Go with the Flow

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Go with the Flow
Bill Carbonel says full-serve operators need to be flexible

By Tracy Charuhas

If there was one piece of advice California operator Bill Carbonel would offer full-service carwash operators across the country, it’s to stay flexible.

He should know. Being flexible has allowed him to prosper with every major change made at his full-service carwash and fast lube in Woodland, Calif.

“To be successful, you have to be extremely flexible and be able to have the forethought to make changes and make them rather quickly,” he says.

Carbonel’s business, Sundance Car Wash and Express Lube, is a full-service carwash with detailing services, express-exterior washing and various oil-change services. The express-exterior service was added in 2004 to offer customers more options.

“We’re flexible, and we offer a high-end product,” he says. “We can do everything from an exterior-express wash to a complete detail. We offer many products and services on the same lot, so we’re able to cover all our customer needs. That’s how we compete.”

Customers who choose the Sundance express-wash option pay the greeter at a pay station and stay in their cars during the wash process. They then exit via an express lane. The exterior washes are priced at $6 and $9. Carbonel says he has seen explosive growth with his express-wash services, increasing by 50 percent this year alone.

“The express-exterior option has provided an inexpensive, fast alternative for our customers and helps ease the pain experienced at the gas pumps these days,” he says.

The basic full-serve wash is $13.99. Full-serve customers exit their cars before they go into the tunnel. While waiting for their carwash, customers can shop in the 1,500-square-foot retail area that sells greeting cards, novelty items, gifts and automotive accessories.

Change is good

In 2000, Carbonel made the change from pre- to post-vacuuming of cars. He did this in order to increase efficiency and to prepare for the addition of an express-exterior lane in the future. The move has definitely paid off.

Instead of having to supervise workers in two areas, they now only have to supervise in one area. The employees who drive the cars onto the conveyor are paid well and work independently.

While the move to post-vacuuming has only eliminated one supervisory position, it has made the wash much more efficient.

“Woodland is a small town, and people are used to doing things a certain way. So we had to introduce them to post-vacuuming, let them get used to that and then take baby steps toward adding the express lane,” Carbonel says.

The combination of post-vacuuming and the express lane has shaved four to five minutes off each carwash, Carbonel says. When they added the express lane, they took three spots away from the finishing area— going from 12 to nine spots.

“It’s sort of a pit-stop mentality,” Carbonel says. “Anytime we move a vehicle, we have to fill that spot right away because we never stop the conveyor. It’s motivated everybody to work faster.”

The next move will be to have all of the customers stay in their cars during the wash process. Carbonel plans to make this change in the next year or so. This will reduce his labor costs significantly, he says.

One service Sundance customers really appreciate is the loyalty program. There are no cards for customers to hold onto. Instead, the DRB Systems program allows Sundance to track its customers by license plate number. The system even keeps track of when customers are due for a free carwash after buying a certain number of washes.

“Customers are always tickled to hear they get a free wash. It’s a nice surprise for them,” he says.

Sundance has an impressive database of both its carwash and quick-lube customers.

Sundance added the fast lube in 1997. While the business has been a success, Carbonel maintains the same philosophy that he adheres to with the carwash—be flexible and provide as many services as viable and constantly explore additional products.

California washing

Woodland is located 20 miles north of Sacramento and is surrounded by farm land. The population of 50,000 is made up of middle class and upper-middle class residents. Carbonel and his wife, Stacey, opened the wash in 1992. Back then, the population was much lower, but the couple knew the area would eventually develop.

“We sold our home in Southern California to capitalize the carwash. We rented a house for the first few years before the carwash got going,” he said.

It wasn’t until the recession ended in 1994/1995 that the wash started to turn a respectable profit. Sundance was the second conveyor carwash in the area. With the recent addition of a competing express exterior, the town now has three conveyorized carwashes.

The carwash tunnel, which is 100 feet long, is equipped with MacNeil equipment and a 115-foot Hanna conveyor. In the summer, the carwash employs about 70 people, and in the winter that number goes down to about 40.

Carbonel says he always has his eyes open for possible new carwash sites.

As a member of the Western Carwash Association (WCA) board of directors for the last three years, Carbonel is a big believer in the association’s charity-carwash and environmental-awareness program that won an EPA environmental award in 2003.

Carbonel has set up a program at Sundance similar to that of Valencia, Calif., operator Randy Cressall. Smaller charitable groups or schools sell Sundance carwash tickets and keep $6 of every carwash sold. Larger groups are invited to come to the wash on a Wednesday during summer and wash cars for a few hours after the location closes. They pre-sell tickets for this event.

Sundance helped raise more than $12,000 last year for fundraising groups, Carbonel says.

The carwash is also a big supporter of U.S. servicemen and veterans. One Christmas, Sundance purchased a banner to give to troops at Walter Reed Medical Center. The banner was signed by hundreds of Sundance customers and community members, and the local VFW helped deliver the banner to the hospital.

“The banner was completely full. So many people turned out for that. It was really touching,” he says.

But even when a veteran’s promotion isn’t going on, customers can take in a little patriotism by gazing at the 10 by 15 foot American flag flying 80 feet above Sundance. Carbonel says it’s one of the largest flags in town.

Future plans

Carbonel says the carwash industry still holds a lot of promise for entrepreneurs. He believes the industry will continue to be a “mom-and-pop” type of business despite the emergence of many carwash franchisers.

“It’s a dynamic, changing industry,” he says.

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