Profile in Success - September 2002

Behind Every Successful
Car Wash Operator...

By 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 chemicals.

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 happy."

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 all that."
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, "but sometimes."

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 line.

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 there.

"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 News.

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