Inside business: Started from a scratch

Franchising: The Handwash has made its mark with motorists
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT ALL started with a bit of rust and a rather nasty scratch. Nigel White's pride and joy was his Jaguar, which he took through an automatic carwash, much to its detriment. "An old rusty car or van had been through it and the brush picked up the rust and damaged my car," says Mr White, who at the time ran factories supplying jeans.

When he complained to the garage it refused to accept liability, so he decided to boycott automatic washes. But after spending one too many weekends with a bucket and vacuum cleaner, it struck him: if he was prepared to lavish time and effort on his vehicle, wouldn't others appreciate the same service - at a reasonable price?

His idea became reality: after several months of preliminary work, he found his first site on the Oldham Road in Manchester, an old drive-through burger bar. His aim was to combine personal service with convenience, come rain or shine, and in 1992 The Handwash was born.

"I had been to America and seen a few there. I thought: 'The same idea, but more English. What would work here?' In America, you jump out and have a meal while they're doing your car. Here, everybody is in a rush, so the idea is to get into the wash and out as quickly as possible. But our service is second to none, because it's all hands-on."

After building up a chain of six branches in the Manchester area, The Handwash signed up two franchisees at an exhibition in Birmingham's NEC. Later this month, at the British Franchise Exhibition at Wembley, Mr White will be looking for partners in the South. "We will be a household name within five years. We will be the McDonald's of car washes," he predicts.

He had known he was on to a winner right from the start. "We opened on a Friday and by the Saturday we had queues outside. We had six staff to start off, but we found that wasn't enough. The reason people were attracted was that a lot had suffered damage in automatic washes. The brushes can't do all the little curves, but we make sure all the wheels are done properly. We were charging about the same price, and it takes about five minutes, although if you come on a weekend it's up to 40 minutes."

Nevertheless, customers return time and again; they even bring their papers to read as employees clean the vehicles. Mr White exported the "conveyor belt" principle from his factories to his franchises, deducing that if customers knew they were being seen to - with a wash, a rinse, a wax and a polish - they wouldn't mind the wait.

He also realised that his operation had to be reliable and ready to cater for demand. "We get people trying to copy us, but never anybody who lasts more than a year. They try and do it on a shoestring, but they don't have the back-up if something goes wrong. When it rains, they think: 'I'll close today.' We are very professional; even if it's throwing it down, we're open."

Not only is The Handwash open all hours but staff are instructed not to swear, argue, smoke or eat near the cars. Courtesy is a watchword, and there is no discrimination against customers driving old bangers; they can even have them valeted for pounds 8.50. "I explain to staff that it's not us who pay the wages, it's the customers. We've got a wash in one of the roughest parts of Manchester, and one of the franchisees is in the posher part of Stockport. It doesn't matter what type of customer we get; you have to look after them. We're not a nation of complainers, so if you had a car wash you didn't think was very good, you just wouldn't go back. The car's got to go out as if it's brand new."

To ensure a quality wash, Mr White liaised with chemical companies to come up with a branded range of materials, and introduced red and yellow uniforms for employees, including waterproof jackets. He has also spent a considerable amount of time devising his own fiddle-proof till system. "It was a potential problem because you don't have stock - you're selling a service. But now it is all logged without any paperwork."

He is offering the same back-up to franchisees, charging a one-off fee of around pounds 59,000 to assist with locating a site in a prime position and applying for planning permission. While The Handwash is designed to be a fast service, franchisees must be a little more patient. "It does take quite a long time, and we say: 'You are not going to be open in four weeks.' It takes roughly four to five months, but after two weeks open they should be holding their own."

Slowly but surely, Mr White is targeting sites and moving former colleagues into strategic positions. "I had decided to sell my other business, and I went into this, and it went all right. It went superbly. But I'll leave Europe for a few years until I've got England sewn up."