Celebrating Industry Leaders
October 24, 202211 minute Read
By Lilly Chapa
Operations Manager at Speedy Sparkle Car Wash
“Iona started working at my full service car wash at 14 years old. She quickly became our top membership salesperson working on the weekends through high school. She came back to work for the car wash full time starting as the marketing manager and moved on to become a general manager of one of my flex locations during the most difficult days of the pandemic in April 2020. In that role she was an incredible success. In December 2021, I asked her to run both locations as our Operating Manager. She is learning the business rapidly, making contacts throughout the industry and aspires to make positive change and help the industry move forward.”
— From Nominating Application
When Iona Kearney’s dad foreclosed on a car wash during the 2008 recession, he figured he could either sell it for a loss or try to get into the business — and that’s how Speedy Sparkle Car Wash got started.
“I grew up around it — we sat around the dinner table coming up with names for the wash, so I’ve been involved since the beginning,” Kearny said. She started working at the wash when she turned 14 and quickly became the top unlimited wash salesperson before going off to college to study economic criminal justice.
After graduating, she traveled around the country doing leadership consulting, but after a while she realized she really wanted to get back into the car wash industry.
“My dad was surprised but glad to bring me back in to the business — but only if I learned how to operate a wash,” Kearney said. “So I was a GM for a while, and now I’m an operations manager.”
Kearney became a general manager shortly after COVID-19 sparked a string of shutdowns in the community, making her first challenge as a manager an unprecedented one.
“I truly think that it was about caring for the employees and keeping the culture fun, even during the pandemic,” Kearney said. “Everyone was losing employees, but I think we lost one every eight months.”
Kearney’s enthusiasm for creating a fun workplace and connecting with employees carried on long after the worst of the pandemic-related shutdowns, and it’s now her passion to cultivate a great workplace culture for everyone, she said.
“I love the employees and the culture,” Kearney said. “I like to say we’re just washing cars, so we might as well make it fun — my whole thing is having fun. I love the connection I get to have with all of our employees and try to make it fun every day for them, and it’s truly genuine. The culture is so important for me, especially as we look towards expansion.”
Thanks to this approach, Speedy Sparkle’s turnover rate is incredibly low, Kearney said. Even if employees leave for school or internships, they love to come back and work on the weekends or during holidays.
“Our employees are not going anywhere because of the culture we’ve built, and I’ll sit down with them and ask how they’re doing,” she said. “I keep track of small things like who they’re dating, I give them any vacation they want off, and I’m happy making them happy. It sounds weird, but I’m so happy when someone leaves. When I have high school students who are trying to figure out what’s next, I sit down with them and look at other companies or internships or colleges, and it’s so awesome to see them grow.”
Store Manager at Autobell Car Wash
“Overall, Tyler has helped contribute to promoting 40-plus team members into our management programs. Not only that, he has also had a direct hand in getting five of them promoted to store managers at their own locations. He continues to strive and now is at his third location, where he’s continuing to rewrite history books and blueprint for success at each location. He holds the record for biggest volume hour and day at multiple locations.
Tyler entered our mentorship program several years ago, and has done an excellent job of mentoring future managers with our company. He’s had a big footprint on the decisions made for our region in Hampton Roads, and also for the company as well. He helps create opportunity and change their lives for the better.”
Tyler Shreck needed a part-time job while he was going to college, and a friend who worked at Autobell Car Wash told him they were hiring. Shreck gave it a shot and immediately fell in love with the role, which was flexible and allowed him to work outdoors, alongside cool cars and with his friends. Before long he took part in the wash’s management program, became certified as a store manager and ultimately took a full-time role with them. More than 13 years later, Shreck is still enjoying the perks of working at Autobell — and passing them along to younger employees.
“We’re big on promoting, and we work with a lot of high school and college students, and after being here for so long I’ve had an opportunity to work alongside them and get them promoted,” Shreck said. “I’m also a mentor, so some of the local store managers can reach out and we keep open communication about everything within the car wash industry.”
Maintaining a work-life balance is important to Shreck, who appreciates that Autobell allows him to prioritize his wife and two daughters.
“I want to be as present as possible — going to baseball games, school functions and doing my part,” he said. “Autobell is really great about that — they push you to be a family-first person with their flexibility and time management. A lot of that is in the structure of the stores, whether they have assistant managers and team members who are trained to respond to situations where you might not be there.”
Shreck is continuing his growth as a leader — he recently completed an eight-week management certification course through Dale Carnegie.
“It was an amazing experience and I developed a lot of new skill sets, and I’m excited to bring
what I learned back to Autobell,” he said.
Operations Manager at RPM Express Car Wash
“Tara went from teaching elementary school to not only creating the RPM Express brand, but building our Pullman location from the ground up. She is the employee responsible for marketing, managing and all of the technology at the wash. She works hard every day to not only learn more about the wash, but also tries to stay on the cutting edge of what is to come in the car wash industry. Tara runs the day-to-day operations in Pullman, but also oversees operations and vision for the entire company. Right now, she might be a leader within our organization, but mark my words...she’ll soon become a leader in the car wash industry as a whole!”
Tara Huntley and her husband always valued having a clean car but were frequently disappointed by the car washes in their small town in eastern Washington — and decided to do something about it. Along with two local friends, the Huntleys opened up RPM Express Car Wash in January 2020.
“I left my job as a teacher to help start the wash, and of course it was right before the pandemic,” Huntley said. “It was hard. I think we had enough time before COVID that people were super excited and supportive in the community, but we did close for six weeks, so that was tough. We had these brand-new employees and they were scared, so it was trying to make them feel more comfortable and that things would be okay. It was the hardest — feeling guilty that they weren’t working.”
Huntley said they were able to adapt by closing vacuums and reducing face-to-face interactions between employees and customers, allowing them to survive those first rocky months.
The next priority was bringing superior service to their region — the whole reason the friends had started the wash in the first place. RPM Express is the only tunnel car wash in the area, and Huntley said they also focus on making sure the equipment can handle the unique challenges vehicles face in the region.
“We’ve got a lot of gravel roads, and we grew up in this environment, so we know the spots on cars that would get missed in other washes,” Huntley said. “Also, a lot of washes don’t wash the covers on pickup beds, and that’s something that really bothered us, so our wash does clean those. It’s just the little things like that, and really striving for great customer service. We’re proud of what we do, proud of having a clean car and making sure it’s done right.”
Huntley said they are opening up a new location in Spokane this summer and are looking at another site next year, so the wash is in a period of transition. She is going to the Spokane wash to conduct interviews and training and will travel between the sites, and they are always looking at ways to offer even more to customers.
“Even though we’re new, we’ve already made a lot of changes in our tunnels,” she said. “It costs us money, but if we find something that could be better we’re going to do it. We’re not just sitting back and watching, we’re really trying to grow and do the next big thing. I think that makes us a little bit different.”
Operations Director at Washbox Car Wash
Rainbow City, Ala.
“Miller has an extreme passion for our industry and it is immediately apparent to anyone who has had the pleasure of spending time with him. His customer-first approach is on full display with every action his team takes and is the driving force for the success of the business. It is so refreshing seeing an individual his age be completely engaged in building his team and growing professionally.”
Miller Clayton got his first job at a wash in college, and despite earning a political science degree he stayed in the industry. Ten years later, he has run four different express tunnels and now works at Washbox Car Wash, which opened shortly before the pandemic. The wash is looking to open more sites by the end of the year, and as operations director Clayton expects to be moving around between the sites to oversee operations. Starting at a new wash right before the pandemic created many obstacles to overcome, he said.
“It was the first time for anyone to deal with something like that, and we were literally just getting open,” he said. “There were no cars on the road because everything was shut down. We were doing the best we could while things were shut down, and then as things started opening up a bit we planned a big Halloween event — we were on the news and everything. So we tried to maximize everything we were able to do that year.”
Now that the wash is more established, Clayton gets to enjoy the favorite part of working in the industry: giving back to the new employees who were just like him a decade ago.
“I was young when I started, and I see myself in a lot of the people I hire now in high school or college,” he said. “This industry can teach younger generations so much — interacting with customers, learning how to have responsibility — it’s big. I have a bunch of friends who run different washes around the country, and we all have the same mission, because we all got started in the same way — we all had people we looked up to when we first started when we were young. So now we’re in the position to train those younger kids, and it’s really rewarding.”
Clayton said he was looking forward to seeing the innovations at this year’s Car Wash Show and how technology continues to expand.
“There’s a lot I’ve already seen that intrigues me, but it’s amazing how every single year how much the industry evolves,” he said. “I remember when I first started the technology was so different from where we are today — it’s astronomical. I love coming to these events because if you don’t keep up with things, you’re going to fall behind.”
Manager at Whatta Wash South 14
“Tayler is probably one of the most creative people in the car wash industry. She thinks outside of the box and does things that no one has ever thought of or tried. She treats her staff and customers like family and goes above and beyond. She is currently a full time manager six days a week while writing her PhD dissertation about car wash memberships and marketing. She is passionate about marketing and communication and does a ton at our wash to serve the community.”
Tayler Kiley was a preschool teacher when her friends approached her about starting a car wash. Kiley has a marketing background and left teaching to build out Whatta Wash’s marketing and social media strategy — and loved it so much that she now runs the wash and is writing a dissertation on the marketing challenges rural washes face.
“I’m getting my PhD right now, and I’m writing my PhD on companies that aren’t immediately successful,” she said. “Our car wash isn’t near any anchor points like a store or restaurant like many washes are — we’ve got nothing around us. We’re a little slower to build and grow, so I’m focusing on how to be successful if you’re not on the busiest street in town.”
On top of working on her dissertation, Kiley works full time six days a week for about 50 hours a week and is always on call. This summer she’ll be an online college professor and keep managing at the wash and has one more year before earning her PhD.
“I love what I do, so it doesn’t bother me, but I’m always on at the wash,” Kiley said. “I’m really big on the community aspect of it — I do a Christmas car wash, which a lot of people don’t do yet. But we give all that money back to the community. This year, we found a family whose daughter has Stage 4 cancer — they had only one car and the mom couldn’t work any more. They’re one of our regular customers, so it was the perfect opportunity — we did their whole Christmas. If you have the opportunity to give back it makes such a big difference.”
Once Kiley earns her PhD, she plans to continue teaching and working at the wash while using her dissertation findings to figure out the best strategic communication and marketing strategies for washes that aren’t in the busiest part of town.