By focusing on environmental safety, customer service, and four-star quality, this Northwestern car wash chain has what it needs to succeed. In 1990, a city of Seattle inspector came out to a Brown Bear Car Wash location to make sure the business was following the rules and threatened to fine an employee for hosing down the dirt that had collected in the vacuum area. Rather than protesting the attention, the company decided to take action and has since become a major educational force in alerting businesses and private citizens about the importance of water sanitation. 

“My dad decided we needed to get together as an industry here regionally and educate governmental entities that commercial car washing is in fact safe for the environment,” said Lance Odermat, vice president and general counsel for Brown Bear. 

Car washes are required by law to send the water discharge and soapy water directly to the sanitary sewer where it is treated properly, then discharged, and eventually reused. And although it’s difficult to imagine that a simple charity car wash could actually be bad for the environment, in Seattle, water not properly discharged goes directly into Puget Sound. 

Even people washing their cars in their driveways are a threat to the environment because they’re not using the proper methods to discharge their water, Odermat said. So Brown Bear decided to work with governmental institutions to find a way to provide charities with alternative methods to raise money other than doing side-of-the-road car washes. 

In 1992, in partnership with other car washes in the region, Brown Bear developed the Puget Sound Car Wash Organization, which offers charities discounted car wash ticket prices with resale values that would provide them the funds they need to continue with their charity work. Four years ago, Brown Bear decided to develop its own charity car wash program and now works directly with charities, offering them $1.50 tickets for car washes that retail at more than $5.00. 

“A light bulb went on when the citation incident occurred, and we realized we needed to educate our customer base so they know they’re not only doing something good for their vehicle but also for the environment when they use a commercial car wash,” said Odermat. 

“Through various advertising pieces and articles, we’ve educated our customer base on how we’re environmentally friendly by going into detail about how we treat the water, how we discharge it, etc.”

Spread the word

Established in 1957, Brown Bear is more than a car wash to Seattle; its signature bear statue and blue and green color scheme have made it a local staple. With 40 locations around Seattle, the company has reached a level of brand recognition that some would think no longer needs advertising and marketing support. 

But that doesn’t mean the company is resting on its laurels when it comes to advertising, and it never stops finding ways to improve its locations and its business practices.

Its advertising campaigns focus on two areas primarily, said Odermat. One focus is on touting environmental benefit of using a commercial car wash. The second focus is on educating the public to only use well-maintained and equipped commercial car washes rather than going at it in their homes.

Brown Bear, for example, is not your average car wash. “Our sites are fun like a Four Seasons hotel,” said Odermat. “We have inhouse technicians who can handle everything from electricity to plumbing. Car washes in general take a beating, and parts wear out; if you don’t stay on top of your maintenance, you have a lot of problems.”

The company also relies on its approach to customer service to compel customers to be its advocates. To keep its employees inspired, the company developed a mystery shopper program; at any point on any given day, a mystery shopper could be testing them on the customer service techniques they’ve been trained on time and again. 

“There’s a large monetary advantage for the managers and employees who pass these mystery shopping visits,” said Odermat. “When they pass, they’re rewarded significantly.”

Today, tomorrow, and beyond

This year, Brown Bear is enhancing its online presence to give consumers even more ways to experience the brand. The goal, said Odermat, is to make the site more user friendly and to start building the company’s e-commerce platform. “Online sales help to improve our productivity,” he said. 

“The weather in Seattle is such that we could wash only 30 cars one day because of the rain and then 1,000 the next when it clears up,” Odermat continued. “Having prepaid customers helps us move the lines along and makes for a better sales experience for the customers.”

Social media hasn’t played a major role in Brown Bear’s marketing platform yet, but Odermat isn’t about to count it out. By next year, he estimates, the company might have an iPhone app that incorporates a bar code for customers to use rather than paying cash.

“The technology is still developing rapidly, and we want to make sure we choose the right one,” Odermat said. 

In the next 12 months, Odermat expects Brown Bear will open two new sites in the Seattle area. The dilemma, he said, comes from the lack of stability in real estate prices. “Deals keep getting better, and we feel time is on our side,” he said. 

Throughout the years, Brown Bear has acquired many prime real estate pieces, and its current debt level is low. And although its overall revenues are down because of gas price fluctuation  (Brown Bear is the largest Chevron retailer in Washington state), its profits are up. Odermat said this is good news for the company’s future. 

“For the upcoming year, we want to modernize our system and implement a loyalty card program, upgrade the website, and drive sales through e-commerce and by finding ways to reduce labor without reducing quality on the sites,” he said. “Beyond that, I certainly see growth.”

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