CHARLOTTE – Chuck Howard describes himself as methodical, patient and cautious.
Since taking over the family business in 1986, Howard has grown Charlotte-based Autobell Car Wash to 83 locations in five states, making it the fourth largest car wash chain in the United States. Autobell has added about three locations a year on average since 2000.
“We can grow faster if we wanted to but we’d have to do different kinds of financing,” Howard said. “We’d have to bring in other partners, sell franchises or something like that. I’ve never felt comfortable with any of those schemes.”
Despite its growth, Autobell continues to be a family business. The company employs 3,000 people, including three of Howard’s children and a grandchild. Howard’s son, Carl, serves as chief operations officer.
Autobell is also a good corporate citizen, raising $9.5 million for nonprofits since 1998 and awarding $1.2 million in college scholarships to qualifying employees since 2000. The company also treats and recycles the water at its car washes.
Autobell will celebrate its 50th anniversary in May. We caught up with Howard to discuss his company’s growth.
How do you stay patient when it comes to growth?
Patience is a good word because you’d like to just go out and do everything all at once. Let’s go build 100 locations, but the financial responsibility part comes in.
I want the company to be financially secure, so that acts as a regulator or governor on our growth.
Over the years, we’ve had good financial advice both from our lenders and from internal financial folks who advise us on how fast we can go. How many locations can we build in a year? What can our cash flow support?
Obviously, we use bank financing, but we also have to put our own money into it.
There’s always a cost with starting up new locations. You don’t just build it and all of a sudden it’s fantastic out the door. Once in a while, you’ll get one of those, but usually, there’s a ramp-up period.
Is that how it works when you’re thinking about dipping the toe in another state or region?
If we go into a new territory, we like to build a district of eight or 10 locations so we can have one district manager over that district. We kind of grow that way.
It’s good to have multiple locations in the same market, both for visibility and branding but also just convenience, so people don’t have to go very far to get service.
Do you guys have a cap on how much is too much in a certain market, like over-saturation?
I think if you had to throw a number out, I would say 40,000 or 50,000 population for a location.
Another way of looking at it, if you looked at a map of Charlotte and you drew a three-mile ring around every one of our locations, it would be completely covered. That gives you good coverage in a market.
You’ve been at the helm for 30-plus years. How do you stay hungry? What keeps you going?
Just working with great people.
Some start in high school and they stay with us through the years and now they’re in management or administration doing different things. That’s rewarding.
As a matter of fact, if I hang around the car wash very long, somebody will come up to me – they’re driving now a Mercedes or BMW – and say, ‘Mr. Howard, remember I used to work for you back in 1980-something.’ They go on to greater things. Very often, we are their very first work experience.
It’s rewarding to realize we are contributing to people’s development and growth as they mature.
How much stock do you put on the company culture? I’d imagine since you get so many newbies, there’s a focus on training and customer service.
We put a lot of effort and resources into training. We have a director of training.
You might have seen our learning centers down here by the car wash. That is a facility set up with video and classrooms for that very purpose. We also have a satellite training center in each of our markets, where our director of training will either travel to conduct training and seminars or teleconference.
What’s the secret to 50 years of success and growth?
Persistence is the biggest. Trying to be practical, documenting everything we do so we can maintain consistency, building the brand so that it’s recognizable wherever you go and encouraging the best and brightest to come work for us.
Most of our employees are students – at least they start out that way – so we have a scholarship program that encourages students to come work for us.
Community involvement – we support a lot of different organizations primarily through our charity car wash, which is a huge program. We allow nonprofit groups to sell our gift cards and they keep one half of the money.
Ultimately, where would you like to see the company go?
In the near term, we are already a regional operation, because we are in five states. I think we should focus on continuing to grow that. There’s plenty of room for more locations in the five states where we operate (North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Maryland).
Going national would be a huge step for us. If we start going into new markets – not saying we wouldn’t do that – we would consider it carefully.
One thing is the financial part. We’re a little bit conventional in the way we finance our locations. There’s a lot of private equity out there now that we could access. There’s investment banking. There are even public offerings, but all of those things dilute your ownership and present risk.
Of course, there’s rewards and numerous stories of people who have reaped going that direction. But for now, I think we’ll continue to look for opportunities, either greenfield or buying existing car washes and just try to keep up with our reasonable growth.
We have 83 locations and that’s after 50 years. Down the road, I think we can grow a little faster. As you grow, you have more economies of scale.
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
I think it’s got to be the development of people.
Number one, my family. I’m very blessed to have my family interested in the business.
And the folks that have come along with this company are like family. Many of our executives now are guys and gals that started out literally washing cars as teenagers and decided to stay.
It’s a joy to see what a good team of folks we have built over the years. I think that is an accomplishment.
We’re a people business. Obviously, we’re not a self-serve operation. We are what is known as a full-serve car wash. That means that we have lots of employees. At a time when many people in our industry are running away from employees, we are embracing that. We encourage young people to come work for us. We celebrate their accomplishments. That’s just such an important part of our business.
And I think of the customer experience. People come here and there’s actually someone to talk to. Someone that if they have a question that can actually answer it. To me, that’s part of the joy of running an organization. And part of the reason for growth. Because growth presents a career path for the new ones coming in. They can see you got this district manager and this guy in marketing and all these people started out as a car washer. It’s an opportunity, if they like it and want to stay with it, to grow with the company.