Sister Act

Arizona car wash cleans up by selling women's clothing.

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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The sisters who run Happy Harry’sCar Wash in Cave Creek,Ariz., are as altruistic as they areopen-minded.

In 2008, a local skate shop went under,getting stuck with $12,000 worth ofskateboards, helmets, skate clothing andshoes. When the store’s distraught ownertold Julia Harry her sad story, Julia toldthe woman she’d try to sell the merchandiseat Happy Harry’s.

“Within seven months, all of it wasgone,” says Julia, who manages the c-storeportion of the business. “It just blew outof here.” And so begins the tale of thecar wash that does a great business inwomen’s clothing.

Julia and her sister, general managerKim Lopez, now make three or four tripsa year to wholesale clothing markets inLos Angeles to pick out jeans, sweaters,dresses, tops, purses and jewelry. Skateclothing opened the door, but they’vefound their sweet spot elsewhere: itemsthat their primary clientele, women ages30 to 70, will gravitate toward. And theykeep everything under $60 (except the purses, which go up to $110).

“It’s very strange, but it sells like crazy,”Julia says. “We actually got so busy thatwe had to build a fi tting room onto theproperty.” About a quarter of the store’s5,000 square feet is devoted to the clothingand accessories, and it makes up agood portion of the inside sales. In 2012,the boutique earned $61,000 of HappyHarry’s $430,000 of inside sales, whichincludes lottery tickets and propane.

The women’s willingness to try unconventionalitems has paid off elsewhere.The store’s health-conscious clienteleis picky enough that foodservice of anykind isn’t worth the store space. Instead,they offer 12 cooler doors of importedbeer and wine, a selection of auto accessoriesand a few wild cards—literally.

“We have this really strange selection ofrisqué greeting cards that I found online:Bald Guy Greetings and Smart Alex GreetingCards. They’re just hysterical,” Juliasays. “I’ll have customers sitting over therereading them out loud and laughing. Andword of them has gotten around town.”

Although the off-the-wall items areworking for them now, the sisters aren’tset on keeping them a part of their businesslong-term. They’re willing to adaptas customers’ desires change. They’vesold cowboy hats, horse tack and localconsignment jewelry. “We’ll try anything,”Julia says.

Good Teacher

It was Steve Harry, the girls’ father andoriginal operator of Happy Harry’s, whotaught them to listen to their customers.Today Steve is semi-retired. He hasturned his car wash and c-store overto his daughters, but he fi nds it hard tostay away completely. He started HappyHarry’s in 1989, putting his Illinois oiland gas experience to work in the Arizonasunshine. He expanded the businessfrom one to three locations, all of whichhe built from the ground up. He foundvacant lots in promising locations andbought the land, learning and improvingwith each new store.

The Harrys sold off the fi rst two locationswhen the economy started to suffer,but the third store, which opened nine years ago, is still thriving under the femaletouch of Kim and Julia. The daughtersmoved to Arizona after they finished collegein the Midwest.

“Dad was very strict about making usgraduate college before we could washcars,” Julia jokes. “We learned a very hardwork ethic from him.

”When they first started working fortheir dad, he had them doing 10- to12-hour days in 110-degree heat withno days off. “I used to come home andthink, ‘Oh, I got this great tan.’ But thenI’d get in the shower and realize it wasjust car exhaust,” Julia says. Because ofSteve, the sisters have learned to recognizesigns that someone is about to passout from heat exhaustion.

And when he visits the store, Julia says,“he’s still out with the guys wiping downcars. He should be in retirement.”

ogether the sisters manage 43employees, and most of then workexclusively in the car wash, which did$950,000 in sales last year. Being locatedfar from an inner-city area with nopublic transit, they’ve relied on thekids of their customers to supply theirwork force, which makes for transientemployees. They also employ a few“snowbird” retirees, who come to CaveCreek to escape harsh winters elsewhere.Those employees are also in and out.But Kenny Gutierrez, the car-washmanager, has been with Happy Harry’sfor 11 years. And when they’re short onhelp, the Harry girls step in themselves.“That’s how Dad raised us,” Julia says.

Two of a Kind

Happy Harry’s is more than a c-store andcar wash—it’s also a Chevron gas stationwith 12 fuel dispensers. “My dad operateda Standard-branded station back inthe ’70s, but when he moved to Arizonain 1991, Standard wasn’t out here,” Juliasays. “There’s a lot of customer loyaltywith Chevron, and everyone seems todeem it a high grade of gas.”

Although Julia and Kim often getmistaken for twins around the store,they’re two very different women. “Inthe beginning of working together, itwas a struggle figuring out each other’spersonal habits,” Julia says. “We had acouple of hair-pulling fights, but wework really well together now.” Theycan see when the other needs a breakand can step in to make sure no one getstoo drained.“The clothes buying has brought ustogether, because we generally have similartaste,” Julia says. Their collaborative innovationshave made their father proud, butwhen they do disagree, the sibling rivalryis on. These competitive sisters keep tabson whose picks sell first.

Car Wash Close-Up

Manufacturer: SONNY’S of Tamarac, Fla.

Services: Exterior, interior, details, auto glass repair, transmission fl ushes, coolant fl ushes, air fi lters, wiper blades, otherbasics

Price Point: Exterior washes start at $8; details go up to $199. A la carte services and package deals available.

Specialty: Horse trailers, boats and campers

Loyalty Programs: Annual passes, semi-annual passes, monthly passes, booklets of fi ve washes and “Buy 10, Get 1”Deals, all tracked by license plates through DRB Systems Inc. of Akron, Ohio

Marketing Strategies: Local newspapers, mailers, giveaways through local schools and community organizations; shuttleto and from nearby Tatum Ranch Golf Club; $5-off happy hour on Thursday evenings

Best Part of Business: More than 300 days of Arizona sunshine each year

Q&A with the Harry Sisters

Who’s your professional idol? Mr. Harry

What about your personal idol? Princess Diana

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the convenience industry?To micromanage. By that we mean you must stay on top of your vendors tomake sure you are receiving correct inventory and pricing on all times.

What’s the nicest thing someone has done for you professionally orpersonally? Customers pull up their sleeves and offer to help out on busydays when we are in need of extra staff. It gives them an appreciation for thejob and how hard our employees work.

What’s your biggest business fantasy? That one day we could all take avacation together as a family.

Do you have a wild and crazy pipe dream for Happy Harry’s? Businessgrowth—to exceed all sales revenues we had before the economy took a turnso that we could make the necessary improvements and changes we wouldlike to make.

What’s the best thing about living in Arizona? The heat.

The worst thing? The heat.

If you could play one song at Happy Harry’s over and over again, whatwould it be? “Car Wash” (by Rose Royce)What do you drive? Ford F-150.Are you picky about your car being spotless? Yes! Because if the owner’scar is dirty, it doesn’t portray a good image of the kind of service we provide.

What’s the best thing about running a family business? Flexibility and stability,because you always have your family there to help you.

What’s your best tip for dealing with the desert heat? Drink lots of waterand take frequent breaks when you feel exhaustion coming on.

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