Columbia Firm Cleaning up in the Car Wash Business, Thanks to SBA Financing and Owner’s Keen Business Acumen
Drivers in Columbia looking to turn their ride from grimy to sparkling often turn to Tiger Express Wash for a quick, quality wash-down. And when the owner of Tiger Express Wash needed financing to weather a buy-out and expand its offerings, he turned to the SBA 504 Loan Program for help.
A discussion with Roland Bartels of Tiger Express Wash is like observing every business course taught in college applied to a real world situation. His research into profit optimization in the car wash industry is truly impressive—he exemplifies everything SBA and its resource partners tell clients about running a business.
While this level of research might not be what you would expect from the owner of a chain of local car washes, it is clearly a winning formula. In June 2012 Bartels and his previous partner divided their business. Bartels wanted the flex service and exterior service car washes and his partner wanted the self-serve car washes. Bartels planned to go to primarily a membership system because his research showed the profits would increase and his partner just wasn’t interested.
Bartels needed financing to buy out his partner, form a new LLC, and to expand. He turned to Donna Hamilton of Enterprise Development Corporation for a loan through SBA’s 504 loan program. This particular loan was very complicated (Bartels said it was like “drilling through knotholes”) since a new LLC was being formed and required additional paperwork and time, but the results were worth the effort. He is looking to build his fifth car wash with another 504 loan—he had two facilities when he received the loan. In just 15 months he went from 45 to 75 employees and his revenues went from $1.6 million to $2 million.
Bartels reaps 20 new memberships a day—400 in June 2012 to a current total of 6000! He originally set his price point too high and customers were over-utilizing the memberships. When he dropped the membership prices volume went down 10% and revenue went up 13%. He cited a Cornell study during the interview in explaining his pricing—a monthly basic membership is a little over double the price of a basic wash. He offers specials on Pandora and special offers for MIZZOU students.
Bartels’ strategy includes reducing the number of employees tied up in taking payments diverting as many personnel as possible to the actual wash process. Members have an RFID chip on their cars so they can just drive through the gate and proceed to the wash. His employees wash 135,000 cars per year which equates to 12 cars per man hour. It takes about five minutes for a car to go through an exterior wash process. A full service washes it takes about 10 minutes for a full interior and exterior cleaning. His cashiers are expected to help with the washes when they are not ringing up customers.
Bartels expects high levels of customer service from his employees. They are expected to be clean cut with no visible tattoos. They are not allowed to smoke or chew tobacco within sight of customers. Their shirts are to be tucked in. They must acknowledge the customers and use basic manners we wish were still in play everywhere. They have to be able to deal with issues like cars with keypads that automatically lock when they go through the car wash—and the owner doesn’t know the code to unlock it. In one instance a car overheated in the wash last summer blocking the wash. The manager had to deal with getting the car out of the wash. As Bartels said, “Nit-noid stuff. The job is hard as working concrete (construction work). It’s a career option for my managers, though.”
He also treats his employees well. His managers are young and are eligible for health insurance. He plans to create an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) for his employees in five years as he was part of an ESOP in his previous 25-year career in construction.
Bartels also supports his community—he’ll donate $5 from Black and Gold washes to a cancer victim, sponsor golf tournaments, or donate free car washes to a new high school.
When asked about advice for prospective small business owners, Bartels said with a wry grin, “Don’t. You’ll work 16 hour days seven days a week. It’s hard.” He added, “I love the camaraderie. I love the growing process. I love what I do.”
He said about the 504 loan process, “Banks didn’t know how to handle unusual businesses like car washes, especially after the recession. SBA took a lot of risk out of the process.”
Tiger Express Wash has three locations in Columbia and one in Jefferson City. (Bartels noted that Jefferson City has a very different business environment than Columbia.) The flex service washes offer exterior services and the option of interior service. The other washes only offer exterior services but they have self-serve vacuums on site. Visit Tiger Express Wash online at http://www.tigerexpresswash.com/ for locations and pricing information.
Enterprise Development Corporation can be reached at www.entdevcorp.org or at 573-875-8117.
To find out more about the 504 loan program or other SBA services, contact the SBA St. Louis District Office at 314-539-6600 or visit www.sba.gov/mo/stlouis. SBA St. Louis also maintains offices in Columbia and Cape Girardeau. (Contact information is on the web site.)
How the Missouri SBTDC and Mid-Missouri SCORE Helped Wheelchair Personalities Get Rolling to Give Vets and Others a Boost
If you have ever been confined to a wheelchair, even for a short time, you know it can be depersonalizing. It may be that you are below eye level, but no matter the cause, those in wheelchairs are often ignored. Sharon Paulsell and her husband Steve found when running Honor Flights out of Columbia, Missouri that strangers readily approached and thanked ambulatory Veterans for their services while those in wheelchairs were often overlooked.
Sharon and Steve also found during trips that the hundreds of wheelchairs at the national World War II Memorial all looked the same. Once, a wheelchair from their group was accidentally loaded onto a bus for another Honor Flight leading to an extensive search to track it down. Luggage tags or newspaper bags tied to the wheelchairs just weren’t cutting it to identify their wheelchairs at a glance.
The issues became the impetus for the creation of a new business called Wheelchair Personalities. At first, Sharon didn’t plan to start a business. She just wanted to find a way to better recognize both the chairs and the veterans who occupied them.
Wheelchair Personalities now designs covers for the back of wheelchairs.
The first models announced the occupant’s status of being a World War II Vet for those veterans taking the Honor Flight. Sharon noticed they were getting more attention than the walking veterans with the covers being a conversation starter.
With these positive results, Sharon and Steve decided to start a business with Sharon at the helm. They expanded their idea to include others in wheelchairs, who they thought might like to express themselves via their wheelchairs as well.
Since Steve’s sister, Mary Paulsell, works for Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers (SBTDCs,) the couple knew there was free help available to their small business and others like them. They started planning the business with SBTDC counseling in 2010 and continue to seek advice. The couple also worked with Elinor Arendt from the Mid-Missouri SCORE association. (SBTDC and SCORE are both SBA resource partners which offer free counseling and low cost training.)
Each Columbia SBTDC employee has an area where they have assisted the growing business. Virginia Wilson started them with the business plan template, told them how much work it takes to run a small business, and assisted them with gathering all the forms and documents needed to start and register a small business. Jim Gann connected them with other small businesses—notably suppliers, manufacturers, and salespeople. He introduced the concept of “pay for performance” for sales people. Collin Bunch is a social media “guru” and has assisted them with all things social media—especially Facebook and LinkedIn. Mary Paulsell has been there with sage advice and cheerleading along the way.
Even with expert advice, Sharon and Steve made some mistakes. They rented space early on, and then found it was a needless expense. Fortunately, they lost their lease when another business took over the whole building. They are again working out of their home and are quite happy there for now.
The couple used their savings to finance Honor Flights and Wheelchair Personalities. They are now concentrating more intensely on Wheelchair Personalities because there is no similar product on the market today and they feel strongly that the wheelchair-bound should be able to express their personalities via the covers.
The covers have been adopted by Children’s Hospital in Columbia, whose “wheelchair corrals” are no longer filled with plain black, brown, or navy wheelchairs, they now have brightly colored pictures of TJ and a morale boosting inscription reading, ‘We care about your comfort and you are important to us as an individual.’ One young patient said he wouldn’t get in another wheelchair unless TJ, the Children’s Hospital’s tiger mascot, was on the back.
Sharon’s current goal is to expand to other hospitals, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes and then tackle major retail chains.
“Most retail chains and hospitals just have stenciled wheelchairs. Not only are our covers another form of advertising, but they express more care for the needs of those patrons in wheelchairs. It gives a more cheerful appearance,” Sharon says, noting they have has enlisted Ms. Wheelchair USA 2010-2011, Phaedra Olsen, to promote the covers.
The back covers can be individually ordered from the website and are now available at Carrie’s Hallmark Shop in Jefferson City. While the Paulsells are the sole employees, it is important to them that products remains American-made. They employ an intern from the University of Missouri who is now unpaid and learning about small business, but who would like to be hired when the company grows.
Knowing the ups and downs of starting a business, Sharon and Steve also mentor new entrepreneurs in the 1 Million Cups program initiated by the Kaufman Foundation. What advice do they pass on to these new small business owners?
“Seek out all available resources and use them—friends, family, other small business owners, SBTDC, SCORE, SBA. Don’t try to go it alone…ask for assistance and advice,” says Sharon.
Missouri SBTDC in Columbia can be reached by calling 573-884-8087, by emailing email@example.com or by visiting http://www.missouribusiness.net/ucie/index.asp. They are located at Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), 500 E. Walnut, Suite 103, Columbia, MO, 65201. Mid-Missouri SCORE can be reached at 573-874-1132, by visiting 300 S. Providence Rd, Columbia, MO, 65203, or online at http://midmissouriscore.org.
For more information on how SBA St. Louis can assist your small business, contact 314-539-6600 or visit www.sba.gov/mo/stlouis. The St. Louis District also maintains an office in the REDI in Columbia and one on the SEMO campus in Cape Girardeau. The contact information can be found on the SBA St. Louis District Office website.
A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Civil Engineering: How SBA Guaranteed Loans and Advice from SCORE Helped Make the Road Smoother for Vicki LaRose’s Civil Design, Inc. (CDI)
If you’re one of the thousands of St. Louis-area drivers every day making your way easier through the new I-64/Highway 40 interchange, you can offer a little thanks for the work done there from a small, but fast-growing mom-owned business.
Vicki LaRose’s firm, Civil Design, Inc. (CDI), is on track to break $3 million in sales this year, and has a portfolio of civil engineering projects including work on the Boone Bridge, University of Missouri system, Metropolitan Sewer District and Metrolink. She began her company as a stay-at-home mom, and over the years thanks in part to SBA small business financing, has expanded to offices in southern Illinois and Kentucky, specializing in construction management, environmental, site development, surveying, water resources, and transportation engineering.
Pretty good for somebody who didn’t know what kind of engineer she wanted to be when she grew up. Back in high school, LaRose chalked up good grades in math and science, and followed a friend to college. When asked by a professor what engineering field she wanted to study, she exclaimed: “There’s more than one kind? I thought I had this figured out!”
Civil engineering was her choice, “because it sounded interesting and it would help the community at large.” After graduation, she worked for 10 years at a large firm before she decided to blaze her own path by creating a responsive, quality-driven, woman-owned civil engineering firm. With excellent advice from a local area SCORE chapter, LaRose put together a solid strategic business plan, hired a lawyer and an accountant, took business classes to get smart on running her own company and incorporated Civil Design in 1996.
She grew the business slowly, while still working part time for her old firm, and part time at home chasing after her two young boys and later her daughter. By 2004, she took out an SBA Express loan to purchase computers and other equipment; three years later, she used the 504 program to finance the company’s current headquarters in the Soulard area of St. Louis.
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire fixed assets for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies (CDC), SBA's community-based partners for providing 504 loans. This program calls for the participating lender to provide half the financing, with the SBA offering up to 40 percent of the costs financed through the CDC.
LaRose made sure her growing business had a family friendly work environment; experts now call her firm a lifestyle company, one which offers a better balance between work responsibilities and home life. Employees, the dads as much as the moms, can adjust their schedules to catch a recital or a game, or take care of a sick child. It’s also the kind of firm that handles projects like site development for a middle school and surveying work for a future elementary school.
Over the past few years, LaRose has grown from 18 employees to 28 (she started with just herself in 1996); among that number is her husband, who brought his 20 years of civil engineering work aboard to serve as the company’s Chief Financial Officer and Quality Manager.
While sales remained fairly flat during the recent economic downturn, LaRose leveraged new business in surveying work and other strategic moves to stay profitable, and a reputation for delivering on-time, within-budget designs to stay that way. She’s constantly on the lookout for trends in area construction and engineering, and quickly acts to hire the best to permit the firm to pursue new projects; she’s also fast to refer a job to another firm if she doesn’t think it’s something Civil Design can do well, and has benefitted from other cooperative firms doing the same for her company.
Her email signature block reads: “Civil Design, Inc. Expertise of a Large Firm–Responsiveness of a Small Firm.”
“I take a commonsense approach and try to simplify everything for my clients,” she said. “I treat people like they are my friend, with respect and honesty.”
Civil Design’s employment turnover rates are low, as her staff appreciates the flexible, family-friendly atmosphere. LaRose offers health insurance, matching contributions for individual retirement accounts, tuition reimbursement, and short-term and long-term disability insurance. She even has her employee needs in mind when making business decisions: the company is opening an office in Effingham, Ill., in part to keep in the fold one engineer who wanted to move back home.
She’s committed to a better community by participating with teams in athletic events to raise funds for area charities, and Habitat for Humanity is not only is a client, but another of the company’s charitable efforts.
LaRose knows she, and her company, don’t fit the typical civil engineer image. Instead, she’s a vanguard of a new generation of engineers, helping to pave the way for women—and men—who not only want to build the bridges, infrastructure and schools of today, but a better community for tomorrow.
To contact Civil Design, Inc., visit http://civildesigninc.com/ or call 314-863-5570. They are located at 1552 S. 7th Street, St. Louis, MO, 63104.