Profile in Success - January 2009

Success Despite Hurdles
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Michael Mansouria and Shahbon Amir are co-owners of Hesperian 100% Hand Car Wash.

A young car wash, run by two ambitious young men, is making remarkable strides in business despite restrictions of location and visibility.

Hesperian 100% Hand Car Wash in San Leandro, Calif. opened last January10. In less than a year, it has more than met expectations — despite no advertising, a nearly hidden location, and city-imposed signage bans.

What this car wash and detail operation has going for it are two enterprising owners in their late 20s, Michael Mansouria and Shahbon Amir. Both are committed to quality service and willing to reach out for new business with door-to-door canvassing, couponing parked cars, and other face-to-face solicitations. They practice “guerrilla marketing,” a term coined by author Jay Conrad Levinson in the 1960s, avoiding many usual promotional channels and expense.

The duo not only goes out for business, but often goes to it. Example: They work with eight car dealers in the East Bay area, wiping down their vehicle inventories twice weekly, and being on call to help volume dealerships, which account for 100 or more vehicle preparations weekly. Hesperian 100% Hand Car Wash team picks up and delivers vehicles as needed, washing newly purchased cars or providing car wash coupons for those who buy after their wash is closed for the day.

Hesperian’s owners have rapidly built its fleet/commercial clientele among a dozen or more governmental agencies, from police departments to U.S. armed forces plus state and regional transportation units, as well as private companies.

Mansouria and Amir are hands-on operators, frequently performing some hand washing functions and also detailing tasks. They work alongside their 15 employees, demonstrating not only how to do each operation but also how to greet and interact with customers on a personal basis, making sure they leave the wash happy.

The co-owners are first to arrive and last to leave, beyond the posted 8-to-5 (winter or “standard time” months) or 8-to-6 summer month hours. No waiting customer is turned away at day’s end. For example, Mansouria didn’t finish helping customers until 7 p.m. on a late November day when normal closing time was two hours earlier.

Such dedication and involvement seems to have more than overcome what many prospective operators would see as insurmountable limits. Hesperian 100% Hand Car Wash has a 70-foot conveyorized tunnel hidden behind a gas station on Hesperian Boulevard. The city would not allow the business much signage, so there’s little opportunity to flag passing motorists. They have to know where this car wash is in order to reach it.

Perhaps because of those visibility restrictions, Mansouria and Amir have done no advertising in the usual sense. They rely on coupons and flyers, personal calls on prospective customers, and word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers to spread knowledge of their business.

The wash’s media presence jumped in early November when a reporter for the San Leandro Times focused on how it uses 85 percent reclaimed water. Water recycling is a hot topic in most areas of the country, and the newspaper feature detailed how Hesperian 100% Hand Car Wash reclaims and saves most of the water it uses.

Water is filtered and treated and held in a 15,000-gallon reclaim tank. Cleaning solutions are applied with reclaimed water via the first two arches in the tunnel and fresh water is used in two rinse arches.

The wash is so efficient in water use that its monthly water bill is no bigger than that of many residences, Mansouria says. Additionally, all the soaps and car cleaning supplies are biodegradable. The wash is certified as Blue Coral Beyond Green for its environmental concern shown by using such products.

The local newspaper article resulted in a 30 percent gain in business, Mansouria said, adding to the steady month-to-month growth the wash has achieved since opening last January.

Hesperian’s washes are priced to fit virtually every budget, and each includes towel drying. One can get an express exterior wash for $8, or add Rain-X exterior protection for a $10 wash. Full-service washes are priced at $15, $20 and $25 for Silver, Gold, and Platinum levels. Customers can also choose the Super Platinum package, which adds hand waxing, for $45.

“We don’t fool around with ‘$14.99’ or similar pricing,” Mansouria notes, “out of respect for our customers. They aren’t stupid, and they know that a $24.99 price is really $25. We treat them with the same respect we would want for ourselves.” Average revenue per car washed is $20.

While the wash ownership is entirely separate from that of the adjoining gas station, Hesperian gives wash customers a 20-cent-per-gallon discount on gas purchased at the same time as the wash. Detail offerings range from individual items to complete interior and exterior details at $200. That package includes buffing, steam cleaning, leather conditioning, and engine cleaning.

Repeat visits are encouraged with stamped cards. Nine stamps (one for any Gold, Silver or Platinum wash, two for any Super Platinum wash, three stamps for any detail) are good for a free Silver wash. Customers can also prepay for washes, getting six washes for the price of five.

Customers can pay for wash and detail services with cash or credit cards. Commercial or fleet customers are billed monthly.

Prospective car wash employees are plentiful. Mansouria and Amir screen them effectively by putting them to work for a day to show that they can do the work and handle customers properly. “If they don’t do the work that first day, there is no second day,” Mansouria says. In handling customers he teaches them to, “be nice to my customers.” Employees who don’t follow that maxim don’t last.

All employees, a supervisor, and the owners wear the same company T-shirts, further emphasizing the side-by-side involvement in every phase of the wash. “We don’t ask anyone to do something we haven’t done ourselves or won’t do as the need arises. If we’re needed to clean out trenches, vacuum, or dry a car, we’ll be there.” Mansouria and Amir talk to customers, find out how they’ve heard about the wash, and also serve as cashiers.

Employees share tips collected each day. Mansouria and Amir treat their co-workers as friends, sharing a dedication to fully satisfy each customer’s expectations. If there is even slight dissatisfaction, the issue is handled on the spot and also may be addressed with special treatment on a return visit.

The co-owners met while both were formerly involved in real estate activity. As that business slowed down, they joined forces operating their car wash. They employed some of the same marketing know-how that helped them in real estate, going door to door to introduce themselves to prospects.

While he lived in the West Bay area, Mansouria had also worked as a manager at a high-end detailing shop where luxury cars prevailed among customers and details started at $500. He learned about intense attention to every facet of car care and cleaning there, and carried that experience into the Hesperian operation.

Exterior and interior wash and clean packages at Hesperian are far less costly than the smallest services at that West Bay location, but Mansouria and Amir are just as resolute in giving their customers topnotch service. “Even with our $15 Silver package, our guys still clean it as thoroughly as if they were doing a Super Platinum service. We clean every corner and channel, and we take a very exacting look at the windows,” says Mansouria.

He and Amir work as hard as employees delivering that quality. On busy days they often pass out Gatorades or buy lunches for employees and pitch in to keep up their enthusiasm. They spend as much time with these workers as they do with their own families and personal friends.

Both Amir and Mansouria are present much of the time at the wash. When one is on duty in the wash, the other may be out making face-to-face contact with prospective customers or distributing coupons.

“We go to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stations and put coupons on all the cars parked there,” Mansouria says. “When both of us are here, one will go out to dealerships, not just in San Leandro but the entire East Bay area. We call on companies that have multiple vehicles, and we go door to door in residential neighborhoods to pass out coupons and flyers.”

Governmental clients include all departments of the City of San Leandro. “We also deal with the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps local units, and we work with the Oakland Raiders.”

Sharing their experience and any mistakes they’ve made, Mansouria and Amir consult with others wanting to open a car wash. They can bring in architects and engineers and work with city or other governmental departments in getting a wash through the permitting process. They also help those who want to buy or sell wash equipment.

Their own wash has not only met but exceeded their expectations in its first year. These energetic owners believe they can help others achieve success too.

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

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