Car Wash Operator...
Jim and Elaine Norland
|A recent tunnel installation
by Specialty Car Wash Systems.
Unsung heroes abound in the car wash industry. Distributors/installers
probably top the list.
Our "Profile in Success" articles give lots of details
about the owners and operators as well as their spiffy plants and
resounding successes. Equipment and chemical brands get their share
of the spotlight, too.
Long before a wash produces its first clean car, however, a distributor/installer
has probably labored long and hard to bring the operation to opening
day. His company and crew work in the background to bring that wash
to opening day and provide the all-important link between equipment
makers and operators.
|The impressive equipment lineup
along the conveyor.
The expertise and services such distributors and installers bring
to the industry is varied, to say the least. They've "been
there, done that" in everything from picking a suitable site
to dealing with zoning boards.
They can help guide an owner through the financing maze. They work
with architects, contractors and subcontractors, and do the grunt
work to bring in and install the car wash equipment.
A good example is the Deer Creek Car Wash in Rancho Cucamonga,
CA, profiled in Auto Laundry News in early 2001. The article described
how the 150-foot tunnel wash was completely gutted of old equipment
and refitted with MacNeil gear in about 16 days.
The power behind the scenes was the MacNeil distributor/installer,
Specialty Car Wash Systems, San Dimas, CA. Mike Martorano is president.
His firm is a large Mark VII distributor, but now has a number
of successful MacNeil-equipped tunnels also. The company also represents
Hanna and a German automatic, the Wesumat, and carries Blue Coral
The company headed by Mike and his brother Drew, vice president,
covers a sales/service territory extending from the Mexican border
to Santa Barbara, and from the Pacific Coast to the Arizona/Nevada
border. Its 27 total employees include technicians staffing 10 vans
on the road daily to service equipment.
"We'd never done anything in the full-service arena in any
way," Mike says of Deer Creek. "We had 16 days to take
out the old equipment, conveyor and all, and install everything
from mitters and flex sets to chemical boards and computers. We
didn't sleep for days on end, but 17 days from the time we started,
it ran." In fact, the newly equipped wash cleaned 750 cars
that first day with far less labor per car than the old system and
delivered shinier, customer-pleasing results.
More than many outsiders - and even some industry insiders - realize,
distributors/installers can make the difference between success
and disappointment. They're the essential middlemen in the operator/manufacturer
relationship, and they are as essential in keeping a system running
as they are in startup.
|A recent in-bay automatic installation
by Specialty Car Wash Systems.
After selling a transmission shop which he had operated since he
was in the 10th grade (his father was killed in a car accident)
and trying "retirement" for a couple of years, Mike began
selling soap and wax. He persuaded Drew, a computer-school grad
hired by Ryko "right out of college," to quit that job
and join him in starting a service business in August of 1994. By
November they were the Mark VII distributor. Now they have about
a 300-machine base of Mark VII equipment.
"Some customers are very on top of what they're doing; they're
not just a money investor," Mike says of SCWS' varied customer
base. "Others have a wad of money they've just pulled out of
the stock market and they want in the car wash business. On that
kind of customer, we do a tremendous amount of work."
What cities or other jurisdictions ask of a prospective car wash,
or even a replacement, sometimes seems extreme, Mike Martorano says.
"Right now we're changing an existing wash from a conveyor
to a rollover automatic.
"The city wants a completely redesigned drawing for the building,
not just electrical and plumbing, but even the torque specs of bolts
holding the track to the floor. We had to call the fastener company
to get the specs on their anchor bolts."
Some jurisdictions don't care that new equipment can wash a car
with about one-third as much water as previously needed. "They
just want to know what percentage of that 26 gallons is going to
be reclaimed. If it's not 90 percent, they're opposed."
One recent project, a 90-foot Hanna-equipped tunnel for a major
California car retailer, took Martorano four years to clear. He
spent more than two years getting approvals and other clearances
for a wash at Los Angeles Air Force Base and an equal amount of
time for one at the San Diego Naval Base.
|A fun graphic brightens the
otherwise clean tunnel wall.
One of the latest hurdles for new car washes in his area is sound.
"It's quite difficult to meet their current standards,"
he says. "It involves silencers, sometimes putting blowers
in different rooms, all sorts of tactics."
Martorano says distributors/installers such as his firm "automatically"
take care of many problems and discrepancies in the way equipment
is working at a particular site. "I don't think enough suppliers
know the amount of work we do over and beyond just installing their
equipment to make everything work properly. We just take care of
these things sight unseen because we know our customer has to be
Another important distributor/installer role is in financing a
new wash, says Chris Seestedt, Aqua Pro Car Wash Systems, headquartered
in Allen, TX, near Dallas.
"We play a significant role - to the extent that customers
want us to. Most people new to the business want us to play a role.
We provide demographics and get the traffic count. We drive around
and look at the competition and get a feel for the area.
"The first thing we do (on the financial planning) is run
a proforma for them. We try to be as conservative as possible. We
do a better and best scenario, but always very conservative. The
last thing we want to do is blue-sky something.
"We can help an operator put a whole package together, or
we know people who can do that for them, take them to the SBA and
Seestedt has also experienced some very long and stressful installations.
"Working seven days a week, 20 hours day, you do what you have
to do." Not all washes require such heroics, he points out,
Another strength of distributor/installer companies is their parts
inventory. Seestedt says his company carries a half-million dollar
stock in its warehouses and about 25 trucks. His company represents
Mark VII and Autec as its primary equipment lines, and is doing
some Lighthouse installations. Blue Coral is the primary chemical
Mike Reijonen has owned Royal Equipment & Supply, Inc., in
Galesburg, MI for 13 years, and worked for a distributor several
years before that. Mark VII is his only equipment line.
Reijonen also has experience as a car wash owner and operator,
and has one now. That helps him advise prospective owners who might
be buying equipment and installation services from him. "You
learn some things you can pass on, especially to those looking to
get into the business for the first time."
He heads off some callers who think getting into the car wash business
can be accomplished with, say, $5,000 down. "Those people obviously
never get past the phone screen."
Some prospective owners fall in love with a certain site that almost
certainly won't work out, he says. "The property has the wrong
zoning and they aren't going to ever get it zoned properly."
It might be a good site for other reasons, but if it backs up to
a community or leisure housing, forget about putting a car wash
"With our customers, we do what we need to do with site selection
and then go through zoning and planning commissions and city boards.
Most municipalities don't have car wash-specific zoning, which means
you have to go to special use permitting."
He, too, has his extreme examples of permitting battles, including
one for a wash he was building himself that ran into a huge crowd
of irate residents. They weren't mad about his wash, but about a
condo project that was slated for hearing at the same time.
"I was up first. After they got done lambasting me, the condo
guys decided to not even present but to wait for the next meeting.
I ended up with a gymnasium full of people that weren't there about
my issue but still ranted and raved about it. It was quite a training
session, for sure.
"We also help do financial plans, and assist in working with
contractors to make sure bids are proper and don't include a bunch
of blue sky."
No matter what the difficulty, the distributors/installers often
face the music one way or another for their customers.
They may sit in hearings until midnight and be at another customer's
door at eight o'clock the next morning. They may smooth an owner's
bank or contractor negotiations, make sure that
equipment fits right in first-ever combinations, and respond within
an hour to a breakdown.
Their reward: a successful and happy customer.
Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry