 or $40. The other mindset is ‘I want a good quality product, but I am not going to buy the most expensive.’ The Royal is a great niche.”

In addition to its car wash business King has three additional profit centers: detailing, windshield chip repair, and ding repair.

King offers three detailing opt-ions: Custom Interior, Superior Exterior, and the New Image. The Interior features carpet, mat, door, and seat shampooing; leather and vinyl treatment, dashboard cleaning, and a Royal Treatment car wash. The service costs $84.95.

Also costing $84.95 is the exterior service, which includes paint restoration and polish; chrome and trim revitalization; doors, hood, and trunk jambs cleaning; wheel detail; and a Royal Treatment wash. The exterior and interior services can be combined for $149 (The New Image), a $31 savings.

“Detailing is not something I have ever focused on,” Trilla says. “We do two or three full details a day. What has really been a nice piece of growth business over the last four or five years has been the express detailing. We do anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day in express services.”

The express menu consists of three options all costing $45: the interior Super Clean, the Carpet Express, and the Express Polish.

King’s ding repair business has dropped off as the economy has slowed — customers are more willing to deal with minor body blemishes when money is tight. Windshield repair however has continued to provide a steady stream of business — the wash performs two to three such services a week.

“It is nice to be able to offer our customers these additional services,” Trilla says. “We try to do as much as we can for them.”

Marketing is kept simple. Trilla owns a local restaurant and does some cross promotions between the two businesses. In addition, King markets to new members of the community offering those that have just moved into the area a free top-of-the-line wash as a way to lure in new customers.

“We have honored competitor coupons for 20 years,” Trilla says. “It has been great for us. When times are tough and you don’t have the money for advertising people are still bringing in competitor’s coupons. We are not paying the freight, but we are reaping the rewards.”

King Car Wash has found creative ways to lower operating costs throughout the years — demonstrated most recently by its installation of energy saving lighting. Trilla has shown that when times get tough a business owner has to search for inventive ways to lighten the load.

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