Thriving in the Dry Desert Heat

On April 8th, 2011, posted in: History by

Phoenix car wash has a thirst for growth

Six years ago, Chris Bjurlin left his detailing business in Minnesota and headed West. His quest? To own a carwash where he need only shovel the sunshine from the sidewalks and where water lines never fell victim to freezing temperatures. He found his carwash utopia in Phoenix, Ariz., a city with an average rainfall of 7.5 inches a year and an abundance of warm weather. As far as Bjurlin is concerned, there is no better place for carwashing.

Bjurlin currently owns five full-service carwashes in the Phoenix metro area, with two more on the way. The majority of the locations offer lube service and gasoline and all include full-service detailing. Bjurlin says these days, a full-service carwash can’t afford not to offer these extra services.

“Labor rates are going up, and the cost of business is just getting more expensive, forcing us to find other profit cen- ters to generate the income we need to make business roll,” he says.

Business at B.J.’s is always on the rise. Fourteen months ago, Bjurlin purchased a one-year-old carwash, complete with top-of-the-line equipment, that was built by a local man as a retirement project. Since Bjurlin and his team took over, sales have increased by 700 percent.

The B.J.’s location features 80- to 150-foot conveyors. The carwashes range in size from 55,000 square feet to 2 acres, which Bjurlin says is still not enough space for all the services the business offers. There are anywhere from 40 to 120 at the location.

Bjurlin attributes the business’s success to aggressive marketing, an extensive range of services with a focus on detailing, and a team of professional employees, like manager Nick Cozza, who understand the importance of knowing the customers.

What’s in a wash?

Customers entering a B.J.’s Auto Spa are met with a sense of order from the start. Desert landscaping surrounds the driveway leading to the wash entrance, where customers are met by friendly service writers. The greeting/prep area is covered by a wood-paneled canopy adorned with brightly colored signs presenting the wash’s services.

As a customer’s vehicle is being cared for, he can opt to take a complimentary shuttle to a nearby shopping area or restaurant, or watch his car being washed through lobby windows with a view of the tunnel.

There are no rollers at the beginning of the conveyor. Instead, the car is driven onto a correlator plate with springs beneath it that slides back and forth to position the vehicle correctly on the conveyor. Bjurlin says this eliminates rim damage and is better for vehicles with bigger tires.

Only soft water is used in the tunnel, which Cozza says eliminates the need for a spot-free rinse and saves the operator from buying large drums of expensive drying agent. He says a car washed with soft water can sit for a few minutes before it is dried without spotting.

All run-off water is sent through grit traps that catch any contaminants in the water before it enters the city water system. The traps are pumped once or twice a year, Cozza says. Reclaim systems are uncommon in Arizona, he adds, mainly because new water is cheaper and restrictions are not yet as tight as in other areas of the country.

Making a name

B.J.’s has air-conditioned detailing bays to help beat the Phoenix heat.

Last summer, a Phoenix radio station put on its second annual “Survive it and Drive it” contest, based on the hit television show, “Survivor.” Eight contestants were chosen to live in two SUVs located in a shopping mall for up to four weeks, with one contestant being voted out of the car each week. The contest quickly became the talk of the town, with crowds of people showing up at the mall to view the cramped contestants. B.J.’s Auto Spa was quick to get in on the action, volunteering to detail the vehicles with the eight men and women inside. Members of the B.J.’s team were interviewed on-air, which turned out to be a great promotion for the carwash.

It is this type of community involvement that has built a name for the carwash in a relatively short amount of time. The carwash recently won an award for its logo, which appears on all mailings, including the reminder and thank you cards sent to all customers.

“You just have to plaster your name everywhere you can,” says Bjurlin. “You get a lot of publicity, first of all. You also become a reputable place.”

The carwash also recently got involved in a child safety seat inspection in connection with Phoenix fire fighters. People could come in and have their child safety seats inspected for proper installation. A portion of the proceeds from each carwash was donated to the fire department. Bjurlin says the experience not only promoted community involvement, but was a real eye opener for him, as eight out of 10 seats inspected were not fastened to the seat correctly.

The carwash offers a number of specials including an early-bird special, free carwash with an oil and lube, tenth wash free and a free carwash with 12 gas fill-ups. B.J.’s also gave away about 300,000 discount corporate cards last year to area businesses.
Focus on detail

The tunnel at B.J.’s uses only soft water.

According to Bjurlin, the average carwash-based detailing service brings in between $200 and $400 a day. Cozza says the location he manages makes $800 to $1,000 in detailing daily. At one location, detail sales hit $4,000 on a recent Saturday. “That’s a lot of hand waxing,” Bjurlin jokes. He says this year the company will do $2 million in detailing. What accounts for this drastic difference between B.J.’s detailing sales and those of other washes?

“It is about being familiar with our regular customers, knowing when they need [detailing] and what they required previously,” says Cozza. You also have to have professional service writers, he adds. Bjurlin is committed to reversing the stereotype that sometimes surrounds carwash employees–that they are unprofessional or uneducated.

Customers have the detailing options of upholstery and carpet cleaning, hand wash, paint sealant, motor/engine degreasing, and hand wax. The carwash has air-conditioned detail bays to keep employees from becoming exhausted by the Phoenix heat.

The carwash tracks all of its customers, keeping a database of contact information and past services. Bjurlin says that about 70 percent of business is generated around return customers.

Employees receive commission for everything they sell and are eligible for a $50 bonus for selling the most on a given weekend, which Bjurlin says is a small price to pay for an increased level of selling motivation.

All B.J.’s employees have the opportunity to work their way up to managerial positions. Bjurlin maintains a manager for each carwash department, including lube, detail, vacuum and finish line. Before becoming a general manager, an employee will have spent some time working in every area of the carwash. This produces knowledgeable employees that can fill in for any position as needed on a day-to-day basis.

Cozza is always the first or last person a customer sees when visiting the wash. He knows the majority of his customers by name and can usually be found personally caring for the vehicles.

“You want to know the manager of a place is taking care of your car. It gives people a comfort level. That is 90 percent of the success of this place,” says Bjurlin.

The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Phoenix America’s fastest growing city in the 1990s, and it just continues to grow. This is good news for Bjurlin, who just opened a $600,000 location and has plans for expansion of current sites. At some point he plans to add six to eight self-serve bays to at least one of his carwashes in order to cater to a group of customers he doesn’t currently reach. He says it is necessary to have at least six bays to make any money.

Bjurlin continues to move forward, even through the most difficult times. When El NiƱo was at its strongest a couple of years ago, the business met up with an unfamiliar foe: rain. Between January 1 and March 15, 1997, the city had already experienced 30 days of rain. The business lost about $40,000 to $80,000 per store.

“We have always had a 24-hour rain check. But people were forecasting rain every day for that period, so it didn’t help much,” says Bjurlin. “It is just the weather, and you have to ride it out.”

Overall, the experience has only made the wash better prepared for future hard times.

“Profit margins dropped big time. But it’s OK. We survived it,” Bjurlin adds.

The wash continues to not only survive, but thrive in the Arizona metropolis.

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