Profile in Success - May 2008

Different Paths to Success
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Brief and to-the-point signage. Note the web address presence.
Customers at the Cranberry location get a final touch up.
Inside the Cranberry location tunnel.
The Wexford location.

Growing and staying competitive in the car wash industry challenges operators everywhere. Jerry Feldman has been in the game for 20-plus years. Now joined by son Mark, vice president of operations, Feldman is growing three wash operations in north suburban Pittsburgh with innovative thinking.

The success of two full-serve Jerry’s Car Wash sites and recently acquired Northway Car Wash, an exterior tunnel operation, shows there’s more than one way to wash a car, more than one path to saving water, and options beyond traditional mass media to advertise and promote business.

Jerry Feldman opened his first car wash in Wexford in 1987 and built his second Jerry’s location in Cranberry in 2000. Both sites were built from the ground up and branded with the Jerry’s name. The third wash, Northway, first established about 50 years ago, was purchased in late 2006 from a member of the founding family who was on site only part time.

Although Feldman gutted, re-placed, and improved the equipment of Northway’s exterior tunnel, he has maintained the services offered by the original owner; customers stay in their cars and all services are performed on-line except for Armor All tire treatment. He made substantial cosmetic and operational changes including improved signage, outfitting all employees in uniforms, and establishing fundamental employee rules in areas such as personal grooming and customer service.

Feldman also installed a DRB wash monitoring system at Northway, linked to the DRB installations at the two Jerry’s Car Wash sites. He was among the earlier users of DRB systems, starting in 1987. “I’m extraordinarily happy with them,” he notes.

In the eight-year period since opening his first wash, Feldman acquired and sold other car washes. In 1999, he bought one of the first car washes in the city of Pittsburgh, a 50-year-old operation on McKnight Road, and completely rehabbed it. He sold that location in 2007, not as a car wash but as the site for a used-car showroom for a dealership next door. “The real estate became more valuable than the going business,” he explained, “so we took the equipment with us.”

Jerry Feldman is an accounting graduate, has a strong real estate background, and holds an MBA in federal taxation. His main business both in the 1980s and presently is being a financial advisor to some 10 families in the United States.

Mark Feldman oversees operation of all three washes on a day-to-day basis. He has a bachelor’s degree in sports administration and is a former professional golfer. Jerry and Mark Feldman are co-owners of the three locations.

In addition to the Feldmans, a 14-year employee, Don Simon, serves as general manager of all three locations. Simon also directly manages the Wexford site. “We grow our management from within, getting our assistant managers and managers from the ranks of line employees 75 percent of the time,” Jerry reports.

Jerry’s Car Washes and Northway Car Wash offer only wash services and aren’t involved in detailing, lube, or gas-pumping operations. Most of the wash volume is retail, although Feldman does have a few commercial accounts. “We do some work for car rental agencies, and also some for one car dealer.”

Jerry’s offers discounts for businesses that may have just a few cars. “We’ll offer various discount programs for them, but we don’t have any big commercial fleets.

“We serve the vast majority of local police agencies in our markets,” he notes, and because of the structure of governments in Pennsylvania, “there are huge numbers of small municipalities. We probably do about eight local departments, four state law-enforcement departments, and three federal law-enforcement agencies, comprised of both marked and unmarked vehicles.”

The Wexford service menu also carries the web address.
The tunnel exit at the Northway location.

Most car dealerships in his area have their own car washes, but Feldman feels that sometimes is a detriment for consumers who get a complimentary wash with any dealership service. In many cases, the car isn’t ready for pickup at the usual closing time because it hasn’t been washed yet. The waiting time to complete the wash is usually longer than predicted. Feldman feels that the dealership washes are often poorly staffed, managed, and maintained.

Customers of the dealership with whom Feldman has worked out an arrangement get a free car wash coupon good at any of the three washes he and his son operate. “They like that because they can get their car washed on their own time, whenever they choose.”

Advertising and promotion of Jerry’s Car Washes and Northway Car Wash relies almost entirely on Internet presence. “Our biggest medium is the website,” Feldman emphasizes. The company has used its websites for over eight years to list menu offerings, promote gift cards and certificates, wash hours, and specials. Jerry’s doesn’t advertise in newspapers, but buys some spot radio “bookend” packages to accompany weather or traffic updates.

The web presence is promoted heavily at each of the washes. “Our uniforms list the website, our windows show the website, and our cashiers highlight our website on each customer’s receipt,” Feldman reports. “Our gift cards and certificates (many sold as a result of the web presence) also have our website listed prominently.”

Mark Feldman was the advocate for the Internet as a promotional medium. “I thought he was nuts, but I gave in and it was one of the best promotional decisions we’ve ever made,” Jerry says.

Jerry’s used to employ direct mail as another means of promotion and still uses some direct mail pieces at the Northway location. It has provided additional exposure during the initial period of new operation and ownership.

Saving Water

Jerry Feldman not only conserves water in the three car washes he and son Mark operate but also takes an active role in state boards concerned with water conservation.

“I was asked by the Governor to sit on the statewide water resources committee for Pennsylvania, established by an act of the state legislature. It’s charged with developing and presenting a master water plan for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Feldman represents water users in the state. Other members of the committee include political figures, academics, and scientists such as hydrologists.

Feldman also sits on the Ohio Basin subcommittee of that group. Each of several such subcommittees is presenting sub-basin master water plans. He’s also on a state water conservation committee, charged with establishing a central clearinghouse for water conservation concepts, ideas, and programs. Any business or group can freely use that committee’s resources.

The websites show some early and late-day specials that offer discounts that fit in with the opening or closing hours. All three washes are open seven days a week, with somewhat shorter hours on Saturdays and Sundays, but the schedule stays the same no matter what the season.

The web pages describe the quality treatment each vehicle gets at the washes, while holding water consumption to volumes far below those of the average car wash.

As Feldman explained in a letter in the March issue of Auto Laundry News, his washes hold water use to about 20 gallons per vehicle, far below the average of most washes. (The typical car wash without any conservation efforts would use between 50 and 60 gallons per wash, he notes.)

Feldman tried reclaim/recycling systems, but they didn’t perform satisfactorily. His usage level is achieved through using water only when the vehicle reaches the right spot in the tunnel, high-pressure applications, using air to foam selected pre-soak and soap periods, and selective placement of nozzles. His 20-gallon usage level compares with 15 gallons per vehicle consumed by the average car wash using a reclaim system, he reports.

An emphasis on quality car cleaning and additional services helps at Jerry’s and Northway washes. Customers choose the top-of-the-line wash about 50 percent of the time. A mid-quality wash accounts for about 10 percent, and basic wash package is chosen for about 40 percent of cars going through the wash. Additional services boost per-car revenue. “Any of those washes can add vacuum service or Armor All, so I would say 75 percent of our business gets some type of extra service,” Feldman reports. The extras are sold by the greeter at each wash.

While his market area of north suburban Pittsburgh has felt the recent economic slowdown, Feldman has weathered several business cycles. He figures he’ll survive the current cycle, too. “The past five months people have been nibbling away at their expenditures,” Feldman noted in early March. “We run gift card and other specials on holidays and other special occasions, and people are more interested in such deals now. We see more use of couponing and evening express choices.”

Still, the Feldmans have maintained an upward trend on bottom line results by maintaining payroll dollars at a steady level despite a 40 percent overall increase during the past 18 months in minimum wage levels and related payroll costs. Northway volume has increased appreciably since the Feldmans bought it in 2006 and rehabbed it.

Good management, strong promotion, and an emphasis on pampering customer’s cars are enabling Jerry’s Car Washes and Northway Car Wash to keep growing customers and that all-important bottom line.

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

 

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