Clean Getaway

Brothers behind Clean Freak Carwash find success after making the change of their lives.

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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What a difference a decade makes. In 2001, brothers Craig and Mark McDowell opened their first c-store and gas station. Life was looking good in the desert sun for this Phoenix team. Then came QuikTrip, and suddenly the gorilla had started to romp and stomp.

“They’re very good at what they do,” Mark says of the Tulsa, Okla.-based behemoth, which is widely regarded as among the best c-store operators in the nation. “We saw what they were doing to other (c-store) owners and decided that might not be the business we wanted to grow in.”

Instead of waiting for the inevitable pulverization of profits, the McDowells got proactive. They shifted to a c-store spinoff industry, car washes, and transferred their convenience retailing lessons to make their new business venture a success. By looking at their c-store P&Ls, they found their automatic on-site car wash was an effective way to generate revenue.

“It ran by itself 24 hours a day, and there was no inventory other than soap and water,” Mark says.

They started doing some research and came across an express car-wash model that was all over the Northwest and East Coast but hadn’t yet hit Arizona.

“We brought up a couple of the East Coast businesses we found online, and some of them have live Web cams,” Mark says. “We started counting cars going through and doing the math. It was amazing how many how quickly these car washes could swallow. We were counting 12 cars in 10 minutes. After that, we were hooked.”

They sold off two of their three c-stores (they still own and operate one in Scottsdale), deciding that the growth opportunities in car washing would be a better fit for their corporate culture and a bigger boost for their bottom line.

Historically, Arizona has been a fullservice car-wash market. The customer pulls up and is met by an attendant who takes over for the 20- to 30-minute process. In the express model, the customer never leaves the vehicle. The process is completed by equipment that handles everything a human would do, including applying Armor All and scrubbing the cracks and crevices of wheels.

“Technology has come a long way,” says Scott Grondin, the McDowells’ business partner. Grondin and the McDowell brothers have traditionally used rollover car washes, in which customers drive their cars into a bay and stop while equipment moves over the cars, performing specific functions. But the McDowells are continuing to update in the first quarter of 2012 to mini express tunnels, which move cars on a conveyor belt through a system of equipment. Express tunnels produce greater output in quality of wash and number of cars. The current rollover wash machines can clean 12 to 15 cars per hour, but the new express equipment can wash up to 140 cars per hour. The company uses equipment and products from MacNeil Wash Systems and Sonny’s Car Wash Equipment Co.

“We’re not committed to one manufacturer so much as we’re committed to finding the best pieces of equipment,” Grondin says. “Best performance, lowest maintenance.”

Branding in the Details

With the technology and business model in place, the McDowell brothers were one branding concept away from a new venture. After days of texting ideas back and forth for a name for the business, Mark sat on his couch while his wife, Onni, did some cleaning around the house.

 “All of a sudden the phrase ‘clean freak’ came out of her, not even in reference to the car wash,” Mark says. “I took it to everyone Monday morning, and we developed the brand around that name.”

Clean Freak Carwash is carefully designed to be hip, cool, edgy “and nerveracking,” Scott says, “because we have a stiff standard we have to keep or we can quickly become a laughingstock.”

Everything from landscaping to the way employees are dressed must exemplify quality to satisfy a clean freak, because as any clean freak knows, details matter. Employees must adhere to a strict dress and grooming code of what the owners describe as an “all-American look”: no facial hair, no visible tattoos or piercings, and company uniforms of nice, golf-style polo shirts and black slacks with belts. When hiring, the McDowells look for people who love people.

“People with bad attitudes don’t last long here, because they just don’t fit,” Craig says.

One man who applied for a position at Clean Freak had never cut his hair in his life. The McDowells extended him an offer, but with a key qualification: he had to abide by the grooming standards just like everybody else.

“One day this guy, a Native American, had hair down his back and the next day it was gone,” Craig said. “After the haircut, he came to work and loved it.”

When the McDowells find good people with good attitudes, they do all they can to keep them. “We’re pretty good at acknowledging our team. We have a good compensation package. We’re fair,” Mark says. “They’re challenged. And they see growth. … You have to get your employees to start thinking like owners. Get them involved in policies and procedures. Get them mentally engaged in the business.”

Clean Freak employees are often found opening early, staying late, doing preventative maintenance on equipment, being vocal on safety issues and helping with marketing on a daily basis—all tasks characteristic of invested managers.

Marketing Masters

True to their name, these guys are also marketing freaks—in a good way. The company has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Yelp, scoring at the time of this writing 4.5 stars out of 5 from 39 reviewers. They also have embraced gift cards, deal sites such as Groupon and Living Social, radio and TV ads, coupons on the back of grocery store register tape, and more.

And the efforts are working. Rare is the criticism. Consider just a few snapshots from Clean Freak customers:

From Wheeler E of Tempe, Ariz.: “What got me was the caliber of wash, the customer service (spoke with the owner for a while … really have to commend him and his team for this venture ... ) is/has been really decent. No-pressure sales …” Brad L., also of Tempe, says, “Have been a subscriber for a year. Terrific car wash. I get the $7 wash, which comes with some kind of wax. Cool thing is after a year of going every week, my black car has a deep, amazing glossy shine—looks fantastic!” The washes are so hot the company is already planning two more, including one in upscale Scottsdale. The McDowells are quick to credit much of their success to their staff and their customer-centric approach. “Our employees are actually required to go out and post 100 fliers each around town every week,” Scott says. “Guerrilla marketing has worked well for us.” They try every marketing technique a couple of times and meticulously track and analyze response data. “We have an open mind about everything,” Scott says, “but we want to make sure it’s effective before we do it again.”

Other creative business strategies serve the dual purpose of marketing and extending added value to customers. Clean Freak offers convenient billing and simplified car care in the form of fleet services for local police and fire departments, car agencies, etc. They place a radio frequency ID (RFID) sticker in the window of each car in the fleet and bill the company as a whole periodically for each wash. Clean Freak also offers carwash sale fundraising programs for local sports teams and schools, and monthly membership payment options.

“Memberships are the heart of our business,” Craig says. “The biggest reason people like it is the convenience. They never have to reach for the wallet, they get to be at the front of the line and there’s one-time billing.”

And Fast Pass membership means greater loyalty and customer retention.

Go to Grow

By opening day of its first location near the Phoenix airport in June 2009, Clean Freak Carwash already appeared corporate.

“Customers told us it felt franchisable right from day one,” Scott says.

The company experienced 30% growth in revenue in 2011 and expects similar growth in 2012. The guys have new locations in the pipeline, but don’t ask about their long-term plans.

“We don’t have a clue of what our 10-year goal is,” he says. “We’re just looking at opportunities today. If they look good, if it’s the right deal and the right fit, we’ll run with it.”

Because of the owners’ background and experience, they know a good thing when they see it. In the c-store industry, the brothers found that gas prices were where they had to compete, but they knew finding an edge in car washing would be different. “We’re not competing on price,” Mark says.

“We’re competing on the experience.” Clean Freak offers washes at price points ranging from $3 to $10, and unlimited monthly packages ranging from $16 for an individual car to $39 for an unlimited car family plan. But it’s the little nuances of the experience, not the deals, that matter most to Clean Freak customers.

Clean Freak offers customers a scented, moist detail towel they can use on their car between washes, free selfservice vacuums and longer hours than the full service model: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

They started off in the restaurant business, then moved to c-stores, and their diversified experience has boiled down to the same thing: customer experience.

Craig’s advice to all business owners is to ask yourself critical questions: How does the customer perceive you? Are you organized? Are you inventoried correctly? Are your restrooms clean? Does the customer have an emotional connection to you? Do you err on the side of generosity?

If your answer is always “yes,” then you pass the Clean Freak test.  

Clean Freak and Social Media





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