This month, the Corner Office spotlight shines on Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Car Wash Association, which serves 2,000 member companies that represent more than 15,000 car washes around the world.
Association Adviser: Eric, tell us a little bit about ICA
Eric Wulf: We’ve been around since 1954 and have pretty much grown up alongside the automobile industry. The International Carwash Association® is the nonprofit trade group representing the retail and supply segments of the professional car wash industry in North America and around the globe. The Association’s member companies represent about 15,000 car washes in nearly two dozen countries.
We produce The Car Wash Show™, the world’s largest car wash trade show and convention. We administer WaterSavers®, the industry’s leading environmental recognition program. We publish CAR WASH Magazine™ and developed Wash Count™, a tool for car wash operators to benchmark and compare their business results.
AA: Do you come from the car wash or automotive industry?
EW: No. I was at an association management company previously. I came into ICA as the No. 2 and became CEO in 2009—how’s that for timing [chuckling]?
AA: Is there such a thing as a typical ICA member?
EW: We represent both the suppliers and the retailers. Increasingly, there’s been more consolidation in the industry. About half of our members are “mom and pop” family-owned businesses, typically with two to four car washes and less than $10 million in annual revenue. The other half of members are large petroleum companies. There really isn’t a midsize member.
AA: How has your membership fared during this difficult economic climate?
EW: 2009 was a very tough year, but it’s been double-digit growth ever since. We’re very proud of that growth since the industry is consolidating and there are fewer “mom and pop” retailers as I mentioned. Also, there’s a much higher cost to get into the business. Most people in their 20s and 30s don’t have the capital you need to get a car wash started. Most of the new entrants into the business are in their 40s, 50s and older. You have to tailor your content and benefits to that demographic.
AA: So, your industry is pretty sensitive to economic conditions?
EW: Absolutely. Washing your vehicle is a discretionary purchase for most people, and our members are very affected by the weather No.1 and by gas prices No. 2. If gas hits $5 per gallon, then people are going to spend less on car washes. We know that because 45 percent of car washes are in gas stations.
AA: What are your members’ biggest challenges?
EW: Zoning, consolidation, environmental regs and the weather.
AA: So, how are you helping members overcome those challenges?
EW: Again we do zero lobbying, but we do a lot of advocacy to consumers and water research. We’re not just about the business of car washes. ICA produces the industry’s leading research in the areas of consumer habits and preferences, the environmental attributes of professional car washing and industry equipment sales.
AA: What’s been the best way to attract and retain members?
EW: Stressing our member benefits. For small owners, an ICA membership makes your look more established. You also get two tickets to our annual show, plus access to our benchmarking data and, of course, our member magazine Car Wash that we do with our partner, Naylor.
AA: How has the show been faring during this economic climate?
EW: Attendance was up again in 2012. In fact, The Car Wash Show™ is now a three-day event and one of the 200 largest shows in North America.
AA: Speaking of benchmarking, many people don’t realize how data intensive your industry is.
EW: That’s right. We are very big on data and customer intelligence, and we’re becoming more so as our membership is increasingly coming from larger companies. Wash Count™ is a tool we developed for car wash operators to benchmark and compare their business results by market, by geography, by type of facility and many other factors. More than 800 sites contribute data to this research initiative. Also our staff spends a lot of time onsite with members, picking up pieces of intelligence and always asking them, “How’s it going?” It’s very important to add the face-to-face interaction to the raw data.
AA: Do you have special strategies for attracting younger members of the industry?
EW: As I mentioned earlier, it’s really not a young person’s business, due to the high cost of capital to get in. When it comes to mobile and social, you could say we’re looking at it carefully, but still trying to figure it out. However, we’re up to 2,400 members in our LinkedIn community and have about 1,700 Twitter followers. We also have a general Facebook page as well as a page for our WaterSavers® initiative.
AA: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
EW: I try to find motivated people first. Good leaders are enablers of talent—finding it, recruiting it and getting out of talented people’s way so they can do their jobs better. I want to focus my time on new ideas and bring resources to support those ideas. I guess you could say I’m a “resource getter,” not a “management of people” person.
AA: What’s the most important thing for your team to do in order to be successful?
EW: Don’t think of yourselves as association management people. Think of yourselves as car washers and be very connected to your customers. We’re very heavy users of customer relationship management tools and benchmarking data. Always ask yourself, “What do we know about our customers? What do they expect of us and are we delivering on it?”
AA: Overall things seem to be trending in the right direction. Is there anything keeping you up at night?
EW: Plenty. Are we really thinking globally? We can’t only be focused on North America and that’s hard for some of our members and constituents to understand. There’s a huge adoption of car wash ownership in the Asian Pacific region. Also, with more industry consolidation means different types of people are entering the industry. Newer members are from bigger organization. They tend to be more finicky and more focused on getting ROI out of their memberships.
AA: Any final thoughts for our readers?
EW: Like a lot of businesses, as the car wash industry changes, we’ll need to adapt, too. We’ll need more customer intelligence and a more global approach to everything we do. We’ll find a way to get it done.