Profile in Success - March 2003

Three Cees -
Upscale Wash in Upscale Market

By Jim and Elaine Norland

Three Cees' impressive facility fits right in with the upscale neighborhood that is its home.

Hurried commuters need their cars cleaned well, but speedily, so the exterior-only option serves their needs at Three Cees Lube - Car Wash - Detail in Herndon, VA. But a surprising number of drivers go for more, including "Interior Therapy" and a host of express detail offerings.

The three-year-old car care center has met its overall revenue expectations, but the character of sales has surprised its owners, says Chip Ashton, operating partner. While exterior washes are priced from $7.95 to $12, the average per-car revenue through the wash and detail operation is $20 to $25, he says.

According to Ashton, most car washes with service options similar to Three Cees' are doing 75 percent exterior washes. "People here seem to be much more service oriented, and we're doing 50 percent to 55 percent exterior only. That helps our ticket, but our focus as we go forward is to increase our exterior car washes," says Ashton.

Two-stage touch-free drying completes the exterior process.

Located on busy Leesburg Pike (where the daily traffic count is 80,000), Three Cees is surrounded by an upscale neighborhood where the average household income is $100,000 and the predominantly single-family homes within a couple of miles are valued at $700,000 and up.

Three Cees built a car care facility that is equally upscale in appearance and operation. Its Belanger-equipped 115-foot tunnel combines soft-cloth and high-pressure washing, and follows that up with spot-free rinsing and two-stage touch-free drying.

Drivers stay in their cars for the exterior wash (and for lube service at the independently-managed Oilstop lube facility), but those getting either interior cleaning or detail services can relax in a comfortable atrium-style lobby with leather seating, free phone and computer connections, an aquarium, and complimentary Starbucks coffee.

The lobby is remarkably free of merchandise. There are snack and soda vending machines and a wall of greeting cards, but there are no displays of car accessories and gadgets that typify many wash-and-detail lobbies. The lobby windows offer a view of the three-bay detail center, and educational messages about car care services are interspersed with background classical music.

The outside appearance of the wash is equally sophisticated, not only in keeping with the restrained marketing approach which pervades Three Cees operations, but also because of local regulations which restrict signage, flying banners, and other hoopla.

The top center of the building bears the company logo, which resembles a luxury car marque. The acre on which Three Cees is sited is professionally landscaped, just like commercial areas of Reston, a planned community in which it is located.

Ashton envisioned a car care center in a business plan he developed while getting his Master's degree at George Washington University, but he hadn't had any practical experience in running a car wash or combined wash/lube/detail.

The lobby offers comfortable seating, telephone and computer connections.

He gained some appreciation of service operations in working with Mobil Oil service station and convenience store operations. He also spent several months traveling to some 80 car wash or combination facilities in California, Texas, Arizona and other states. Then he and his partners (all three of their names begin with "C," hence the name of their operation) consulted first with Harvey Miller. When their ideas went toward flex-serve, they hired Steve Okun, creator of that service platform.

"We went through a lot of sites, got many ideas from different operations, and with the guidance of those consultants we came up with the design for this operation," Ashton recalls.

While their design choice was new to their market area, he and his partners felt it was right for them.

"The ability to reduce overhead and labor was a big factor for us, because we knew labor in any service business is always the biggest concern." Operators he visited around the country were "pretty open" with their figures, "since we weren't going to be competitors."

Introducing their method of operation to this suburban Washington area was carefully structured to make the experience both positive and educational so drivers could understand the benefits, Ashton explained.
"This gives them the ability to choose. It's a matter of choosing the timeframe they want to spend here. Our area is a very high-end, upper-income area, with a lot of professionals, and time is of huge importance to them. Our concept enables them to choose how much time they want to spend and the services they want to order."

Before operations begin in the interior cleaning and detail areas, Three Cees caters to the needs of rushed commuters by opening the exterior wash line an hour earlier weekday mornings. It also remains open an hour later on weekday afternoons.

If customers prefer, they can watch the work in progress.

Ironically, one of Three Cees greatest assets, that high traffic count on Leesburg Pike, also may limit its customers. "It's very high-speed traffic," Ashton notes, but that is helped somewhat by a stoplight at the intersection where the wash, lube and detail center is located.

However, aside from an adjoining large gas station and convenience store, no other retail businesses are nearby. With no supermarkets, restaurants, or dry cleaners adjacent, Three Cees customers almost have to make the wash a destination rather than a convenience to other shopping, Ashton adds.

He's counteracting such "inconvenience" with smart marketing to target-specific audiences, such as the workers at high-tech companies in Reston. Three Cees recently launched its web site ( and will promote that to make these "neighbors" aware of its offerings in a venue familiar to them.

The wash, lube, and detail center has used a variety of media to let area residents know of its location and services. In addition to direct mail pieces and cable TV, movie-screen ads have spread the word over the past two and one-half years, Ashton says.

However, "snow is the best advertising we could ever have," he adds. "In the past month we've had three snows. And it was snowing earlier today, but now the sun is shining and the roads are dry, and we're very, very busy." Such weather vagaries are hard to cope with when one staffs up for a normal, snow-free day, he says, "but we're doing the best we can."

Managing a weather-dependent business is one of his biggest challenges. He normally has 30 to 35 people working in the wash and detail center on weekend days, and about half that many on weekdays. Weather, however, can quickly change car-cleaning demand.

Three Cees works hard to encourage repeat business. "When people get one of our services, we give them a coupon good for $2 off any service within the next 10 days.

"We use a DRB computer system, which aids in our prepaid cash card program," Ashton says. The amount of savings depends on the amount of purchase, ranging from a $45 card which entitles the holder to $50 in services, to the $160 purchase which gives a customer $200 in services.

The VIP card can be used on any car, whether driven by the purchaser, family members or friends. The program has been so successful that 17 percent of overall volume in the wash and detail operations is covered by those VIP cards, Ashton says. Customers can and do combine that $2 discount coupon with their VIP card entitlement, giving many a sizable savings on their visit.

Team Oilstop at your service!

Another benefit of the VIP card program and DRB customer tracking is that Three Cees can see just where customers are coming from, identified by ZIP code, so marketing efforts can be better targeted.
Three Cees supports community causes generously, focusing most of its effort with Reston Interfaith. A "Lube-A-Thon" promotion in the oil change center last year raised money for that group (half the sales dollars went to the charity), and programs to benefit Reston Interfaith are in the works this year for both the car wash and oil change units. In addition, Three Cees donates services to local schools, PTA and other organizations for their silent auctions and similar benefits.

An essential part of Three Cees' upscale operation is its personnel. Ashton and his managers make sure they look sharp in their full uniforms and are well trained in customer courtesy and communication. Uniforms are co-rented by the company and employees so that workers have a stake in their upkeep. (Oilstop employees are uniformed in company-laundered garb because of the grease they're exposed to.)

"The single biggest attribute we seek in hiring is their communication skills," Ashton says. Most service workers in the entire area are non-English speaking, he notes. "Our biggest challenge isn't finding people; it's finding people who speak English." Most are Latino, and Ashton has even offered ESL (English as a second language) classes as part of a proactive effort to increase employee communications skills.
He's aided in fostering good communications and other work skills by manager Dan Bradley and assistant managers José Gonzalez and Hugo Galiz. "José managed another car wash before coming here, and all of them have a tremendous amount of experience in the industry," says Ashton.

Three Cees' employees are paid better than most, and also benefit from incentives to educate customers about other service needs for their cars. "Those in the front end, in the after-care area, have an excellent place to look at the car. We pay them sales bonuses if they're able to get that car into the detail bay."
Greeters are paid a commission, and cashiers earn a sales bonus on any detailing services they sell.
All full-time workers participate in quarterly profit-sharing bonuses as well. If an employee has been with the company the entire preceding 90 days, he gets a share. Tipping isn't emphasized at Three Cees, but Ashton believes the higher hourly pay and the opportunity for profit sharing and sales incentives makes up for that.

Employees apparently like the approach. Fifteen have been with the company at least a year and a half, and three have been with him "from day one," Ashton says.

With that kind of employee loyalty and a growing cadre of customers who appreciate a flexible approach to their car care needs, Three Cees seems certain to prosper for many years.

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

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