On the Wash Front - September 2009

Moore Clean Cars Fast
Crazy Clean! Crazy Fast! Crazy Good!
By Anthony Analetto

Tunnel entrance. Instructions on the left.

Drive through Moore, OK and it would be hard to miss the neon sign towering over Interstate 35 proclaiming “Moore Clean Cars Fast!” Walk on the property and you’ll find bustling traffic and a friendly staff galvanized behind owner-operator Scott Bowen’s vision of “Crazy Clean, Crazy Fast, Crazy Good!” Look at the signage or listen to the internally broadcast radio station cross-selling the various profit centers and you might come to the conclusion that Scott is a marketing guru who just entered the car wash industry. Talk to Scott for a few minutes however, and you’ll quickly realize he’s a car wash veteran that’s about as seasoned as they come.

Having sold his two car washes — a full-serve and a six-bay self-serve —Scott entertained retiring before coming across an eight-bay self-serve with two touch-free automatics for sale near his home. While running the full-serve he became interested in the express-exterior wash model as a solution to his labor headaches. He saw potential at this older self-serve and converted four of the bays along with some underutilized real estate into a 135 ft express tunnel, while preserving the two automatics and four remaining self-serve bays. One year after the conversion, he’s logged 130,000 washes on the tunnel, and annual self-serve vends have actually grown 13 percent from half the space. So what’s the secret of his success? I’ll let Scott tell you. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation.

ANALETTO: Why did you decide to sell your full-serve wash and consider leaving the industry?

BOWEN: After 12 years of operating a full-service location and a six- bay self-serve, I decided I was done with “that season” of my car washing experience. The self-serve market had really softened and the operation of the full-service wash was no longer any “fun.” Shrinking margins, the labor pool to draw from, training, turnover (I think we sent out 282 W2s the year before I sold), cost of insurance, and just the ability to fully trust and rely on staff had really diminished. So selling my full-serve business was a very desirable option.

With very minimal effort, the next thing I knew, I was being solicited by a buyer interested in both of my locations. I jumped at the opportunity to be free. I don’t think you can be in the industry and not moan some now and then about labor issues.

What attracted you to this new project and back into the industry?

It’s a unique location. Paul Morton, the first owner, built the wash in 1999 — 2000. He had a real “out of the box” vision and invested in the best equipment available at the time. Back then, this area was mainly an agricultural community and I’ve been told that this was the first wash in Oklahoma where building costs exceeded $1,000,000. There was nothing but alfalfa fields around here at that time, and many thought Paul was nuts. Actually, he had them.

He built an 8/2 (eight self-serve bays and two touch-free automatics), one of the first washes of that type, and turned a decent profit for six years. So you may say that a “maturing” of the surrounding community was necessary to catch up with their new “cutting edge” car wash facility. Decent operation of the facility and natural growth took place over the next several years. Lots of residential and some major retail moved in the area. So when I purchased this location in 2006, it was still “successful” by an 8/2 standard. However, the area’s market was being underserved and the property’s potential was starved by the current service offering.

Did you buy the 8/2 intending to add an express-exterior tunnel?

Yes and no. I had been paying great attention to the developing express-exterior market but couldn’t see it working at my full-service location. That wash was built heavily on the personal touch of service and relationships. I knew the volumes that express-exteriors were experiencing in my area were slowly but radically changing the exposure to my existing customer base(s).

I’m no stranger to doing a site conversion. When I bought the full-serve, I had just moved to Oklahoma from California. At that time, I was new to the industry and thought I could convert the location, already 11 years old, into a hand wash like I was familiar with. We kept the blower and the rinse arch, re-opened as a hand wash, and then proceeded to add all the equipment back until we couldn’t fit any more. I may have had no idea what I was doing back then, but it was fun.

In September 2006, I purchased this 8/2, containing the benchmarks of a “B+, A-” location for an exterior express. The big questions were, how, what, and where to incorporate an exterior tunnel on this existing “successful” site. How hard do I swing?

What kinds of improvements did you make to it and why did you decide to make them?

Immediately, I invested in a complete facelift of all aesthetics of the existing operation. We acid washed the entire facility. All exterior plumbing, hoses, guns, wands and brushes were replaced using new and different colors. We decaled all vacuums and their faceplates and added digital readouts and voice service confirmation with time, and amount deposited, to all in-bay faceplates. We also added credit card payment options and air wand dryers to our self-serve bays. We changed the chemistry delivery to improve the perceived value to our customers with color, fragrance, and show with every service selection. Last but not least, we put banners in every bay and signs all over our site and street side announcing that a change was coming:

I had already experienced an external force of change in the market with my previous locations. I knew this market was being grossly underserved and this time I was going to do my very best to shape, capture, and influence the quality, time, and price of service in the surrounding markets. I had 53 competing self-serve bays within a 3-mile radius. Yet I was averaging $1,600 to $1,800 per bay which is/was close to or above the national average. The closest tunnel wash was over 5 miles away. If I could get over removing four of my eight bays, I could fit in a 135-foot tunnel with lots of stacking capacity and great exiting right onto the street. At first this was like swallowing a bowling ball, but once I got over wrestling that pig and choked it down, it made a lot more sense than any of my other alternatives. The self-serve market is only capable of generating a certain margin of profit per square foot, per minute. The express-exterior market has a much greater capacity and profit potential when comparing profit per minute, per square foot of real estate. But by choosing an existing site and doing a remodel, we were able to save a ton of time and money by skipping many of the elements required for new construction. It also let us market the new express wash to an existing satisfied customer base, while continuing to generate income the whole time.

What has the result been? Was it what you were expecting?

The synergy between the three types of washes available has been working very well for us. It seems as if someone is always washing their car or vacuuming on site regardless of conditions. Activity brings more activity which, more times than not, generates revenue.

Automatic volume went way down but it’s still a force. From 2007 to 2008, we lost 21,000 washes from the two automatics, not quite half the previous volume, but picked up 130,000 washes from the tunnel that we didn’t have before. What I didn’t expect was that our self-serve revenue has increased. The four bays are averaging over $3,000 per month per bay without vacuum revenue whereas before, we averaged $1,600 to $1,800 including the vacuums. I had no idea this would happen. I have a funny feeling that just being able to show the market the quality of our services across the property increases loyalty to our entire business.

What would you recommend to owners trying to stay ahead of the competition?

Earn the loyalty of your customers. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Vision creates purpose, purpose creates passion, and passion empowers discipline to do the right things. It’s not so much to stay ahead of the competition, but rather to do what you do, and be the best at it.

Customers recognize when you’re working to be the best at what you do. I believe there are two major driving forces in business: one is profit and the other is service (where profit is hopefully a byproduct). Eventually, your customer will experience (knowingly or unknowingly) what is driving your business; service or profit. If your customer finds or suspects you are profit-driven, I think that can be dangerous territory. If they realize you are service-driven, then I believe you have a much greater opportunity to earn that customer’s loyalty. Once you’re truly service-driven, all of a sudden your marketing slogans will work. We use “Cleaner, Faster, Shinier, FOR LESS” and “Crazy Clean! Crazy Fast! Crazy Good!” They’re not just tag lines, but mantras that are driven into our staff and even our site culture. It’s just crazy!

Also, be sensitive to the shifts in your marketplace and your consumer’s buying habits. Try not to fight over market share and instead, look for blue ocean opportunity. Know precisely what services you provide as well as the services you don’t. Build on your strengths. Identify your weaknesses. And when you’re done with all of that, make sure you know the exact same information about your competition.

What cost-effective solutions can older car washes use to compete with newer facilities?

Ask your customers and employees. One great question I like to ask is “Would you ever consider washing your vehicle anywhere else?” The real question is “Why?” Huge territory can be captured there. I’ve also asked my employees what we can do to make us the best wash without spending a dime. There are no wrong answers. It creates an interesting dynamic and thought process that wouldn’t otherwise be present when examining possible improvements. Other than that, image is everything. A customer’s perception is a customer’s reality. Every service business really sells an image or perception of who they are. Just make sure you deliver what you say you are going to deliver every single time, and competition becomes much less of a problem.

If a new car wash were to open up down the street, what would you do to secure your customer base?

If? Is that supposed to be funny? When I first got into the car wash industry 15 years ago “the word on the street” was that Wal-Mart and other big box stores were getting into the car wash industry. And they have. My full-serve was directly across the street from a Wal-Mart, and for 15 years I waited for them to build a wash. They never did, but the possibility sure made me a much better operator. To me, that’s the key. If you constantly and honestly search for any possible reason your customers might consider going somewhere else and work to eliminate the reasons you find, your business will be much more secure regardless of your competition.

I had a brand new wash open up less than a half mile away the same month we opened our express tunnel. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to compete against me. You know how those car wash operators can be, but maybe that’s just me.

Questions can be sent directly to Scott at: Info@moorecleancarsfast.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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