Spreading Happiness Starts on the Inside
September 18, 20238 minute Read
The positive, creative culture at Big Splash Car Wash is not by accident, but one owners Claire and Jason Cunningham strive to make a priority with every interaction, whether with the team, vendors or customers.
The reasons for deciding to pursue car wash ownership are plentiful, as are the words used to describe the intent to go this route. But one word, specifically, tops the list for Jason Cunningham, owner of Big Splash Car Wash with his wife Claire: fun. “I was looking for an opportunity and trying to figure out what kind of business we would want to be in and what looked fun,” Jason said.
“Fun” for Jason, though, is defined a little differently than most. For him, it means a hands-on approach and figuring out how to do things himself — but better. “That’s usually what happens with me. I start down a path to fix one thing and, all of a sudden, I'm developing 10 other things. It’s all fun,” he said. “The car wash industry just seemed to fit that.”
Take into account the opportunity to be in a cash-model business, and it was a slam dunk for Jason, whose background is in finance and whose family is full of self-starters.
“My family’s always been entrepreneurs. We've always had our own businesses,” Jason said. “My grandfather had a truck stop and my father currently owns a transportation company. When I was growing up in Dodge City, Kan., he had a restaurant he named after me called Jason’s Steak and Spirits.”
So with his entrepreneurial sense of adventure bursting from every gene, Jason Cunningham (pictured right) and his wife Claire jumped feet-first into car wash ownership. It is a common thread that connects many of the people who work at Big Splash, too — many of whom came from other industries but are thriving in the entrepreneurial, supportive culture they’ve found working with the Cunninghams.
Space to spare
Just one step into the engine that runs Big Splash, and you know you are in an inventor’s paradise. The back room runs almost the full length of the 200-foot long tunnel and you could do cartwheels without hitting a wall or getting your hands dirty. Every wire is colored and marked, and strategically arranged for easy access. Sunlight envelops the space, highlighting every corner and reflecting off the equipment surfaces.
It is playground for people who are addicted to not only maintaining their equipment, but working on it, tweaking it and coming up with methods for improving it. And it is nothing like some of the remodels the Cunninghams embarked on in earlier days — the ones with 75-foot tunnels and back rooms that were small, tight and, maybe, 10-foot wide.
“The hydraulic power packs, there just wasn't room for them. Same with the chemical pods,” Jason said. “Everything was just stacked on top of each other and it was a mess.” So when they set out to build Big Splash, they tried to spread things out a little bit, making it more comfortable for the employees, for maintenance and for the new ideas the team will undoubtably come up with.
Designing and building a new car wash with amenities that cater to the customers, operators and the front-line workers was a decision born from being in all of those shoes. Since day one, the Cunninghams and their children have been hands-on with every car wash they’ve come into contact with. It is how they got started.
“We were looking for some opportunities and exploring some different options when we came across a site in Kansas City that we could lease,” Jason said. They initially had a partner, but ended up buying them out and taking over the business. “We learned a lot that first year and really, really pushed the business hard, eventually growing to five locations.”
So, when then opportunity to sell arose in 2019, it was a tough decision. “Deciding to sell was a little bit bittersweet,” Jason said. “Our family, we bought these older car washes and remodeled them ourselves. It was fun and rewarding.”
But, once you’ve embraced the car wash industry, you’re hooked, and it isn’t that easy to just walk away — as the Cunninghams found out. “Car washing, in general, can be like an addictive behavior,” Claire (pictured right) said.
About a year after selling their washes in Kansas City, they were back at it, but in a different geographic market.
“We pivoted our focus to the Colorado Front Range with the next group of washes. We like the space and feel that it’s a great investment,” Jason said. “There are a lot of car washes being opened and a lot of private equity groups coming into the industry, but I think there’s still some runway left for individuals to build out their washes.”
According to Jason, selling their previous washes enabled them to shift their focus to new builds and developing innovative solutions for car washes.
“We want to give our customers a more elevated experience,” Jason said.
For example, at Big Splash, they opted for a dark tunnel with a light show, so if customers look through the soap on the window, it kind of looks like you are underwater. The lights rotate between white and blue for this underwater effect, giving the appearance of an aquarium in a tunnel.
“When we first opened it, a couple customers gave reviews that said this was like Disneyland for a car wash,” Claire said. “It’s important to have fun, plus people feel better when their car is clean. Part of our voice, our brand, is the idea of having fun and letting people know that smiles are free. The ultimate goal is to convert people to become frequent car washers and really get them hooked on the experience that our staff and facility offers.”
They decided to go with a belt instead of a traditional chain conveyor, with the intent of a better experience for the customer and less maintenance needs.
“We took a leap of faith putting in a belt, not knowing how it was going to go,” Jason said. “But as soon as we did it, we saw the benefits.”
They also experienced the challenges.
Some customers had trouble centering their vehicles, Jason said, so they tried everything they could thing of — cones, road dots, traffic control, different instructions — to solve the problem. But it persisted. So the Cunninghams did what they do best. “We designed and built a loading system for the conveyor belt to help our customers get on,” Jason said.
TESS, short for “tunnel entrance safety system,” is a technology that allows customers to see where their car sits on the belt as they roll onto it. The monitors on either side of the entrance show the placement of the tires and their alignment on the belt, in addition to giving guidance on the loading process.
The artificial intelligence technology built into the system helps with safety too. If a car tire is not aligned perfectly, the belt will stop and an attendant will be alerted.
The initial testing went so well they started working with a company to perfect the AI and engineering. “I am an idea person so I had to learn a lot about the software development, the engineering side,” Jason said. In early 2019, the Cunninghams partnered with Josh Howa and started a company called Spotless Wash Solutions to market and sell the product. Plus, as Howa is an experienced car wash architect, they expanded in that direction, as well.
“Now we're designing car washes and building car washes for other people and selling innovative products that are designed to improve the customer experience, reduce labor challenges and lower operator costs,” Jason said.
The Cunninghams aren’t the only creative, innovative types at Spotless Wash Solutions and Big Splash Car Wash. Many of the employees have embraced this concept, too, and their front-line perspectives are continually helping the efficiency, profitability and customer experience at the wash.
“I like the challenge of something not working out and being able to figure it out,” said Jake Lemberg (pictured right), the general manager at Big Splash who has been in the industry for 10 years and came from the construction industry. “You have to be on your toes at all times. You never know what's coming.”
That challenge, plus the interactions with the customers, are his favorite aspects of the industry.
“We had only been open for two months and one day the conveyor just stopped,” Lemberg said. “This was new for us and to me. We tried about 15 different things to narrow down what it could be and finally figured out what it was, isolated it and devised a workaround. It ended up being a pulse sensor.”
On the people side, he said he’s made lifelong friends. He refers to many of the regular customers by their first names and even knows their children’s names. He gets invited to their kids’ birthday parties and keeps up with what is going on in their lives, such as one of the kids having a soccer tournament. “You ask how the tournament went when they come back and that sits with them indefinitely. And it's rewarding to me, too,” Lemberg said.
Daniel Searcy, an assistant manager at Big Splash, feels similarly, especially when it comes to the mechanical and technological side. He used to be a mechanic and slid into this industry after a friend recommended it.
“It keeps you on your toes. There are always new ideas for everything,” Searcy said. “I am constantly learning. One of the most impressive parts is that all these components can create this choreographed dance that goes on in the tunnel.”
Searcy also appreciates the friendships he’s made at the wash. “The people that stay here end up being some solid friends.”
For Nick Budzon, a supervisor at Big Splash, the culture has been life-changing. “I was a chef and not enjoying my life. This is a place where I can enjoy myself and work. I don’t dread coming to work every day,” Budzon said. “I feel valued and they listen. It is different with other corporations and jobs.”
He said that at most jobs, customers can be needy and aggressive, too. However, at the car wash, it’s different. “People will play rock, paper, scissors with you as they are heading into the wash. It is a different type of customer.”
He’s also found the technology at the car wash to be a big draw. “The tech is insane. It is incredible how simplistic it makes things,” Budzon said. “Plus, we are always updating and advancing. It is really great to see and to be a part of it.”
This culture is not by accident, but one the Cunninghams strive to make a priority with every interaction, whether with the team, vendors or customers. “Negativity is so infectious, but positivity is too. I love that,” Claire said. “We want to spread happiness.”