On the Wash Front - October 2008

People First: Success will Follow
By Anthony Analetto

Talk to Scott Blackstock, owner of Tidal Wave Car Washes, for just a few minutes and you’ll leave the conversation with the feeling that having a crew of enthusiastic and skilled employees is an easy-to-achieve, everyday occurrence at a car wash. Having built his first 4 plus 2 in 2000 and first express exterior tunnel in November 2004, Tidal Wave currently operates 10 washes in three states with two more under construction, and two more properties under contract. Scott employs approximately 70 people in the car wash side of his business, but also has investments in quick-lube and self-storage locations that have influenced his approach to training employees for success.

Last month, Scott was kind enough to share some of his insights on maximizing the performance of his team. I’ve included a few excerpts from the conversation below.

ANALETTO: You’ve opened six washes in the last 12 months alone. With all that growth, how have you stayed on top of training your employees?

BLACKSTOCK: Staff training is one of our highest priorities, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the training business. While I focus on producing the best wash I can and bringing in new customers, I recognize that training my employees to be competent, courteous, and enthusiastic is equally important. In my opinion, every company must have a separate training department. Tidal Wave isn’t big enough to justify that kind of investment right now, so I outsource this function to a professional training company.

I was in the quick-lube business many years before building my first car wash. In that industry there are several sources that offer excellent programs to train your staff. The employees and my business always got an awful lot out of it — way more than what I spent. Being able to take a week to focus on training, away from daily distractions, is about more than just learning how to do a job. It’s truly wonderful for morale. Many of the people I hire have never been at a company that has invested in their knowledge and training. You read all these studies on how dramatic the return on training dollars is, and it’s scary how bad corporate America sometimes seems to be at taking advantage of it. There are a lot of employees who want to do a good job but don’t get the tools. When I put a new hire on a plane to spend a week at a training center, I’m telling that person how important they are to me. They come back with key ideas and know they are empowered to implement change to grow the business. They take it more seriously.

Do you believe that it is cost effective to outsource your training?

Absolutely. Like I said, you have to have a training department, either your own or someone else’s. I used to be very involved in the tire change industry and owned several locations. Similar to how car washing used to be, there were really no outsourced training companies serving the industry like you find in quick-lube or automotive service. I had to invest a lot of time and money to create my own department. I remember presenting at an event where another tire change owner asked me “Doesn’t it make you furious to spend a lot of time and money training people and they leave?” I answered, “Not nearly as mad as the only other alternative, which is where I don’t train them and they don’t leave.”

If you’re a single location or a growing chain like us, you’re so busy keeping open and working to get customers — if you don’t outsource training it won’t get done. Training is a line item on my P&L statement. If that ever goes to zero I know I have a problem.

The more I invest in training, the more my costs and turnover go down. High turnover forces me to pay overtime and increase head count to cover daily tasks while new hires learn what to do. Training also helps me reduce maintenance, downtime, service claims, and positively impacts customer retention. When you look at that training line item expense, realize you’ll get it back several times over. It plays a role in reducing other expenses and potentially raises revenue — you’ve got to factor that into your P&L.

Do you send every employee out for training?

No. We have strong internal training procedures and manuals that address nearly every “what if” scenario that can happen at a car wash. This covers everything from customer role-play and interaction, to how to reset wraps and take a car out of the stack. This training is usually sufficient for attendants and even assistant managers. Location managers on the other hand, are required to spend one week studying operational management and possibly another two weeks for equipment maintenance and repair training depending on their experience level. We’ll often send other key staff members for training that have demonstrated an ability to move up in our company.

You mentioned equipment-maintenance-and-repair training. Are these activities your managers focus on?

Not really. I want my managers to focus on running the business and improving customer service. At the same time, when managers return after a week of studying how to maintain equipment and develop a comprehensive preventive maintenance (PM) program, they have an understanding of the importance of the tasks being completed. Although our equipment supplier performs PM, the training helps our managers alert them to potential problems and make sure daily tasks are completed with a sense of urgency. By having basic repair skills, they have a much better chance of fixing problems quickly during an emergency. In several cases, I’ve been able to continue washing cars instead of shutting down for the three hours we sometimes have to wait for a service tech to arrive.

Do you look for employees that have previous car wash experience?

Absolutely not. I look for attitude. I have hired people with car wash experience that have worked out. I’ve also hired some where it was too hard to un-train habits that didn’t fit our culture. I try to find people with a record of integrity and success that includes a history of staying with a job. I check references to make sure they would hire the person back. Most important are character traits that demonstrate a good work ethic. If they have the right attitude I can get them the skill set.

Where do you find the best candidates to hire?

There’s not really a single source; it’s more of a nonstop talent search. Our entire management team is constantly looking for sharp individuals. We then make a pitch to get them on our team. Most candidates come from personal interaction. It may be a really helpful person at a home improvement store or a sharp individual at a fast food restaurant. More recently, most of our new hires come from internal referrals. Our existing employees are happy with what they’re getting and have a friend, brother, cousin, etc, who would like to get into this business. To me, this is a sign we have a good team.

Once your managers return from training, what do you do to maintain the enthusiasm and skills they have learned?

I mentioned before the manuals and internal procedures we’ve assembled, but they don’t do much to maintain enthusiasm once the training buzz wears off. The one thing that I would recommend is that whenever you can do it, send multiple employees together. It’s a good team building and bonding experience. I’ll normally send two to three employees at a time. When they get back, they’ll call each other with problems or to share things that have worked. If you’re debating and can do it, send two or three to the same class, sit back, and be amazed at what comes out of it.

Scott can be contacted directly at: scott@ssblackstock.com.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.


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