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A FEATURED ARTICLE FROM

JANUARY 2006

New Owners Boost Volume
At West Memphis Wash
By Jim and Elaine Norland

A conveniently-located but little-known car wash has potential for more volume and profit, but tapping that potential is often difficult.

Towel drying provides the finishing touch at the tunnel exit.

In less than a year's time as owners of A.C.T. Car Care in West Memphis, AR, Tom and Emily Belk are proving they can handle that challenge.

The wash and related businesses had been established for 14 years and operated by various owners who shaped their business emphasis to fit their own interests or abilities. For example, the most recent owner had a strong interest in glass.

The Belks began operating the wash September 1, 2004, and within nine months' time, they doubled the wash volume, built a steady clientele for detailing (including a Ford dealership), and expanded their truck and car accessory sales and installations.

After more than 20 years of working in chemical plants, most recently as manager, Tom Belk thought he was ready to handle operation of a single-location car wash and related services. He had no previous experience with car care or car washing. He quickly learned how complex the work can be, with regard to both the mechanical and the human factors.

His wife, Emily, saw opportunity in marketing the wash to individual drivers as well as agencies, and in making customer areas more attractive. She helped downtown Memphis drivers learn how close their wash was, and how quickly they could enjoy a thoroughly clean car.

Detailing is not for cars only.

The wash, which has a 60-foot tunnel, is the only full-service car wash in West Memphis. While there are a couple of hand washes where owners must leave their vehicles and come back later to pick them up, the convenience of complete interior-and-exterior car cleaning - where one can drive off in less than 30 minutes - appeals to an increasing number of drivers.

The Belks had to replace and expand the central vacuum system, redo some electrical service and replace some hoses, "but basically we took over a running operation," Tom Belk says. "We have at least doubled the wash business since we took over by providing good service and being open all the time," he says.

Most of the wash has Hanna equipment. The tunnel has one curtain set, one set of wraps, one rocker panel set and one set of blowers, but manual pretreatment of each vehicle - "We basically power wash the vehicle before it ever enters the tunnel, and we manually clean the rims" - ensures that vehicles sparkle as they leave the towel-drying area.

Automotive-related items are available at the cashier's desk.

The Belks believe in thoroughly cleaning the interiors of customer vehicles, too, even the out-of-sight areas. For example, "we go under the seats when we're vacuuming, and we move the seats, so even what you don't see gets cleaned."

A basic exterior-only wash runs $6.95 at A.C.T., but a recent monthly special - offering that wash for $4.95 - really ran the wash full. One can add spray wax and tire dressing for an added $3 each. The basic exterior and interior full-service wash is $13.95 ($16.95 for SUVs), again with tire dressing and spray wax offered at $3 each. The best wash at A.C.T. is its Master Wash at $29.95. That features a more complete interior treatment, including dressing leather and vinyl surfaces.

The Belks recently added a 24-hour rain guarantee, which carries over to the next day they are open. The wash operates on a single-shift basis, from 8 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. "If someone gets a wash on Saturday and it rains before Tuesday, they get that free wash," Tom Belk explains.

Emily Belk has made customer-waiting areas more attractive. The outside patio is furnished with Adirondack chairs. The 10-seat lobby is supplied with local newspapers and current magazines, features soft background music, and offers a view to a small garden area in front that the Belks bricked in and Emily replanted. Muted red awnings provide some shade as well as a pleasant accent to the green metal main building.

The car wash exit is on the left.

Customers can watch the car washing progress either through windows that line a customer hallway or at the finishing area where crews towel dry and otherwise finish each vehicle. Some of that hallway window space is used to display bolt-on accessories, mostly for trucks, that A.C.T. sells and installs. Most popular items include vent visors, bug screens, bed rails and bed liners.

Another popular service at A.C.T. is window tinting. Tom Belk has enrolled in a school to learn that business and lessen his reliance on hired tinting specialists. "I've gone to other schools to learn more about the business," he notes. "For one thing, we want to get into boat detailing and fiberglass refinishing on boats.

"I spent 24 years in the chemical business, moving up the ladder and learning about it, but this has been an education in itself," he reflects. "There's a lot to learn and not enough time in the day."

He was particularly surprised at the amount of hands-on work involved in running the wash and related activities, and its susceptibility to weather, particularly forecasts of bad weather. The crew of eight (plus the Belks) works "full-time, as much as weather allows."

"My turnover at the chemical plant at first was as high as it is here now, but in the car wash industry I guess our turnover isn't too bad," Tom Belk reflects. The newest employee at the time of our interview had been working three months - one employee has been at the wash for nearly three years, and three of those who were there when the Belks bought the wash are still with them.

The Belks know the work is hard, but they allow a reasonable level of joking and kidding among workers to provide a "sociable atmosphere." Employees can work on their own cars whenever business volume permits, a small perk that lets them keep their rides nice and fosters pride in their work. They're encouraged to be polite, cheerful, alert, and swift. All those attributes also encourage tips, which are shared among those on duty.

Detailing is another area in which the Belks have been especially successful. About two-thirds of the current volume comes from the local Ford dealership, where A.C.T. gives its better trade-ins a "like new" appearance. While some additional detailing comes sporadically from used car dealers in the area, most of the balance is from retail customers. Full details run $150. Most detailing is done outdoors in a shaded bay between the tint shop and the main building, but waxing can be performed in the tint shop when volume there permits it. Belk prefers outdoor light to make sure everything is just right on every detail job.

Another service the Belks have built is cleaning truck cabs for a couple of local truck lines. Memphis is a transportation hub, and the companies served by the Belks are among the providers.

A.C.T. also does washing and detailing for a local construction company, which assigns an older truck to a new employee after the car wash staff renews its appearance. "Fleet accounts are key to a steady business," Tom Belk says, "and we're trying to build that up more."

A.C.T. Car Care meets the special needs of other multi-vehicle operators, such as cleaning the vans of the Eastern Arkansas Area Agency on Aging. Two Memphis-based government agencies, the Veterans Administration and the Corps of Engineers, also come regularly to A.C.T. for vehicle cleaning - mainly washes.

"The Corps of Engineers run the levees in their trucks and get them pretty dirty," Tom Belk reports. He has no contract with the VA, "but they're close by in downtown Memphis, and have learned we do a pretty good job." Those agencies pay for services using the Voyager cards, but government accounts get no discounts.

Regular retail customers get every eighth wash free, using a card initialed on every visit. Gift certificates for A.C.T. services are already available, and Emily Belk is looking into gift cards, which might be used with a credit card machine to track customers and encourage more repeat business.

Visibility and awareness of their business is being built by the Belks by supporting community activities and charities, especially the Crittenden County Arts Project. A.C.T. services will be advertised on a big board for that group's three-day auction on a local television station. "That gives us good exposure to many people in the area," Tom Belk reports. "We also give certificates for our super deluxe car washes to other charities who request our help."

While the wash and detail center are close to downtown Memphis and near to Interstate Highways 40 and 55 and its 7th Street exit, the Belks don't attract a lot of rush-hour traffic because they're on that side street without a lot of other nearby businesses. "However, a lot of people have discovered it's easier to get over to West Memphis from downtown than to many other parts of Memphis itself. Just hop across the bridge and you're there," the Belks note.

To boost awareness and interest in its services, A.C.T. does some advertising in a West Memphis newspaper, including its current special. "We're also listed in a couple of different Yellow Pages under Glass Repair, Tinting and Auto Wash and Detail," Tom Belk reports.

Quality car cleaning, nicer customer amenities, and expanded detailing and other services are getting results for Tom and Emily Belk. Their brand of vehicle care is earning a reputation for excellence among a growing legion of car and truck owners in the Mid-South.

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

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