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Sparkles in Looks and Performance
So polished and professional that first customers thought it was a national rollout instead of a local startup, Suds Car Wash set the tone for a combination of curb appeal, bubbly fun and top car-cleaning results when it began over four years ago in Fayetteville, AR.
With successful operation and growth to five present units, Suds is now rolling out to adjoining states and will nearly quadruple its size within the next year.
Customer-welcoming aesthetics and car-cleaning technology are blending nicely in Suds. A powerful executive team - including a long-time petroleum marketer, the former president of Alltel, and a 30-year veteran of the construction industry - is steering both current operations and expansion of the self-service wash chain.
The concept of Suds seems simple. Each site, usually located on less than an acre of ground surrounded by busy retailers, offers two automatic and three manual or wand wash bays. Three to four vacuum islands (each offering combinations such as fragrance/vac or shampoo/vac) and a vending island with auto-related merchandise complement the wash bays. The well-lit washes are unattended and stay open 24/7.
The five current Suds locations are in Fayetteville (two), Springdale, Russellville and North Little Rock, AR. Now underway are additional locations in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Fort Smith, AR. Sites in Oklahoma City and Edmond, OK, another in Branson, MO and three in the Dallas/Fort Worth, TX area will soon be part of the company.
Suds was launched in 2001 by Stanley Rogers, who had been in wholesale and marketing of gasoline and diesel products for 10 years. He had grown tired of that business and, "with a lot of prayers and help from my wife, Beth," decided to diversify his assets and build a car wash.
"Beth was quiet at first, but then said it was a good idea, but only if we did it differently than anyone else. She took some crayons from our daughter Milly's box and began to sketch what is now Suds Car Wash," Rogers recalls. The name was federally trademarked before the first wash was built.
"She said she could bring people to the wash, but I would have to keep them coming back by delivering quality washing services. Her point was that car washing is a retail business, and that's how we approach it every day."
The initial team developing Suds included Stanley and Beth Rogers, her father, Conway Massey, and Stanley's father, Bobby Rogers. "Dad had spent 30 years in construction, and Conway had been in the petroleum business for many years. People thought I was a nut case to build a car wash that was 'that nice,' but I asked my dad and Conway if they wanted to be involved. I don't know if it was out of pity or excitement, but they decided to be a part of it."
Stanley Rogers is CEO and chairman of the board of Suds USA LLC, and his father, Bobby, is senior vice president of operations. David Atkins, president and chief operating officer of Suds, was president of Alltel Communications before retiring from that post. A long-time friend of Stanley Rogers, Atkins found himself at a Suds wash a few months into retirement, and called Rogers to say, "This place is awesome!" Soon thereafter, he came on board and helped Rogers refine his game plan for company growth. (Rogers says Alltel's volume when Atkins joined that firm was not much more than Suds' volume was when Atkins came to Suds.) Another Alltel veteran who worked with Atkins, Larry Templeton, is now chief financial officer at Suds. When he was working with Atkins at Alltel, Larry helped double the operating margin in Alltel's major market. With Suds' rapid growth pace, "he's a critical part of our team," Rogers observes.
The newest Suds executive is Jeff Terry, vice president of operations. In just a few months with the company, he is helping managers when they need assistance, handling operational issues and working with vendors to lessen Stanley Rogers' load in those areas.
None of the executive team has previous experience in the car wash business. "That wasn't necessarily intentional," Rogers asserts. "They are just good people who are highly motivated in a relentless pursuit of excellence."
While his wife, Beth, is "unofficially involved" in Suds management, Rogers gives her credit for the way Suds looks. Each location is abundantly covered in tile, inside and out, except for some fascia material. Blue dominates the color scheme, with yellows and pinks abundant in accent colors. Appropriate to the Suds name, bubbles abound in the décor.
"She has a degree and background in marketing, and that's what she did before she became a stay-at-home mom with our daughter," Rogers notes. "She worked with a team of architects and marketing people to create and refine the way we look."
As part of its marketing presence, Suds offers T-shirts (both adult and child sizes), hooded sweatshirts, baseball T-shirts and caps with the company colors and logo at its well-designed online store (www.sudswash.com/store).
Suds Bubble Bucks Cash Cards, offering at least a 10-percent discount on future car washing needs, are also available online. The cards are specific for just one Suds location of the customer's choice, but can be used for any service from the Suds-O-Matic automatic wash to vacuuming.
Those cards can serve as small gifts or stocking stuffers, and can be recharged online by the owner. Purchasers get an access code within 24 hours of their purchase, with the physical card delivered by mail a few days later.
"Suds begins its separation from the competition at the curb," Rogers asserts. "We have a fun, attractive family feel that makes you want to try us out. From there, the real fun begins for everyone." The bubbles, the tri foam and the scented chemicals all add to the experience, he says.
"Never before has the car wash been a destination the kids want to visit, and now errands can be fun for the whole family with a stop at a Suds wash, and in addition, your car will look like it just left the showroom."
Kids like the sensation of being in the car while car cleaning chemicals including the tri foam (in blue, yellow and pink - like those exterior and accent colors of the building) cascade over the vehicle, he says. He avoided providing specific play areas, however, because of safety concerns, and he doesn't want to lengthen the time a driver has to spend at the wash.
While each wash is unattended, customer assistance is always close at hand. Free phones to ask for help are at each location, and drivers get a response within a few minutes to talk them through the problem.
Rogers was very aware of labor problems at gas stations when he was in the petroleum wholesale market game, and in designing Suds, he wanted to avoid such issues and costs. In fact, the total employee count at Suds numbers just 10 at the present time.
Bays at Suds Car Washes are generously sized, and owners of larger vehicles are assured that if they can enter the automatic bays, the equipment is sized properly for their car, truck or SUV.
Most popular wash at Suds Car Wash is the "Super Suds," a package that includes presoak treatments, tri foam, wax and drying, Suds uses a four-tier pricing system, but over 85 percent of customers choose the Super Suds, which goes for $7 in most of the company's markets.
The self-serve bays are also extra wide, Rogers says, so that car doors can be opened on either side and drivers can apply the wash treatments without worrying about overspray being too close.
Rogers and his team choose equipment and chemicals that are best suited for their customers' needs. Some of the chemicals are proprietary mixes that can't be found elsewhere, he says, and cover water or cleaning issues unique to each Suds market.
While Suds' automatic washes are presently all touch-free, he's considering a move toward an option system in which customers can select friction, touch-free or a combination of those two cleaning methods. He's noticed growing use of friction washing in east- and west-coast markets, and believes that will come to his part of the country in a few months.
Rogers gives strong credit for equipping and servicing his equipment to Hooten Equipment Co., Springdale. "The company has a wonderful staff, but Dale Wandrie and Lyndell Thomas are the two who make Hooten. We couldn't ask for a better company."
Customers for either automatic or self-serve washing can pay by cash - a bill acceptor handles paper money - or credit card swipes that provide an access code good for a reasonable length of time at that wash. In addition to its prepaid cards, Suds also offers fleet management for commercial vehicle owners.
Each Suds wash is located in busy retail areas, close to neighbors such as major grocery, drug, and fast-food stores. "We need to be in a retail destination area to get the people who are out doing their retail shopping," Rogers explains.
Suds strongly supports community interests and local charities, and plans to increase its involvement as the company grows, Rogers says. "Our most recent major charitable activity was the Suds Big Lunker Classic, a fishing competition which benefited the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Family Home" for relatives of child patients and those receiving outpatient cancer treatment.
With a well-conceived marketing approach and sales at each of its present sites exceeding projections and industry averages, Suds' expansion is only logical.
"We are currently in the process of building 13 facilities in seven new markets," Rogers says. Two of those are franchise units and 11 are corporate-owned. Suds Car Wash seems to have found a formula to attract drivers wherever its signature look appears.
Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.
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