Workers Come First At Mister Car Wash

December 3, 2014

Mister Car Wash renovated this former school at the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and 5th Street. The decision to put the HQ near downtown Tucson was made based on quality of life for employees.

Mister Car Wash renovated this former school at the southeast corner of 6th Avenue and 5th Street. The decision to put the HQ near Downtown Tucson was made based on quality of life for employees.

by Brad Poole

You may have noticed the recent disappearance of some Simoniz car washes in the Old Pueblo. Many of them now are or soon will be Mister Car Washes.

Mister, whose new national headquarters is in a former school at the corner of 6th Avenue and 5th Street, is doing to some Simoniz car washes what it has done with scores of others in recent years – buy them and turning them into high-tech Mister car care centers.

“The vision is a nationally branded car wash chain,” said John Lai, the company’s president and CEO.

Mister Car Wash started in 1996 as an investment group’s effort to create a large, regional brand, something that hadn’t yet been done.

There are about 24,000 mechanized car washes across the nation, but most of them are mom-and-pop operations or tiny chains of two or three stores. No one has ever built a chain that reached beyond small regions.

It's hard to recognize the Mister Car Wash headquarters as a former school.

It’s hard to recognize the Mister Car Wash headquarters as a former school.

By 2009, Mister had grown to about 80 stores, and John Lai took over as Chief Operations Officer, hoping to take the company national. In August 2014, Leonard Green & Partners, a San Francisco private equity firm, bought the company and set out to push the company along that path, said Lai, who is now President and CEO.

As of a couple weeks ago, Mister owned 134 carwashes and 32 lube centers in 14 states, but don’t quote us on that. It’s a fluid number that has doubled in the past three years with about 30 stores added each year. The company has the largest share by far of the car wash market.

Ultimately, Lai credits the company’s success to the core values of the conscious capitalism movement. Green & Partners companies such as Whole Foods, Lucky Jeans and J Crew have been successful, in part, because they want business to be about more than just money – they want to make the world a better place.

“It sounds a little hokey, but central to that message is, ‘Take care of your people,’” Lai said.

When Lai started in business, he was taught the customer always comes first. But customers don’t run your company, employees do. So Mister puts them first.

The company has a fleet of bikes handy, in case employees want to escape for a while during the work day. It's a short ride downtown or to 4th Avenue.

The company has a fleet of bikes handy, in case employees want to escape for a while during the work day. It’s a short ride Downtown or to 4th Avenue.

The median pay for store managers, many of whom have only high school diplomas but worked their way up from the car wash line, is $68,000 annually.

“Our payroll is insane, but we’re in the people business. We’ll get to the customer, but let’s start with the employee,” he said.

The company offers or will soon offer the majority of its roughly 4,800 employees the opportunity to participate in a full array of benefits, including medical insurance, generous paid vacations, 401(k) and many, many opportunities for professional growth. The website listed more than 700 jobs recently.

There is a plan to help every employee without a high school diploma get a GED.

“How cool would that be?!” Lai said. “Even if we help them, and they move on to another station in life.”

Even the choice about where to expand the corporate office was made with employees in mind. The former Foothills offices held little allure for millennial recruits in town for interviews.

“They kept asking, ‘Where’s the coffee shop?’” Lai said.

So he got the green light for the midtown renovation of the 1950s former church school. They gutted the 25,000-square-foot brick space and rebuilt from the inside. The result reflects the focus on workers.

The employee lounge at Mister Car Wash has free snack machines. That's not a typo - they give their employees free snacks.

The employee lounge at Mister Car Wash has free snack machines. That’s not a typo – they give their employees free snacks.

Although there are cubicles, they’re wide and have walls high enough for privacy but low enough for views of the HUGE windows on every floor. Top management offices are barely as big as the rank-and-file cubicle space – a conscious decision that keeps the focus on the rank and file.

There is a row of loaner bikes in the lobby, in case you want to escape for a break during the day (it’s right down the street from 4th Ave and Downtown). There is a gym with a full-on squat rack and lots of free weights. There are treadmills and showers, and two meditation/nap rooms are planned.

The employee lounge rises almost to the level of break-room science.

A large central tables invites community, while a cosy group of upholstered chairs allows a more comfy escape as needed. It’s bright and airy, and the snack and drink vending machines are free. Monday is free fruit day, and there is a popcorn machine.

“Honestly, we put more energy into the employee lounge than anything else, from a design standpoint, because it’s a focal point,” Lai said.

He sees even more success in coming years for Mister, largely because of the focus on employee well-being. It’s hard to get him to stop talking about how important he thinks they are, actually, and he is clearly excited about where his employees have taken him and where they’re headed.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be in this industry, doing what I’m doing,” he said.

“It’s not like I woke up as a kid and said, ‘I want to wash cars,’ but now we’re on the cusp of doing something that’s never been done…”

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on Pinterest