Car washers meet in Las Vegas this month. Whether operator or supplier, single site or multi-regional chain, old hand or newbie, the International Carwash Association’s The Car Wash Show is the cannot-miss industry event of the year. In Nashville last year, the show saw attendance by nearly 8,000 individuals. It’s a safe bet that Las Vegas will live up to its reputation as a draw and best that number this year.
This show takes place as the industry finds itself in rarefied times. It’s been simmering for a while, but outsider interest in what once was a close-knit family of players has of late moved sharply to the forefront. It’s notable that the interest comes from parties that are well versed in identifying opportunities and acting on a good deal when they find it. Private equity firms are not in the habit of backing losers.
In recent months deals have been made in three distinct areas of the industry: distribution, manufacturing, and operations. Late last year, Generation Growth Capital Fund III, a Milwaukee-based private equity firm, acquired Harrell’s Car Wash Systems Inc., the well known distributor of car wash systems and supplies. Perhaps the most remarkable deal to date was announced a scant one month later: Sonny’s Enterprises Inc.’s partnership, through a recapitalization, with another private equity firm, New York City-based Sentinel Capital Partners. More recently, Highlander Partners LP, a Dallas-based firm, acquired a controlling interest in Hi-Tech Industries, the Farmington, MI-based manufacturer of automotive products for the car wash and detail industries. In the meantime, Mr. Car Wash, acquired by Leonard Green & Partners LP of Los Angeles in 2014, is continuing its buying spree with 212 car washes in its portfolio at last count.
The reason for this interest in our industry can, in some measure, be found in the results of our annual State of the Industry surveys in which vendors to the industry report on their performance. Over the past four years, consistently more than 70 percent of survey participants, overall, have reported sales growth, averaging between 14 percent and 18 percent. In the equipment-manufacturer category over that same period, the vast majority of respondents — never less than 78 percent — reported growth that averaged between 16 percent and 23 percent. In fact, in the last survey each and every equipment-manufacturer participant reported sales growth.
Operators have been posting similar performance over the past four years. In last year’s exterior conveyor survey, for example, 78 percent of respondents reported improved income over the previous year. In the latest full/flex survey, 82 percent of flex participants reported such progress. Only 26 percent of full-serve respondents were able to do so. This coincides with reported new-investor preference for the express-exterior format.
All the while new customers keep rolling off the assembly lines. The U.S. auto manufacturers had another record year in 2016, selling just over 17,550,000 cars and pickups, an improvement over the 17,475,000 they moved in 2015, which Car and Driver magazine trumpeted at the time as “more than in any year since the automobile was invented.”
We are not alone in our good fortune. According to London, UK-based JATO Dynamics Ltd., a provider of automotive data, global car sales in 2016 outpaced 2015 sales by 5.6 percent to reach 84.2 million units. China took the lion’s share with 25.5 million cars and pickups sold.