The Long Road to China
Rob Shesol’s journey to build the perfect car wash ranged from the United States to the Czech Republic and beyond.
In just four years, Splash Car Wash of China has opened 57 locations. But the road to that accelerated growth wasn’t the most direct. In fact, this road to China runs through Eastern Europe.
Rob Shesol, co-founder of Splash Car Wash, China, was in Prague prior to entering the car wash industry. While there he saw an opportunity when he had a less-than-stellar experience at a local wash.
“My introduction to the car wash industry was completely accidental,” Shesol said. “I was getting a car wash in Prague and was unhappy with the service. I thought I could do better.”
Shesol grew up in Denver, Colo. washing his parents’ car in the driveway. His affinity for a clean vehicle grew when he began a career as an investment banker in New York and then went on to spend 15 years in venture capital and private equity overseas in Europe, where he spent time in the luxury automotive industry in the Czech Republic.
“We were selling and renting between eight and 10 luxury vehicles and needed a way to keep them clean,” Shesol said. “All of the options were either super expensive hand wash operations or poorly maintained convenience stores.”
Soon after that realization, Shesol attended Automechanika in Germany where he spent much of his time talking to the people at Washtech, who have a good understanding of how to get into those developing markets. “It was great education for me,” Shesol said.
The next step was to bring in more expertise to help guide him on his path. It started with a cold call to Mark Curtis, founder and CEO of Splash Car Wash based in Connecticut. “By chance a friend of mine from the states was visiting during this time who had a connection and I called Mark Curtis,” Shesol said. “Mark was fantastic, and he and Dan Petrelle provided great education and opportunity.”
His original model was very heavily influenced by both the German and American models, based on the tunnel car wash.
Shesol discovered that the industry in Eastern Europe was still in the development stage. “A lot of the local operators, as long as they were doing well, were compliant with their business,” he said. “Then you had the poor operators, who were just focused on scraping it together. There were so few operators that the chance of someone coming in with something better and having an immediate impact on the market was very unlikely. Yet it still wasn’t enough to get either domestic entrepreneurs or foreign investors interested.”
Armed with strong expertise in wash operations behind him, and guidance on entering developing markets, Shesol started working on entering the industry in Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakian regions.
“We had set up something interesting and had a deal set to begin in Slovakia but when Russia invaded Crimea everyone got a little spooked,” Shesol said.
In 2014, following that invasion, Shesol made a connection with a Chinese national, and his now-partner, James Ying. At The Car Wash Show™, they met with Splash Car Wash based in Connecticut to talk about the opportunities available in China.
“China’s a unique market. It’s the world’s largest and fastest-growing vehicle market,” Shesol said. “Their vehicle growth is astronomical; the sheer number of vehicles has grown 2,000% since the year 2000. In the United States, it has grown by 26%. So, the vehicles came on later than other countries, which only makes sense why the services were slow to catch up in a sophisticated manner.”
Ying was based in Suzhou, an eastern city near Shanghai, where the car wash industry had been flagged for water waste and pollution. This was because their car washes were mostly hand washes done in garages or alleys.
“China is very decentralized,” Shesol said. “Most decision-making is up to local municipalities. So, the central government would pinpoint an issue, but never really offer a solution. This was where we saw our chance to do something different.”
In 2015, Shesol and his new partner stumbled upon the city of Taicang, in between Suzhou and Shanghai. Taicang claimed it wanted to be the “clean car wash city” even if at the time few in China knew what this meant.
“We wanted to solve this environmental problem and create this new standard,” Shesol said. “It became a venture opportunity for us both. Taicang’s city government helped us understand regulations and legacy conditions of the car wash industry, and we introduced to them better technology, better operational models and how it could be done.”
Splash Car Wash, China, became the exclusive partner for car washes and in 2018, opened its first wash, and the first tunnel wash, in China.
“Because of our full-water recycling and state-of-the-art technology, the government promoted us as an environmental landmark,” he said. “We embraced our green nature as a fundamental core of our own identity.”
Splash Car Wash, China opened 57 locations in four years.
“Chinese customers are very open to change, the country continues to reinvent itself every year,” Shesol said. “They’re also very educated. As we entered the market, it was difficult to introduce a new standard. You had these automatic washes that had been using dishwasher soap or rusted machinery for the longest time, so you have to gain trust that this service can actually be done well in a way that can benefit the customer and the vehicle.”
Shesol is optimistic about China’s ability to remain receptive to the changing forefront of the automotive industry, one that could look completely different in the next five to 10 years.
“China’s integration in the global economy is what gives me confidence. They’re very plugged into the global community,” he said. “Certainly, we believe that large-scale tunnel washes are where the market’s headed, but those are slow to build and take time to familiarize people with. This is why the Chinese population being so receptive to change is so important.”
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>> Year opened
Operations began July 2018 with the first tunnel car wash in China
>> Number of locations
55 as of July 2022, and averaging one new site per week
>> Conveyor length
>> Equipment suppliers
WashTec, Beauty (Japan), and Istobal
>> Chemical suppliers
Splash Car Wash is the exclusive distributor for Simoniz for China
>> Environmentally friendly features
Patented water recycling system at every location
>> Unique features
The washes use the most advanced software system in the Chinese car wash market, which
connects every aspect of the business, including operations, finance, HR, the water recycling
system and beyond
>> Other cool info
Splash Car Wash is the greenest car wash operator in China