Up-and-Coming Leaders, Take a Bow
September 5, 20239 minute Read
2023 ICA Emerging Leaders Scholarship winners share what makes them stand out among their peers.
Every year, International Carwash Association awards Emerging Leaders Scholarships to some of the industry’s top, young talents. Recipients are nominated by a peer or supervisor, hold a manager-level position and are 45 years of age or younger. Leadership skills and dedication and commitment to their companies and to the car wash industry are considered during the selection process. The 2023 recipients are:
Stephen Denissoff, Synergy Solutions
Paulo Duarte, Chamois Carwash
Ben Kneer, Champion Xpress Car Wash
Tom Tallon, Dreams Eco Express
Devin Yarborough, Breeze Thru Car Wash
A Mentor Can Mean So Much
Operations Manager, Synergy Solutions
The elementary school bus rolled to a stop outside an in-bay car wash, flashing its lights and just barely contained the excited youngster who was on the bottom step waiting to jump out as soon as a sliver of blue appeared at the door’s center. Then, with a whoop and a hop, “The Car Wash Kid” sprinted toward the wash with bookbag flailing, smiling from ear to ear.
But Stephen Denissoff’s involvement in car washing started even before his school-age years, when the bus would drop him off at his dad’s wash. “Car washing has been a major part of my life since I was in diapers,” Denissoff said. When he was around 10 years old, he would help his dad clean the pits, bays and perform maintenance on the equipment. As he got older, he accompanied his dad, who was vice president at a car wash chemical company, on many of his sales calls. In 2003, his dad started his own chemistry line and company called Synergy Solutions and Denissoff began working there with many of the same people he works with today, cleaning drums and fulfilling orders.
Working alongside and learning from his dad — his long-time mentor and one of his closest friends — has been another perk at Synergy Solutions. “Collaborating toward common goals, launching new projects, and seeing them through to fruition is truly fulfilling. Amidst it all, there's never a shortage of bad jokes and hearty laughs, which makes the journey even more enjoyable,” Denissoff said.
It’s a path he tries to make sure everyone is on together, and as the operations manager at Synergy Solutions, Denissoff leads by example with clear communication, respect and reliability: “Communicating clearly and accurately is a critical aspect of effective management. Active listening is equally important,” Denissoff said. “Respect is a virtue that is earned, not given freely. By setting an example of respect, a manager can inspire others to follow suit and cultivate a culture of respect within the workplace.” Finally, when it comes to reliability, “I always aim to be that dependable person people can rely on to get things done.”
Also, as someone who is always pushing himself to be better at what he does, Denissoff is continually seeking to bolster his management and leadership abilities so he can better support and guide his team. “Adaptability is a highly valuable skill or trait for individuals in any organization,” Denissoff said, and also something he prioritizes for himself. “With changing times, products and markets, those who possess the ability to adapt and overcome challenges tend to thrive the most.”
Manager, The Chamois Car Wash
Having a clean car to make your most memorable moments perfect sets a pretty high expectation for a car wash operator/manager. But, it is those stories that make Paulo Duarte proud to be in the business.
“People come to the car wash because of a special moment in their lives, either they are taking their daughter to her wedding or getting someone at the airport after a long time without seeing each other and want to have a clean car to make those moments perfect,” Duarte said. “Those are the stories that make us happy.”
Duarte got into the car wash industry in 2018, when he moved from Brazil to Canada with his wife. “We were looking for a welcoming business that would give an opportunity to a newcomer,” Duarte said. They found this opportunity at The Chamois, but some aspects of the industry surprised them, such as the level of organization. “Before, when I used to go to a car wash, I never thought how much is happening or how many people are involved in order to make a car clean,” Duarte said.
He lauds General Manager Kyle Thompson for teaching him the ropes, both as a leader and a manager in the car wash industry. “He has always been a great leader and mentor for me. Since the first time I started working at the car wash, he always guided and showed me ways to excel. I'm very grateful for all the good things I've learned from him and I hope I can inspire others the way he inspired me.”
Some of those learnings include taking care of people who work with you and standing up for the team. “Either give them the opportunity to excel or guide them. It makes a big difference,” Duarte said. “Plus, I try to create a work environment based on trust and respect at all times, as that's the most important thing in a workplace. That's what I give to our team and what I expect them to give back to everyone.”
There are three priorities when it comes to a unified and diverse culture within a workplace, said Duarte: a respectful workplace, a fun work attitude and a rewarding environment where you can learn new skills and connect to people.
Director of Operations, Dreams Eco Express
“With the time and money being invested into the car washing industry, you must find a way to stand out above others,” Tom Tallon said. “Ten years ago, it was about giving the best wash possible and ensuring that the customer is satisfied with your product. However, with the increase in new car washes, YOUR wash may not be all that different from your competitors.”
So, Tallon makes it a priority to not only supply the best wash possible, but also stacks customer service, efficiency and safety right up at the top. “I believe that these priorities are the foundation of any successful car wash model,” Tallon said. “They help with cashflow in addition to customer perception and maintaining an incident-free workplace.”
Tallon started out in the industry as an attendant at Dreams Eco Xpress in Okotoks, Alberta, in 2018, when he was still in high school. It was a new location and he fondly remembers that first day of training when they opened the car wash. “Everyone was very excited to be starting with a new company. The staff's energy was great, the customers were fantastic and learning my role within the company really solidified my love for this industry,” Tallon said.
After graduating from trade school, he took on a management position and now he is the director of operations. But, he credits one of the company’s owners, Farouk Haji, for much of his success. “He has mentored and encouraged me to build on my skill set wherever possible,” Tallon said. “In doing so, he has enabled me to pursue something that I really enjoy. His knowledge and expertise are the reason I am in the position that I am.”
In his position as a manager, he strives to have Dreams Car Wash be a workplace that values everyone’s input. “At the end of the day, it is your team who is on the front line of the business and that is a reflection of you,” Tallon said. “I firmly believe that developing and building on your own managerial skills will help your employees become much more competent and, in doing so, they may find their passion for this industry as I have.”
Purchasing Manager, Breeze Thru Car Wash
As the sun just started to greet the horizon, two silhouettes began to take shape inside the tunnel, their movements bringing life to an otherwise still world — one that had a car wash that wasn’t going to open for the day if that piece of equipment couldn’t be fixed soon. They had been working on it all night.
“No one had any clue what we were doing, but we decided we were going to try anyways,” Devin Yarborough said. Once midnight rolled around, most of the team went home. But not Yarborough. Though feeling a little defeated and disappointed, he decided to stick around with his boss to try to get it fixed. “Five hours later, lots of frustration and many lessons learned, we got it done right before the openers arrived. That moment taught me a lot about work ethic, commitment, persistence and not giving up just because the going gets tough,” Yarborough said.
The challenges and intricacy of running and maintaining a car wash are not only what surprised Yarborough about the industry when he got into it as a teen, but they are what kept his attention and interest all these years. “There is always a problem that needs to be solved and something to be learned. You are never idle, and once you think you have caught up, 10 new things have come down the pipe,” Yarborough said. “Washing cars involves so much more than people realize. I work with people who have been doing this for decades and they still learn something new every day, it seems.”
Yarborough got into the industry after a friend presented him with an opportunity that might have scared away most. “He told me he had a job for me, as long I promised to work hard, learn as much as I could, and did not mind getting extremely dirty,” Yarborough said. “I didn’t hesitate.” It was this same friend that taught Yarborough that working hard is No. 1. “If you aren’t willing to work hard in this industry, you will never make it. He also taught me to lead by example. He always pushed me, even when I wanted to give up. He would say people are capable of more than they think. Try again. And if that doesn’t work, try again. Giving up was never presented as an option.”
Now, as a warehouse and purchasing manager at Breeze Thru, Yarborough’s aim is to develop and grow his team members to reach their full potential. “Good managers don’t just focus on the job, but the employees as well,” he said. “They see more in their employees than they see in themselves.”
Head of Facilities & Maintenance, Champion Xpress Car Wash
“Sink or swim.” That’s how Ben Kneer remembers the early days of his car wash career as a mechanic. He was only 18 years old and was driving home from San Angelo to Lubbock at 2 a.m., after only slightly winning a hard-fought battle working on a car wash. “I was wondering what I got myself into. I was the only mechanic working for the company with no one to call if I had a question, and not a service manual to be found,” he said.
Ironically, Kneer remembers this as one of his fondest memories of his early days at Champion Xpress Car Wash. “I had the support of the most amazing team I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of to keep me going,” Kneer said.
The same held true as he moved into more of a leadership role at the company. “I’ve had multiple mentors throughout my car wash journey that have taught me true leadership,” Kneer said.
But one person stands out: Trey Merchant. “When I started out, he was the man who showed me how to be a well-respected leader and how to build the strongest team,” Kneer said. “To this day, I lead by his example and have built strong relationships with every coworker who has ever been a direct report to me.”
Now, as the head of facilities and maintenance at Champion Xpress, he leads his team with the management traits he values most. “A good manager is someone who is respectful, sets clear expectations and is team-centered. A top-notch manager is someone who builds others up and pulls the best versions out of everyone,” Kneer said.
That means understanding that different personality types learn, retain information and thrive differently, including in management approaches. This is especially important to Kneer, who strives to adjust his management style based on the individual — and teaches his team members this same skill. “I want each team member to be successful,” he said. “I try to connect with other technicians’ learning styles so I can help them be self-sufficient and successful.”
Three of his top priorities are teamwork, a high-performance wash and constantly growing to improve. “Our technicians strive to keep the wash going as a team, and perform each task the best we can,” Kneer said. “We are always looking to grow and improve.”