The Making of Captain Kleen Speed Wash and Lube

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In Kennesaw, Georgia, on the intersection of Wade Green Road and Busbee Parkway stands Eric Washington’s auto care empire, Captain Kleen Speed Lube, a 6,000-square foot, three-bay quick lube facility with six repair bays and a tire center on one corner, with Captain Kleen Speed Wash, a full 125-foot, three-minute express tunnel carwash with free vacuuming and emission testing on another. It’s hard to imagine it all started with a vacant lot.

One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and where one man sees a vacant lot — an eyesore by any account — another sees an opportunity.

“Originally, it was a BP gas station,” said Washington, president of Krystifani Industries. “They vacated the spot to move across the street. It sat vacant for several years before I decided to build on it. It’s in a premium spot on the corner, right next to a shopping center. It was a blessing it was just sitting there and I was able to pick it up. I was very lucky to say the least.”

But truth be told, luck had nothing to do with it. It never does when you’re properly prepared. Washington, a frequent patron of a carwash in a neighboring town, had befriended one of the managers. Every time he washed his car, the two would have a conversation.

“I sought him out, and we would talk about the business, how things went and how it worked,” Washington said. “He more or less educated me, and when I saw the opportunity to build one right up the street from my home, I went after it.”

When opportunity beats down the figurative door, it often catches us on our heels. But that wasn’t the case with Washington.

“This wasn’t something I did on a whim,” he said. “I come from an electronics engineering background. I’ve always worked in IT, and when I built [the carwash], I’d already had 22 years working with Hewlett-Packard as a technology consultant. I was making a good living, but I went back to school and got my MBA, specifically with the idea that I was doing it to open this business.”

And in 2008, that’s exactly what Washington accomplished.

“All through grad school, my projects were all about a carwash,” he said. “I had all my professors checking my business plans, going over financials and helping with feasibility work and demographics. I turned [in] my simulation, the ‘let’s pretend you’re going to open a business,’ into a real business. I built the project I had been studying for the last two years.”

But the construction process didn’t come without challenges. Because the property had previously been a gas station, the underground fuel storage tanks posed an environmental liability. As a result, finding adequate funding was difficult.

“I struggled to find financing through traditional paths,” Washington said. “It wasn’t the best time to borrow money because of the economy, and then I had this environmental problem that the Small Business Association (SBA) would not support . It took tremendous effort to find a conventional bank willing to back the building of the facility without SBA support. It was uphill all the way.”

But, like Washington said, anything worth having is not something that’s typically easy to achieve.

“This was a good example of that,” he said. “You have to fight and continue to fight. It takes something in you. It’s more than just hoping for the best. You have to do everything possible to be sure you’re prepared. That was my approach to it.”

It’s an approach that continues to pay dividends. Washington is now the proud owner of the No. 1 carwash in Kennesaw, seeing roughly 80,000 to 90,000 cars a year come out squeaky clean on the other side of the Captain Kleen Speed Wash tunnel.

Then, he had another idea.

“Instead of trying to reinvent myself and go to another area where I’m not known to build another carwash and start from scratch, why not leverage my success in the local market by finding something else to sell to my existing customers?” Washington said.

And so the Captain Kleen Speed Lube was born.

“My new facility has a quick lube on the right side of the building and a six-bay repair center on the left,” Washington said. “It also has a tire center. This is a major facility.”

It was the cross-promotion possibilities that originally piqued his interest.

“I have all this traffic from the carwash,” he said. “They love us, and if I can find something else to provide the same people, there would be some success in that. The ability to cross-market between them was very compelling. I have signage inside my carwash tunnel that promotes services in the repair and lube shop next door. For the services at the shop, you get a free carwash. My intent is to make sure my current customers are visiting both businesses, so I can use the success of one to promote the success of the other.”

The carwash will help drive the quick lube business, and the quick lube, Washington saw, provided an opportunity to promoted the carwash and the repair side. The quick lube service that is delivered was coined the “Quick Lube Xtreme.” The service consists of an oil change, tire rotation, alignment check and brake inspection all performed within 15 minutes with no appointment necessary. In addition to those services, the Xtreme offering also provides an access code for a free wash and unlimited vacuums at the carwash facility.

“Now that we’re in the vehicle maintenance business, we’re providing a lot of services,” he said. “When we are doing these extra services, this gives us an opportunity to find other items that the customer may need.”

And it looks a little something like this.

“We rotate the tires as needed to ensure maximum tire life and safety for our customers. But now that I’ve the wheels off the car,” he said. “Now that I’ve got the wheels off, I can take a good look at the brakes, the wheels themselves and other areas that would be otherwise obscured with the wheels still mounted. The tire inspection and alignment quick check work hand-in-hand to ensure that the vehicle will perform as designed in all types of weather conditions or during emergency maneuvering. Many big box tire stores in the area do not offer an alignment check at all. Therefore, the service is valuable even to customers who purchased their tires elsewhere.”

If someone needs one of these services, Washington just happens to have repair, alignment and tire capabilities to get the job done.

What it boils down to is one simple yet complex concept: perceived value.

“If I can find a more efficient way to get the work done, charge a little more, but give a lot more value, I believe people will pay for it,” Washington said. “The base price for a synthetic-blend oil change is $35. It’s really more top-of-market pricing, but our customers don’t see us as expensive because they are getting an oil change, tire rotation, alignment check, brake inspection and a carwash for that price along with an upscale waiting area that resembles a hotel lobby or doctor’s office.”

Having the lowest price is one approach to take, but Washington doesn’t want to be the guy with the lowest price.

“I think it’s OK to charge people more,” he explained. “You just have to show them you’re providing a lot of value and convenience for that price. It’s not about liquidating the perceived value of your product by continuously dropping your price. You need to prove you are worth every dime of what you’re charging.”

For those considering adding a facility — carwash or otherwise — to an existing operation, Washington has a bit of advice.

“You have to have a solid business plan,” he emphasized. “You have to do the basics. There are no shortcuts. So many people skip the basic steps. The perception is, ‘I need to create a business plan so I can take it to the bank and get a loan.’ But the purpose of a business plan is for you to be prepared. It’s for you to think about the things you haven’t thought about. It will make you test your idea, and it forces you to analyze if you’ll make money, how you’re going to make it and how exactly that money will come in and be spent. It’s not for the bank, it’s for you.”

Washington also recommends putting significant thought into your branding.

“I focused very heavily on creating my own brand,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve become more and more focused on it. I’m doing it now with my two sites — similar logos, similar architecture. I don’t have an oil brand name that I’m tied to on my building. If you are doing a good job, are competitively priced and offer significant value, they will come to you because of the product you have and the service you offer. After the dust settles, the plan is to offer franchise opportunities to those who would like to leverage our knowledge, experience and unique branding and trademarks.”

This hinges on what Washington refers to as “wow” moments.

“If you can create one of those moments and do something that impresses your customer to the point that you have their loyalty, they’re going to tell everyone,” Washington said. “That should be the goal. You have to turn your customers into long-term clients. That’s how you build your business. If you demonstrate that you’re trying to partner with the customer, and never try to push something on them that they don’t need, you won’t just have them for today. You’ll have them forever.” 

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