The Secret of Rising Tide Carwash

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There’s a carwash in Parkland, Florida, where the employees value the job they do more than the paycheck they receive. They’re exceptional — passionate, engaged, willing to continuously train and learn new things. Turnover is 200-percent less than the industry average. What’s the secret? There isn’t one. In fact, the owners of Rising Tide Car Wash are doing everything in their power to spread the word, hoping more companies will copy the thing that’s given them a competitive advantage.

Tom D’Eri hadn’t graduated business school before he — along with his dad, mom and brother, Andrew — thought about starting a company. Originally from New York, Tom and Andrew grew up only 18 months apart. Their life experiences ran parallel, but their personalities, opportunities and the lenses in which they viewed the world were very different. Andrew is a man of ritual and routine, and so are other autistic men and women like him.

By the end of 2011, the D’Eri’s recognized Andrew probably wasn’t going to find employment in the programs he was involved in. So, with him as their driving inspiration, Tom and his father, John, — who was already a successful entrepreneur — decided they wanted to create a solution.

“We started thinking about what would be a good way to employ Andrew,” Tom said. “After I graduated from college, we began researching why Andrew wasn’t able to find employment. We discovered it wasn’t just the situation he was in. Eighty to 90 percent of people with autism are unemployed.”

In some cases, the perceptions about autism are more debilitating than the reality. Certainly autism is a challenge, but it should be viewed as a valuable diversity rather than a disability.

“We found a lot of people with autism thrive in process-driven environments doing work that’s — in some way — detail-oriented and routine. We wanted to find a business that could not only employ Andrew and other folks like him, but also get the message out there that people with autism can be exceptional employees in the right environments,” Tom said.

John and Tom took their newly claimed and carefully collected knowledge and began looking at a variety of consumer staple businesses with the ability to be well structured. They considered laundromats, dry cleaners and delis before settling on the carwash business.

“When the carwash business is done right, it’s very process driven. We liked that it was a mature business model and there were significant advantages to having a large workforce,” Tom said. “It’s also big and bold in the community. Most carwashes are on an acre or so of land, on a main thoroughfare and have a big street sign. That’s a pretty interesting platform to get the message out about how capable people with autism can be. Also, when you leave a carwash, it’s easy to recognize whether or not a good job was done. We pride ourselves on doing a really good job so people leave our carwash thinking, ‘Wow, I received great service and people with autism did that!’ It’s a powerful tool to change the way society thinks about autism.”

The D’Eri’s had vacationed in Florida for years, never thinking of their home-away-from-home as more than a place to relax and make memories as a family. After all, they were native New Yorkers. 

One day, their thoughts fully consumed with how to make this dream happen, John and Tom discovered Sonny Enterprises — a well-known name in the carwash industry for products, support and resources — had a factory only 30 minutes away from where they were vacationing.

“We drove over [to Sonny Enterprises], had a meeting with some of their guys and presented our idea to them. Before our presentation was over, they were onboard,” Tom said. “That got the ball rolling. From there we went through their Carwash College and brought in a consultant who had a lot of experience in developing disability employment programs for large companies like Walgreens, Kraft and Best Buy.”

Before long, it was time to put everything the D’Eri’s knew to the test. Years of learning about autism firsthand from Andrew and months of research in the carwash industry were all about to either launch them into a new business or send them back to the drawing board. With their team of professionals by their side, Sonny Enterprises graciously offered to let John and Tom head up a trial run at their only carwash and test site, Liberty Carwash in Homestead, Florida.

“We brought along 15 guys and girls with autism. It was a wonderful experience. They performed at or above industry standards on quality and speed, and the individual growth we saw happen was tremendous,” Tom said. “Some were barely talking when they started, and after a few weeks of working with us they were becoming really interested in interacting with customers and learning new skills. When we saw that, we thought, ‘OK, this is going to work.’ We put our money where our mouth was and bought an existing, full-service carwash in Parkland.”

Purchasing the property was only the first step. It had to be retrofitted into a flex-service carwash, employees had to be hired and trained and — oh, yeah — the D’Eri’s had to move. As far as they were concerned, these were small prices to pay, and Rising Tide Car Wash opened in April of 2013.

Since opening, Rising Tide has consistently employed 43 people, 35 of whom have autism, and the carwash is a thriving success in the community.

“When we purchased it, the location was struggling and washing only about 30,000 vehicles per year. We’ve been able to successfully turn the business around. We’ll probably wash more than 130,000 cars this year,” Tom said.

John is the CEO of Rising Tide Car Wash. Tom is second in command acting as COO, and Andrew works four days a week as a production associate. Tom’s voice lit up, and even through the phone, I could tell he was smiling as he talked about his mom, Donna.

“Mom helps with all of the administrative tasks that, quite frankly, I don’t want to do. But her primary role is being the carwash mom to all of the employees,” Tom said.

The story of Rising Tide began because of the D’Eri family, but it continues to flourish because of the entire Rising Tide family. Rising Tide has employees who’ve been with them since opening in 2013, and they have yet to turn an entire staff. The employees with autism perform extremely well, and the positive impact on social skills that John and Tom noticed at the trial run have stayed true.

Most of the employees live close by but a few travel 20 to 30 miles to get to work — usually relying on public transportation, which can add up to a two-hour commute. Usually, they show up enthusiastic and eager to work.

“No matter if they come from close by, or farther away, come early or stay late, they’re excited to be here when they arrive,” Tom said. “This business model shouldn’t be as groundbreaking as it is. We’re one carwash. We employ 35 people with autism, and we’re the largest retail employer of individuals with autism. This is probably one of the only social enterprises focused on disability employment being a profitable business. It shouldn’t be that way.”

The reason Tom suspects businesses shy away from hiring people with autism is because of misplaced perceptions. It’s not because society perceives people with autism as not being able to be good employees, it’s because employers assume because they have a disability, they’ll require more support or won’t have the skills — or ability to gain the skills — necessary to be effective employees.

“Small business owners or corporations hesitate to risk their success or being able to feed their own families by employing people they perceive as not being able to do the same job as a neuro-typical person,” Tom said. “The perceptions are just off. Our employees complete their tasks extraordinarily well and provide great customer service. They have an eye for detail, stay with us and are motivated. We want to be able to set an example as we grow and become a more successful business in hope others will follow in our footsteps.”

Each employee at Rising Tide has the same opportunity to grow within the organization. All of the employees begin at the same place. It doesn’t matter whether they have autism or not, Rising Tide believes the best way for an employee to grow is from the bottom. This way, by the time the employee gets to the top, they know how to do every job in the business.

“We start all of our employees at the production associate level. We’ve had employees with autism move from the entry level, associate position to a quality control supervisor to an assistant manager-type role,” Tom said. “One thing holding our autistic employees back is their social communication. This is the crux of the diversity, and we’re continuously coaching them up. Most people with autism, at their core, have trouble interacting with people. However, they can work on and learn the skill. Some of our employees have absolutely no interest in talking to other people, while others do have an interest but don’t understand the social cues we take for granted. A lot of our higher functioning employees — like those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome — have intellectual capacities at or above average but still struggle with social issues. Our goal is to provide them with their first job, teach them what it means to be a good employee and how to navigate the social dynamics of a workplace. Later, they can find a job more closely aligned with what they want to do with their lives.”

Repetition and specific processes are vital to the training program Rising Tide implements. They open the opportunity for employment to local autism groups, school districts and essentially anyone who has an interest. Then, they hold an intensive interview process focused on hands-on tasks and not behavioral questions.

“We get the candidate on a car, show them a skill and watch them complete it. We make sure they can comprehend what we’re saying, don’t have any issues with the environment and are physically able to do the job. If they can do those things, we move forward with training,” Tom said. “There’s a longer training process involved with autistic employees. You don’t want to throw them on the line after 30 minutes of training and have them figure it out in a live environment. Instead, we give them about 6-10 hours of training, depending on the individual. We have them complete three training sessions on a practice car. Afterward, we bring them into the live environment. Before they can work on a customer’s car they have to master the most basic functions.”

Mastery at Rising Tide means employees must complete drying windows and vacuuming on the passenger side of the vehicle three times in a row, with perfect quality and in less than six minutes. Then, they can move on to working on customers’ cars. When there’s time, Tom and his team are constantly coaching and training. There are some things Tom can count on employees with autism to do that others won’t.

“I can tell my neuro-typical tunnel operators not to step on the track conveyor 100 times — basically, until I’m blue in the face. Our employees with autism will step over the conveyor every single time. They’ll never touch the wrap-around brushes or bring the hose into the tunnel, and they know they have to get out early and clean the tunnel later. These employees are as safe as you get,” Tom said. “They save us so much money in the tunnel position because they’re great at spotting damages on cars before they go through the wash and are properly retracting equipment. They’re the best because they’re thorough and their tendency to be hyper detail oriented is a strength in that role. If they see something, instead of saying, ‘Oh forget it, I don’t care!’ they’re going to ask, ‘What do I do?’ After a couple of months, they’ll learn things a normal employee wouldn’t take the time to learn.”

Over the course of the last two years, Rising Tide has not only made a difference in the lives of their employees and the people who love them, but they’ve also inspired others to follow their example.

National TV programs like NBC Nightly News have picked up and featured Rising Tide’s story, as well as a documentary called “Sounding the Alarm.” Recently, a video about Rising Tide went viral on Facebook and brought more attention to their mission. In 2014, Rising Tide was named CareerSource Broward’s Connections 2014 Small Business of the Year.

“All of our recruiting is very grassroots. We work with a lot of local organizations to find our employees. That itself is a great way to create some local buzz. It has generated a lot of our media attention,” Tom said. “We’ve collaborated with other autism organizations and some of it has resulted from that, but I’d say the documentaries and videos have been what spurred the national media attention.”

According to Tom, the carwash business isn’t the only business outlet in which this model can thrive. Roughly one in 60 children are currently diagnosed with autism. This means 10 percent of society knows or loves someone with autism. That creates a sticky client base excellent for any service organization.

“From an employment perspective, I’d say if you can structure your business to have concrete routines and processes, then there is a subset of employees with autism that can be really good employees for you,” Tom said. “The oil change process itself is fairly routine. While the greeter role might not be the perfect fit for a person with autism there probably are roles that could work. Don’t count yourself out.”

Fight the good fight simply by sharing the message and starting a conversation. Let other business owners know hiring individuals with autism is a competitive advantage and creates goodwill in the community. That is the best way to give back.

“I certainly didn’t see myself working with individuals with autism, in the carwash business or the service industry, but getting to know so many people with autism and spending time with them, hearing their crazy stories and funny perspectives on the world, that’s my favorite part of this whole journey,” Tom said.

Rising Tide hopes to open a few more stores and help other families affected by autism. They’re currently figuring out if it’s better to have others adopt their model in the carwash business or help them build a business of their own employing people with autism. Whatever they decide, they won’t keep their competitive advantage a secret.

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