How Tommy’s Express came to Europe
Dutch car wash entrepreneur Mark de Graaf brings the American car wash concept Tommy’s Express to Europe. According to Mark, the Netherlands is totally ready for it. “People should become addicted to a clean car.”
With a Tommy’s Epress location in Utrecht and many more locations planned, De Graaf wants to take car washing in the Netherlands to the next level. And he does know what he’s talking about, being the founder and owner of BOB’s Autowas, which is a major player in the Dutch car wash market with 22 locations all over the country.
Mark de Graaf has known Tom Essenburg – the owner of Tommy’s Express – for years. First there were just colleagues in the car washing business, but over time a close friendship evolved. “Tom is, in my opinion, one of the best car washers in the world,” Mark says. “He is someone who thinks very carefully about what he does and why he does it. He’s a perfectionist and dares to think ahead. He doesn’t do that alone, by the way; his son Ryan is the figurehead of Tommy’s. Yet Tom will always be the spiritual father of the company.”
Essenburg’s first family business, Quality Car Washing, was founded more than 54 years ago. In the small town of Holland in the U.S. state of Michigan, they started with a double rollover system. Not much later this was converted to an automated car wash.
From Holland to Holland
They are still washing at this first location, and with great success. Mark: “In all the years I have been following them, I have been amazed every time at the number of cars they wash there. At first the forecast was around 300,000 and a year and a half later the counter was already at 400,000. In the past year it was as high as 630,000. A bizarre number, which makes you think: that’s not right. Until you have seen it with your own eyes. So many cars go through that car wash. In rows one after the other. And there is a lot of traffic. A wash takes a maximum of 1.40 minutes, so the cars are through in no time.”
And that, according to Mark, is immediately the key to success. Instead of a destination, the car wash has become an impulse. Holland residents drive by, do a quick car wash and move on again. “It can be done quickly and easily, and as a result you see that the frequency of washing has increased by a factor of five. If we could pull that off in Europe by, say, a factor of two, we could start doubling the number of branches.”
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Focused on car washing
Essenburg launched Tommy Car Wash Systems in 2001, becoming a well-known supplier in car-washing technology. At the same time, the franchise concept Tommy’s Express Car Wash was introduced. Currently, there are about 160 Tommy’s Express locations across the Americas, with one being added every week.
Mark: “The Tommy’s Express concept is primarily focused on car washing. Some locations have only a few vacuum cleaners. Or none at all. And the weird thing is: a car wash costs just as much there as here (in the Netherlands).
Subscription washing is the norm rather than the exception in the states, which is a very positive thing. You want to get people addicted to a clean car, and with Tommy’s Express that has worked out well.”
In addition to a “car wash addiction,” Mark is convinced that he can contribute to people’s happiness with his car washes. “I really believe in that. Compare it to a made bed. When I come into the bedroom in the evening, my bed looks lovely. And as soon as I put my head on the pillow, I feel a little bit happier. I see it the same way with a clean car: it makes you happy. Especially a car that is always clean.”
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“With this concept, car washing will only get bigger,” says Mark de Graaf.Do you think the concept of Tommy’s Express will be a success in the Netherlands?
“Yes, I think it fits very well here. Essenburg opened a Tommy’s Express not so far from the existing car wash in Holland a few years ago. Never had they thought of having two of their own car washes in such a small town. Yet with a population of 20,000, they managed to wash 360,000 cars at Tommy’s in the past year. With Tommy’s, they have been able to change people’s behavior. Just a quick car wash has become a daily part there.”
“What we also see happening here in the Netherlands is that the frequency of car washing is increasing. We have a lot of customers at BOB with a subscription. And they come and wash the car three or four times a month. They are easy customers who know exactly how everything works. And who doesn’t need instructions. That group is only growing, so the potential is definitely there.”
Throughput seems to be a key factor in Tommy’s success story. Would you like to implement that here as well?
“Yes, and not only at Tommy’s but also at BOB. Here we already run at a fairly high speed – which is not yet comparable to Tommy’s speed. But with a wash of 2.35 minutes, we come close. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. If you want to change people’s car-washing behavior, you shouldn’t give them the idea that they’re in the car wash forever.”
Doesn’t that speed come at the expense of wash quality?
“If you increase the speed in the car wash, it becomes more difficult to maintain the quality. But if people come by more often to wash the car, the cars also don’t get very dirty and it’s easier to keep them clean.
Besides, the car wash technology is evolving. It is becoming more and more sophisticated. In particular, the shampoos and chemistry we use in the car wash are getting better and better.”
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Many Tommy’s Express branches run independently, with few staff. While in the Netherlands the customer is still very much taken by the hand. How do you envision that?
“I’ve been in this business for quite a long time. And I have always thought that a car wash cannot function without an employee on the belt. Tom Essenburg begs to differ. His philosophy is that people can also do it very well themselves. What helps is that they mainly use conveyor belt systems in the US instead of chain conveyors. This makes it easier for the customer. At BOB we already have a conveyor system at a number of branches, and I must confess it is a huge step forward.”
In the Netherlands, customers are increasingly finding their way to the interior conveyor. Will that soon come to Tommy’s NL as well?
“Well, that’s an interesting story, because Tommy’s never offered any interior detailing. But now they have taken a first step in Holland and installed two interior lanes. The idea behind this is that robots will soon be used in both jobs. In the car wash industry, the first tests with car-washing robots have already been done, and with success, so things are moving in that direction.”
“Also, don’t forget how important a clean interior is. Especially if we’ll be using more shared cars in the future. It is certainly going that direction. That’s why I think cleaning the interior will soon become a necessity. By the way, Tommy’s wants to take interior washing all the way to a subscription model. Because if people have the interior cleaned regularly, it doesn’t get as dirty either, and that in turn saves the time it takes to clean a car. That’s the way I see it.”
Do you think Tommy’s Express can exist alongside the other car washes in the Netherlands?
“It doesn’t bite each other. A large group of car washes, such as Washin7, ANAC and Loogman, all continue to exist. Because they all have something different to offer and are in a way unique. I don’t want to get into a prizefight with Tommy’s. The prices will be similar to those of BOB.”
How is the industry reacting to this news?
“I have always been very progressive. And certainly never protective towards the market. I think it’s better to share the knowledge with each other, so you can learn from each other. And that way together you can make the market bigger. That is also what I learn from Tommy’s. It’s in Tom Essenburg’s genes to help others and I think that’s a great trait.”
“Ultimately, I expect to be able to move the industry forward with Tommy’s, because car washing is only going to get bigger. But that understanding may not be there with everyone yet.”
And how does BOB’s car wash supplier Holz view it? For Tommy’s, no car wash will be purchased from Holz.
“That’s a sensitive subject, of course. Andreas and Wolfgang Holz made that clear to me. They said: ‘With Tommy’s we will soon have a competitor.’ In the end we managed to convince them that Holz will also benefit, because soon many more people will be washing their cars. Which therefore also leads to a greater demand for car washes.”
“Lithuania is a good example of this. A few car washes there already wash with the technology of Tommy Car Wash Systems. And ACE has now also sold two Holz machines there, precisely because Tommy already has a presence there. Not every entrepreneur wants to be a Tommy, and so there is also a need for other suppliers.”
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I’ve read that you also make a comparison with McDonald’s in that. Can you explain that?
“McDonald’s came to Europe decades ago. Back then that was also viewed with suspicion. But eventually its arrival led to more restaurants, especially in the fast food segment. This is also how I compare it to the car washes of Tommy’s Express. The more establishments there are, the more it comes into view of the customer and the more it washes. And so it only benefits the carwash industry because it increases opportunities for everyone.”
It once started with a few McDonald’s restaurants and now there are a lot of them. Would you like to grow that fast with Tommy’s, too?
“Tommy’s has committed to going to five hundred locations in America in five years. And I have said: we will go to five hundred branches in Europe in ten years. From the franchise model I want to do a number of branches myself here in the Netherlands. And together with Tommy’s I am looking at how we are going to shape that further and roll it out in the rest of Europe.”
What will it look like?
“Everything is according to Tommy’s formula. The car wash, the chemistry, the technology, the look of the premises. But we are going to make some adjustments, because we want it to be just a little bit different or find certain things more important. For example, I don’t think it is necessary to blacken the tires of our customers, whereas in America that is quite common. We also take sustainability seriously, so we planned solar panels on the roof. America is still much less concerned with that.
We are also adapting the water recycling as well as the drying system, because otherwise we would spend far too much power on them. Electricity is much cheaper in America and therefore much less of a problem there. But other than that, the concept and the feeling for the customer remains the same.”
Does perception play a role?
“At BOB we have always said that it is very important to have a good customer experience. So is good service. But that doesn’t mean you have to help the customer with everything. When I do my shopping at the grocery store I checkout at the self-scanners. I don’t need help and just want to get out quickly. But suppose I DO have a question, it is nice if someone is available to help me. In a friendly way. That’s no different in car washing.”
“Tom also always says to me: you can put someone in the car wash, but maybe that person isn’t friendly at all. That’s why I want that bit automated as much as possible. Customers do it themselves, but the moment there is a question, someone has to be there. Then I also think it’s important that the customer gets full attention and that we help as much as possible.”
The first Tommy’’s will be opened next year in Utrecht, a central city in The Netherlands.