Profile in Success - April 2004

Fully Automatic:
Still, Plenty of Personal Attention

By Jim and Elaine Norland

Signage clearly announces all services.

A fully automatic wash, one might think, could be one of those ideal investments where an owner can just stop by from time to time and collect the cash.

That's the impression some investors first get when considering the car wash business, but it's far from the truth, says Doug Long. "Doing it right" in this business requires lots of personal attention and customer care, he asserts. The newest wash in his own portfolio, USA Auto Wash in Port Richey, FL, is living proof.

This two-bay in-bay automatic wash opened in May 2001, and has succeeded in large part because of the personal involvement of Long and his wife, Carri, and four employees.

During most of the daylight hours, and frequently in evenings, they are present to cheerily greet and help customers, even to the point of inserting the customers' money into the cash acceptors for each of the 52-foot-long wash bays.

Those same employees also make sure that equipment in each wash is operating properly, delivers the right chemicals, and produces a clean, satisfying wash. They keep the wash clean and also perform detailing work ranging from simple interior cleaning to high-quality hand waxing.

"Some people get the idea that you can just build and equip a wash and spend two to three hours a day to check it over and get your money," Long says. "The reality is more like six to 10 hours a day, depending on the time of year and the wash volume you're enjoying."

He observes that many of today's would-be car wash investors don't have a lot of "blue-collar" background, and some of that is needed to be a hands-on operator and keep a car wash running correctly.

Doug Long at the entrance to the Ryko FoamBrite in-bay automatic.

Long has been in the car wash business for 10 years, and previously was in the retail grocery business, where he learned the value of friendly personal service.

He has built 20 washes around the state, and presently owns three. Now he is also a consultant and distributor (USA Auto Wash Systems, Inc., and has an additional company, Mid-Florida Car Wash Systems, to service products and equipment for other car wash operators in the state.

Long's newest wash is on a Wal-Mart SuperCenter outparcel, right next to a Murphy USA gas station. The twin-bay Ryko-equipped in-bay automatic wash faces busy US Highway 19, a six-lane artery, and is open 24/7.

One lane of the wash offers a touch-free wash, while the other beckons with a FoamBrite friction wash. Customers can choose either, but most opt for the friction wash, especially after seeing it perform flawlessly on other vehicles in the wash, Long says.

"I used to be a touch-free guy," he notes. "The most outstanding thing I've learned at this wash is that drivers want the best wash, and the best car wash is the friction machine, hands down." He is so impressed by customer preference for the FoamBrite wash that as automatic equipment at his other washes comes due for replacement, he's going for the FoamBrite wash.

Customers abound in the area - Long estimates 120,000 people live within five miles of this wash's site - but so does competition. Long himself has two other washes (combining self-service wand wash bays with an in-bay automatic) within a few miles, but the area is crowded with car washes, one every half-mile to mile in each direction, he reports.

His wash at the Wal-Mart site is brilliantly lit and equipped with cameras to provide additional security. The building itself is an attractive block structure with fiberglass paneling. The flat roof has a stainless steel fascia, adding to the bright, clean look of the wash.

The abundant competition in the area puts a lot of pressure on Long to deliver the best quality wash as well as the most customer-friendly service, he observes. His uniformed employees greet each customer from 8 to 5. They explain how the wash works, what their quality options are, and what additional services or facilities they might choose. The many elderly drivers who live in the area especially welcome that attention. Carri's presence reassures the many female customers, Long adds.

"Not every customer wants to be bothered," Long says, "but we at least walk up and ask how they're doing and whether they need help." If the greeter sees a bad spot that might not come off in the wash, he or she will prep that area, free of charge, to assure a quality end result.

Customers can buy washes at quality levels ranging from $4 (for basic wash and rinse) to $10 for the "Typhoon" wash. Drivers can also choose a "Deluxe Tornado" wash for $7, but the $8 "Super Hurricane" is the most popular. That is frequently on special for $6.

All washes except the $4 basic wash include drying. Drying is very important in his area, Long reports. "People want to dry, even though we use spot-free rinse water."

Doug Long put together Sea Coast Car Wash in Port St. Lucie, FL for owners John and Pat Langel.

His Ryko Thrust Pro dryers are actually outside the structure, under a decorative metal awning.
In addition to friendly, capable employees on site, Long believes reliable equipment is a major factor in a wash's success. "I did a lot of research to make my choice," he says. His first wash offered self-serve wand washing only. He realized many drivers were passing by, so he added a Ryko touch-free. "I've been with Ryko (for automatics) since day one."

In addition to good customer service and good equipment, Long believes in quality chemicals. He uses the full Armor All line, and also distributes those products through Mid-Florida Car Wash Systems. "You need all three - customer service, the right equipment, and the right chemicals," Long maintains.

The Wal-Mart SuperCenter location means that this two-bay automatic is busy well into evening hours. "Where most washes are dying down at 6 or 7 p.m., we are very busy from 8 to 11 at night. When Wal-Mart is busy, I'm busy."

Wal-Mart shoppers also enjoy another benefit. They can leave their cars for further services such as interior cleaning, waxing, and other detailing while they shop, and then return for their finished car.

Customers can pay for their wash in several ways. Acceptors at each bay of the wash will take currency, coin, and credit cards. Those buying gas at Murphy USA can pay for a wash there and get the five-digit operating code for their wash. Further encouraging business for all involved is the three-cents-per-gallon gas discount that customers with Wal-Mart cards can enjoy.

"This was their (Murphy USA) first revenue-share wash," Long notes. "Everything they take in, they get a percentage of it. But it's a good setup for both of us. A car wash can increase gas sales 10 percent to 20 percent." As a result of the success at Port Richey, Long will be doing some single in-bay automatics at some of the other Murphy USA sites around Florida.

Drivers are reminded of the wash by signs on the gas station canopies, by the red-white-and-blue signage, and by the exterior of the wash itself. With its exposure to high-volume traffic, no other advertising or mailings have been needed to achieve good wash revenue, Long says. He's preparing to start luring repeat customers, though, with a car wash club card, which will give drivers six washes for the price of five.

As a builder and consultant for other washes in Florida as well as a distributor, Long has carefully selected and proven the brands he represents and uses in his own operations. "I practice what I preach, and I won't distribute anything I don't use." Visitors have come from all over the world, he says, to see his newest wash.

For self-service operations, he uses Carolina Pride pumping benches. Pur-Clean reverse osmosis and Con-Serv water recovery systems are part of his array. So are Industrial Vacuum Systems,
Dixmor timers and Hamilton changers. Long also distributes Sun-Gard canopies and Royal Building Systems. Long's web site provides most pertinent information, but he also responds to inquiries via e-mail ( and by telephone (727-638-1503).

He warns against buying equipment and chemicals on the basis of unproven claims, glistening showroom appearance, or price. There's too much invested in land and building cost - at least for good locations - to risk it for what seems like a bargain price, he believes.

There are still good opportunities in the car wash business, he assures prospective customers, but they require a heavy investment of money as well as personal time, and one must choose quality instead of raw price to succeed. His wash at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Port Richey proves his point beautifully.

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

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