The Wonderful World of Terrible's

Sara Cooper Comments
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(Left to right) Tim, Jerry, Ed, and Troy Herbst.

Many know him as "the best bad guy in the West." He is the gas-slinging Wayne of the Nevada desert, black hat flattened squarely on his head, charcoal moustache drooping below the chin, daunting eyes glaring ahead. He is the symbol of a company that doesn't mess around when it comes to running a business--and running it big time.

Terrible Herbst, a gas station, carwash and casino giant with 65 profit centers in Nevada, California and Arizona, was founded by Ed Herbst in Chicago in 1937. The business got its name because of the turmoil that would arise whenever Herbst moved into a new area. The local competition, afraid of losing business to this crowd-pleasing operation, would warn one another to watch out: "That no-good Terrible's coming to town."

Not only did Herbst feature low prices, but also free pony rides and bubble gum for the kids, orchids for the ladies and women on roller skates to pump gas and work under the hood. Ed entered the service station industry with an attitude of innovation, well reflected by his creation of the first self-serve gas station.

Ed eventually decided to move his family and business headquarters to Las Vegas after an interlude in Los Angeles. The city seemed made for the booming business.

Ed's son, Jerry Herbst, was named president of Herbst Oil Corp. at age 21, after graduating from the University of Southern California in 1959. He operated 120 service stations in five western states until the 1979 oil crisis, which caused him to divest all but the Nevada stations.

Jerry, now company chairman, and his three sons, Ed, Tim and Troy, currently run the business, carrying on the tradition of surpassing the competition. Children and adults alike choose Terrible's for vehicle care framed in family-entertainment such as school choir performances, juggling, clowns and face painting.

Terrible's locations range from stand-alone convenience stores to carwash, gas station, c-store and lube center combinations. The company operates 15 tunnel carwashes (full-serve and exterior-only), 15 lube centers and 70 self-serve bays. It also offers emissions testing to Nevada customers.

The Terrible's Team is focused on providing quick service at both their full-serve and exterior locations.

Additionally, Ed, Tim and Troy manage ETT, Inc., a slot route operation and sister company to Herbst Oil Corp. started in 1986 with slot machines in grocery stores and service stations throughout south Nevada.

The company's most recent endeavor is a $65-million Tuscany-themed hotel-casino with 380 rooms, 750 slot machines, a 220-room bingo hall, a race sports book and several restaurants. Since opening in December 2000, Troy says the gaming business has been a perfect fit for the company. "We are really trying to market the brand image between Terrible's the gaming company, Terrible's the oil company, Terrible's lube and Terrible's carwash," he says.

One section of the casino, gasoline alley, is filled with pictures of gas stations from 1937 to 2000.

The hotel-casino is just east of the strip and represents the company's first venture into the Las Vegas gambling scene, after operating two smaller operations in Pahrump, Nev.

Add the family's involvement in competitive off-road racing, sponsoring such events as the BIDT Terrible's Town 250, to the equation and you start to get a glimmer of what this business is about. You never know what these desert dirt devils will whirl into next.

So what is it like to operate a carwash in the entertainment capital of the world? Well, Troy says that's hard to say. Born and raised in Nevada, the brothers, who have been helping out at the wash since they were knee-high, have really never known any different. Slot machines at the carwash are a must for any carwash in Las Vegas, Troy says, and the company has found creative ways to tie winnings in with their car care operations.

The Terrible's club program, started last December, allows customers to earn points gambling at any one of the company's more than 7,500 machines. The points can be used to buy gas, groceries or carwash or lube service. Carwash and lube customers who do not wish to gamble can earn points for free dinners, movies or bingo at the hotel-casino. With the multitude of profit centers serving as venues for the program, the Herbsts expect to have nearly 400,000 people in the club.

Wash focus

Terrible Herbst is known for high volume and low prices.

The Herbst family got into the carwash business initially as a marketing tool for the service stations.

"Being an independent marketer in Nevada, we wanted people to try our Terrible Herbst gasoline, and the way to have them try the brand in the '60s and '70s was to offer a free carwash with a fill-up," Troy says.

It did not take long for the business scope to grow, once the family discovered their love for the carwash business.

They now have six full-serve and nine exterior carwashes, with plans for six additional full-serves and nine exteriors. They never combine the two carwash styles at one location, Troy says, because of the importance of differentiating between the two in the Las Vegas market. Both the exteriors and full-serves consist of 120-foot tunnels, with the majority of equipment supplied by Hanna Car Wash Systems.

Because Nevada allows private businesses to perform emissions testing, Terrible Herbst has had the opportunity to create an additional profit center at their lube centers, offering the service for $28, with $10-off coupons available around the city. The service is very popular with customers, especially considering good emissions technicians can be few and far between. The company says that becoming licensed in emissions testing can be grueling, requiring many hours of training, but is well worth it. The team hopes to eventually have the capability to re-register customers' cars on-site and mail out tags.

Food service is another revenue-generating venue, as the company is a preferred vendor with McDonalds.

Employee training is a crucial element of the company's carwash philosophy, despite high turnover in the industry. All Terrible Herbst employees undergo extensive training at the company's employment/training center in Las Vegas, Troy says, learning everything from handling chemicals to customer psychology.

Terrible Herbst Oil Corp. and ETT, Inc. employ a combined total of 3,500 people.

While the carwash industry is always changing, the brothers have learned from their father that history does tend to repeat itself. "My dad tells us everything is a circle," Troy says. "Eventually something that was tried in the '20s or '30s will come back and somebody will be excited about it."

What won't be going out of style any time soon, Troy says, is customer service. "Whether [the carwash] is front-pull or rear-pull, the business really depends on how you take care of your customer."

Terrible Herbst has been able to maintain its position as a high-volume, low-priced leader for a number of years. Last year, customers could get a carwash for $3.99 to $5.99. This year, the company is experimenting with $4.99 to $8.99 washes. The goal for everyday operation is to get exterior customers in and out in less than five minutes and full-serve customers in less than 20 minutes. The facilities also offer express detailing.

"We are really time-conscious here," Troy says. "Time is so valuable today. People don't have an hour to sit down."

Even with 15 carwash operations, the family has yet to find a cookie-cutter plan for finding ideal carwash sites. Troy emphasizes that an operator can't just place a carwash on a corner and wait for the money to start rolling in. Every site will have different requirements. The Herbst team studies the demographics of a potential site extensively before deciding whether it will work best as a stand-alone c-store or a combination site.

A sturdy name

The company got its start in the gasoline industry, eventually adding carwashes to drive sales.

Third-generation carwashers are rare in this relatively young industry. Troy, Tim and Ed hope to see the Herbst family saga continue, though they say their children will have to make that decision for themselves when the time comes.

So far, the family has proved to be nothing short of unstoppable. While each partner has his own day-to-day responsibilities, meetings are frequent and everyone has equal say in decision making.

Troy admits that carwashing doesn't work for everyone. "Either you love it or you hate it," he says. "We just all enjoy it and have a lot of fun doing it. We love working with our father."

Despite its magnitude, the company hasn't forgotten its roots. "We spend time with the people in the area and try to get them what they need. We are not really a tourist-driven company," Troy says. "Being family-oriented is how it all started, and that is what we still do today."


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