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June 2006
Good, Clean Fundamentals
By Ellison Clary

The outlook is decidedly upbeat at Autobell Car Wash. Business is strong and growing, recognition for its environmentally friendly record is building, and its civic image shines like a freshly polished Lexus. But for owner Chuck Howard, the best part is watching young employees succeed.

“The most satisfying part of this business is working with young people and seeing them grow along with our company,” says Howard, 57.

Chuck Howard was 20 years old and working toward a business administration degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when he joined the business shortly after his father, Charles, opened the first Autobell in 1969. From that one car wash sprang a company that is now second in size among the country’s privately owned full service, conveyor-operated car wash chains.

 

A Shining Example

After the company size doubled between 2000 and 2005, Autobell became the largest car wash chain in the Southeast. Howard projects it will perform 2 million vehicle cleanings in 2006. The firm operates 44 facilities in North Carolina and Virginia, with 23 in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Of Autobell’s 1,200-person workforce, only 20 percent are full-time; most of the rest are young people still in school. The car wash business lends itself to labor from students, who can start as young as 16. Its typical employees are college students.

“It’s a good job for students,” Howard says. “Our hours are flexible, and we’re not open late at night. It works out for us because changes in the flow of customers sometimes require us to call people in on short notice.”

These young folks start at minimum wage but Autobell managers promote them as they stay with the company and show they can handle its system. Howard points out that some employees routinely pick up tips to supplement their incomes.

Autobell nurtures its youthful workforce – it even awards scholarships for up to $1,000 a year to deserving workers – and many young employees stay with the company when they complete their studies. Top management is replete with people who started as part-timers and were indoctrinated with Autobell philosophy early and often.

Formal training includes handbooks and videos, and all employees wear an Autobell uniform. A secret shopper program bestows financial rewards on exemplary performers and finds weak spots at the same time. Each car wash manager holds a weekly staff meeting to discuss ways to improve. A company newsletter spotlights outstanding performers. There’s even an Autobell Olympics.

“We bring in the best people from all our car washes, and they compete on the things we do,” smiles the soft-spoken Howard in his office in Charlotte’s midtown. He nods toward the nearby Independence Boulevard location, which has been in the system since 1972, as the home of the competition.

Autobell Olympians compete over services that run from a basic exterior wash for $6.95 to a package that includes tire gloss, underbody wash, interior cleaning and other items.

“Everything we do has a procedure and a time standard,” Howard says. “We hold a ceremony at the end of the competition and award medals. The employees get a kick out of that.”

 

Polishing Its Image

Besides the obvious boost for customer service, these performance-enhancing measures give Autobell’s image a boost.

“Our industry struggles with an outdated image,” Howard explains. “It goes back at least 30 years, when car washes employed poorly paid laborers who hand scrubbed cars and allowed long lines to form.”

Autobell’s modern automation and achievement-oriented workers perform a full-service wash in 12 minutes. That helps the company successfully place car washes in prime locations such as shopping centers, where executives once shied from the long waits.

Raymond Suttle, president of Warwick Shopping Center in Newport News, Va., cites the “careful design and attractiveness” of Autobell’s buildings as a reason for allowing it in.

“I am very satisfied with Autobell,” Suttle says. “And I have no hesitancy in recommending them to other property owners.”

Besides shopping centers, Autobell likes locations with good visibility, a fairly high traffic count and a population of about 40,000 within three miles. The company prefers to buy, but it leases about half of its real estate.

Autobell tries to stay ahead of the curve by anticipating local growth. It opened a car wash about a year ago on North Tryon Street, just outside Charlotte’s I-277 inner loop. Although it’s located within 12 blocks of The Square, it’s in an underdeveloped area. The condos already in Center City and the others either planned or under construction were the draw, Howard explains.

“People who live inside the loop need a place to wash their cars,” he points out. “It’s difficult to open a place in Center City because of the cost, but that corridor is probably going to develop like South End did. We’re just a little early there.”

Although automation has grown progressively more sophisticated, the car wash crew still performs routine preventive maintenance on slow days or evenings.

Autobell shuttles several mechanics around the system, and sister company Howco helps with big problems. Howco, also owned by Howard, is a distributorship that provides car wash equipment, supplies, and service to the industry from Pennsylvania to Georgia and also provides turnkey business development assistance to car wash owners and operators. Most of its 25 associates share offices at Autobell’s headquarters.

Dealing with fluctuating volume can also be a challenge.  One way to address this problem is what Howard calls “the club plan.” For $39.95 a month, which can be charged directly to credit card, a customer gets unlimited car washes. An annual pass, which works in a similar way, costs $490.

The typical Autobell customer is 35 or older with reasonable income and is used to paying others for services such as lawn maintenance or laundry. He or she may live in a condo with no place to personally swab a car. Such do-it-yourself cleaning is dropping steadily, says Howard, quoting industry statistics that show only about 38 percent of Americans do driveway washes, down from 50 percent three years ago.

 

Keeping the Environment Clean, Too

That trend portends a cleaner environment, Howard says. Driveway wash water, which typically carries grease, detergents and metals, drains directly into streams. Autobell recycles up to 80 percent of the 100 gallons of water it takes to wash a car, and it treats 100 percent of its water before release.

Autobell also offers a charity car wash program that discourages parking lot washes by providing civic groups with discounted car wash certificates for fundraising drives.

“Whatever the cost of the car wash is, the organization keeps 50 percent,” Howard says. “They don’t need any upfront money, and they can return any unsold tickets. They have very little risk.”

For the last five years, Autobell employees have walked Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek to clean it as part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department’s Adopt-A-Stream program.

“Autobell is one of the strongest supporters of the Mecklenburg County Environmental Protection Department,” praises Kim Garrett, a representative of the Mecklenburg County Waste Water Quality Program run by the Land Use & Environmental Services Agency.

Autobell was named Business Conservationist of the Year in 2002 by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation through its Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards.

“We were competing with much larger companies,” Howard says. “We’re very proud of that.”

Thirty-seven years of hard work make such recognition sweeter, Howard admits. Times were decidedly different when his father brought him into the business.

The elder Howard had been selling truck washing equipment and chemicals and wanted to move into serving car washes. He and a partner built the first Autobell to demonstrate their wares. Charles Howard Sr. later split with his partner, who took the equipment business with him. This necessitated the birth of Howco in 1970, shortly after Autobell opened.

That first Autobell still operates on South Boulevard. “None of our car washes has ever gone out of business or been sold to another company,” Howard says.

People are learning that keeping a vehicle clean can mean big bucks at trade-in.

“Our motto is ‘People can tell when you Autobell,’” he says. “And people in the car business really can tell.”

Autobell can handle vehicles up to 90 inches tall and as long as a limo. However, trucks with dual wheels don’t fit in the conveyor track.

The leased cars that Autobell managers use get regular baths at company facilities and Howard claims these cars routinely post a worth of $1,200 to $1,500 more than projected at the end of their lease.

Autobell thrives on fair competition. “I think our industry is expanding so much that competition is not really taking from each other,” Howard explains. “When a new car wash opens, it just brings new customers into the marketplace. A lot of people don’t have a convenient car wash nearby. The market is expanding.”

“We’re trying to open five or six new locations a year,” says Howard, who adds that same-store numbers rise a couple of percentage points each year. For expansion, high population areas such as the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Florida look attractive.

The third generation of Howards is already firmly entrenched in the business. Chuck’s son, Carl, is chief operating officer. Daughter Kelly deals with Autobell marketing and public relations and daughter Leigh analyzes performance numbers from around the system.

“They are motivated and very interested in continuing the Autobell legacy,” Howard says. “And I enjoy working with them and watching their expertise in the business expand with our company.”

That brings him back to success stories of the young people who get their start at Autobell. “We’re the first working experience for a lot of the students we hire,” he says.

Howard takes great pleasure in describing an encounter that happens periodically. He’ll be visiting a car wash when someone calls his name. It turns out to be somebody who worked at Autobell years ago while he or she was earning a degree.

“‘You taught me about business,’ they’ll say,” Howard muses. “And now they might be driving a Mercedes.” A very clean Mercedes.

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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