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Dr. Detail Offers Vehicle Healthcare
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Founder Jerry Ehrlich outside Dr. Detail's Conshohocken, PA location.

In a medical doctor's office, you're examined by lab-coated physicians and assistants, and either given a clean bill of health or possibly recommended for minor or even major surgery.

Much the same thing happens to cars at Dr. Detail in Bala Cynwyd and Conshohocken, PA, and in its mostly seasonal mobile operation in Atlantic City, NJ. The managers at each site are called "doctors," and the detailers are "interns."

The detailing specialists all wear lab coats or other medical garb (scrubs in Atlantic City). The packages offered include a $20 check-up, $80 "minor surgery," and "major surgery" that may range up to "ultimate cosmetic surgery"at $224.95. That latter package includes complete exterior and interior as well as engine cleaning and Lexol treatment for leather.

Motorists can even sign up for one of Dr. Detail's "Popular Health Care Plans." Check-up Coupon #1 offers 10 hand washes for a total cost of $160 (saving $40 from what they would cost if bought individually). Another package bundles 17 hand washes for a total tab of $240, saving the motorist $98.
The basic check-up, most popular choice among Dr. Detail services, includes tar and bug removal, complete exterior hand wash, cleaning of wheels and wheel wells, tire dressing, and wiping down doorsills and jambs. Interior vacuuming, ashtray cleaning, dash and glass cleaning are all included in that check-up.

"Minor surgery" includes the check-up, exterior hand wax, color matching and dressing of trim, trunk vacuuming and front mat shampooing. Individual "surgical options" include full interior detail at $65, engine cleaning for $40, and plastic window polishing at $25. Dr. Detail makes house calls - its term for valet service taking customers to and from home or office.

By consultation and appointment, motorists can also get painting and touch-up, pinstriping, initials and graphics, paintless dent removal, interior repairs and window tinting, scratch and bumper repair, wet sanding, and new-car sealant. Specialists who come to the Dr. Detail location as needed perform many of these services.

Dr. Detail is the brainchild of Jerry Ehrlich, now co-owner and marketing/promotions specialist of the organization. Ehrlich, then intent on going to medical school, was working his way through college 15 or more years ago by washing and detailing cars.

While his thoughts wandered during a history class, Ehrlich came up with the Dr. Detail concept, complete with rubber gloves, masks, Q-tips and a "medical staff." He bought an old Ghostbusters-type ambulance and used it to make car care house calls along the Jersey shore.

Dr. Detail's 1968 Caddy ambulance makes house calls.

He ran into trouble en route to a customer in one community near Atlantic City when a local policeman stopped him for "impersonating an emergency vehicle," and gave him a $1,500 ticket. The customer called the news media. Ehrlich and "Dr. Detail" got front-page and TV publicity and an SRO courtroom audience. Ehrlich paid a much-reduced penalty of $50 court costs and reaped tons of area-wide publicity and recognition for Dr. Detail.

With its identity now well recognized in the entire Philadelphia area, Dr. Detail operates as a
partnership between Ehrlich and Peter MacAlpine from two fixed locations in Pennsylvania. Its Atlantic City seasonal mobile service, available 24/7 - and often summoned at "irregular" hours - operates out of a small office and storage area, with Harrison Singer in charge of three two-person crews.

Peter MacAlpine, a "car fanatic who washed and waxed his own cars all the time," in Ehrlich's words, joined the operation eight years ago. He owns the 10,000-square-foot Bala Cynwyd location, which opened in 1990. He and Ehrlich are partners in the 5,000-square-foot Conshohocken operation, opened little more than a year ago and profitable in its first year. MacAlpine, who was previously in the video business, devotes full time to Dr. Detail, but Ehrlich shares his time with other business interests.

Both fixed locations have received federal and state recognition for their environmental initiative in providing interceptor drainage/settling pits at each store. Oils and solids are separated from the water, and the water entering the sewer system is cleaner than typical household wastewater. "The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the state DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) gave us a $10,000 grant because we became environmentally safe in the detailing business," Ehrlich notes, adding that the EPA had used Dr. Detail as an example of what all detail shops should be doing.
The Bala Cynwyd shop was a former car dealership in the Main Line area of Philadelphia. Situated in a high-income-per-household community, the store's neighbors include a BMW dealer, a Cadillac and Subaru dealer, and a Mazda dealer.

A Mini Mobile unit on location in Atlantic City.

The Bala Cynwyd location is staffed by six people, and four individuals man the Conshohocken store. All are paid on the basis of the work they produce - and they apparently do well. Ehrlich believes they're more likely to produce a speedy but top-quality job than if they were paid an hourly rate. "Our interns, on the average week, take home about $500 after taxes," Ehrlich reports. In addition to their "production" pay, the detailers get tips from happy customers.

Dr. Detail's owners provide the medical garb for their detailers as well as laundry facilities at each store so they can always have a clean outfit to wear.

Finding persons who really care about detailing and demonstrate aptitude for it is sometimes very
difficult, so MacAlpine and Ehrlich take pains to show how much they value and appreciate their work. They reward their workers with festive events such as a big Christmas party last year, an event that even in late summer this year prompted "intern" inquiries about the next.

Such regard for employees seems to pay off in longevity. Phil Matthews has been a detailer
with Dr. Detail "since Day One," and Greg Horshaw, now a manager, began as a detailer at Bala Cynwyd. Mike Cantor, now manager at Bala Cynwyd, began with Dr. Detail in 1993.
Dr. Detail draws "a lot of high-profile customers, sports and other celebrities living in the area," says Ehrlich. Their cars bear Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Lamborghini, Lotus, and Bentley nameplates. The company's valet service is an added feature with many such customers, and customer
convenience is a key ingredient in Dr. Detail's success.

The Bala Cynwyd store does so much business in one office complex that lab-coated Dr. Detail drivers/detailers get marked parking lot diagrams from customers showing where their cars are parked,
then deliver the same maps showing new parking spots when they drop keys off to the owners.
At Conshohocken, Ehrlich and MacAlpine invested $50,000 to rehab an abandoned building, installing new electrical/lighting service, plumbing and sewer. Now painted a bright "Sunshine Disney Yellow," it's a can't-miss location with signage proclaiming, "Dr. Detail, Automobile Cleaning," plus the phone number.

Dr. Detail promotes its offerings via mail services such as Money Mailer, and also distributes its flyers house to house and places those flyers in grocery and other stores, often giving the manager or owner a free check-up or other services for his personal car in exchange for the placement.

Thanks in large part to these flyers, "people call on us because they know what they're getting, they know the service they want, and there's no squabble over pricing." Ehrlich says.

With its proximity to many car dealerships, the Bala Cynwyd store does about 60 percent dealer work and 40 percent retail. Conshohocken is heavier on the retail side, 80 percent, and Atlantic City business is almost 100 percent retail.

Ehrlich takes pains to show a dealer what's involved in a quality treatment. That helps him explain why he won't cut prices and usually charges more than other detailers do who may cut their rates to get the dealer's business. "In reality, that dealer would rather you spend an extra half-hour to hour doing the extra steps, such as dyeing a stained carpet or wet-sanding a panel to get out scratches. "That car's got to stand tall on his lot, and look flawless."

Ehrlich has licensed the Dr. Detail concept to five operators, "all over the country." Rather than become involved with franchising - which means the franchisor has to monitor franchisees closely
to get the proper share of revenue - Ehrlich chose the licensing approach.

For a one-time fee of $2,500, licensees get the right to use the Dr. Detail name and marketing approach, training on detailing chemicals (Ehrlich prefers Ardex) and how to detail, and 24/7 help with any questions. "Someone with no knowledge of the business, if they put any effort into it, can learn all of that at our site in one week," Ehrlich says.

If they wish, licensees can offer other related services such as stereo equipment sales and installation, window tinting, and paintless dent removal. "Any detailing-related accessories or services will help them be successful," he believes.

One valuable added service offered at the Conshohocken and Bala Cynwyd stores is alloy wheel refinishing. That service can save a customer hundreds of dollars on a single wheel that has been accidentally damaged. For a $75 charge to the customer, the wheel can be refinished by a specialist who comes to Dr. Detail's location, and Dr. Detail will throw in a car wash. "We're a one-stop shop for car cosmetics," Ehrlich points out.

MacAlpine and Ehrlich are willing supporters of community causes. Often, they'll let high school youngsters wash cars at their Dr. Detail locations.

Ehrlich is equally willing to help other detailers with car-cleaning problems, and he says many shops call on him. With its own reputation in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Atlantic City well polished, it looks as if Dr. Detail wants to improve the health of everyone in professional car cleaning.

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

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